Holbrook: Bluebirds go house hunting (column)
“Is it spring? Is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.”
— Mary Oliver, from Such Singing in the Wild Branches
The robin started singing just before six this morning. Wrapped in my bathrobe, I went to stand outside on the porch to listen to his singsong chatter. “He” because it is the male robin returning in spring who shouts out his territorial claim from the highest treetop.
Off in the woods, there was a strange whispering birdcall, a melodic sequence of notes that we had heard the other evening. Alan consulted the audio library on the Cornell Lab Ornithology website — it was one of the vocalizations of the Stellar’s jay, coincidentally the bird with the harshest, most obnoxious screech. It turns out that the male jay, when he wants to be alluring to the female, is perfectly capable of singing a different tune – a soft, bewitching chortle.
The most exciting bit of bird news on the mountain is that the bluebirds are back.
During my first spring in Summit County two years ago, I was driving up the dirt road to our house when I saw that unmistakable flash of cerulean blue zip through the air in front of me. A bluebird! Coming from urban South Florida, the only birds I saw regularly had been the tough, city-smart mockingbirds, grackles and blue jays.
It is hard not to love the bluebird. There is that amazing, electric blue coloration, so rare in nature. And we think of the bluebird as a harbinger of good things to come: “the bluebird of happiness.”
Shy and particular about where they live, bluebirds prefer to nest in old woodpecker dugouts or spaces in rotting trees. As more woodlands have been cleared, their habitat has diminished. Today, thanks to the efforts of an active Colorado Bluebird support community providing nest boxes, the mountain bluebird population has held steady, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Last year as spring approached, I insisted that we erect bluebird nest boxes.
“But we have a birdhouse,” Alan pointed out.
“You don’t mean THAT, do you?” I asked, looking askance at what was clearly an ornamental birdhouse, rather than a proper nest box. It was attached to a stump near the flower garden, too close to the ground for any bird to consider it. And tellingly, over the years that it had been sitting on that stump, no bird had ever deigned even to peer through its non-regulation-size entry hole.
“I’ll make you some nest boxes then,” Alan appeased me. Individual bird species are fussy about their nest boxes, and I made sure to point this out. Bluebirds especially. The size of the entry hole is very important (1 and 9/16”) and the distance from the entrance to the floor of the box is also critical. Alan measured, cut, sanded, nailed; I obsessively double-checked every detail.
When it came time to place the boxes, we marched around the still snow-patched field surrounding the house and the hillside behind us, looking for the perfect southeast-facing location. Our elderly neighbors watched our progress with interest. Calling suggestions from their front porch, they made sure to remind us where the line demarcating our property and the national forest was. “If you put that birdhouse up on the national forest land,” our neighbor warned with grim certainty, “they’ll knock it down.”
We placed one nest box outside our kitchen window, and one further up the hill. Like a miracle, the next day, we had a bluebird couple seated on the top of the kitchen-facing nest box. My initial exultation turned to annoyance, however, as days then weeks went by, and the bluebird couple seemed to be indecisive. They went back and forth between the two boxes and then disappeared. “Maybe they’re checking with the bank to see if they can afford the mortgage,” my brother quipped in a Facebook message.
The bluebirds waited too long to decide, and swallows arrived, instantly made up their minds and took the kitchen nest box. A few days later, I noticed a flash of blue up the hill at the further nest box and then, over the next few days, the back and forth activity of nest building. The bluebird couple had settled on the hillside location; the drama of nest box selection was concluded.
Some days later, I was sitting outside in the garden. How satisfying it is, I thought, to feel that we can provide a space for something in nature, make accommodation in our controlled and managed lives and living spaces for that wild spirit. All that down-loading of plans, measuring and re-measuring and searching for just the right location for the nest boxes had been worthwhile after all.
Just at that moment, a chickadee flitted down from a branch above the garden and landed on top of the decorative “faux” birdhouse. Its beak was stuffed with moss, grass and fluff. To my consternation, it disappeared through the non-regulation-size entry hole; a minute or two later it re-appeared. For the rest of the afternoon, that chickadee and its mate flew back and forth to the birdhouse, beaks full of nesting material and claimed that inappropriate garden ornament as their nest.
I love spring; the burble of water under melting ice, the crazy winds that whip up and bring change with them. In the dark of early morning, I’ll go outside just to hear the woods come alive with the songs of returning birds.
This year, as I watch the bluebirds checking out the nest boxes, I feel that same satisfaction in providing a space for wild spirits. And with it, a recognition that we may control and affect some things but not everything. Happily, wildness is wild, after all; it shows up when and where it pleases, and sometimes makes a home where you least expect.
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge.
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