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Speaking of nature: Bluebirds’ astounding winter survival

  • This male eastern bluebird made several visits to Bill Danielson's suet feeder last week. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This male eastern bluebird made several visits to Bill Danielson's suet feeder last week. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson



For the Recorder
Monday, February 26, 2018

I’ve been an avid birder for the past 30 years and an increasingly focused data collector for the past ten. Especially when it comes to the birds that live in and around my own six acres, I have become increasingly aware of who is around, when they are around and in what kind of numbers.

The maximum number of birds I see each month continues to grow, and I believe that I will soon reach numbers that will not be surpassed. Once this happens I will be able to follow trends in the different populations with greater accuracy.

Okay, that’s my “official” motivation. While I must admit that I have the science gene, I must also acknowledge that I apparently have a double-dose of the birder gene. I adore birds and I cannot seem to step outside without having all of my senses go into full birding mode. My eyes are drawn to quick movements, my ears strain for faint sounds and I try to keep myself completely attuned to my avian surroundings at all times. Birding is one of my life’s great passions.

As a result of this condition, I find myself highly susceptible to envy. My correspondence with readers is often filled with agony when they send along emails with titles like, “Look Who Showed Up At My Feeder!” For years you have heard me ranting over the fact that I am jealous of anyone with a Carolina wren in their yard. I can be brought to tears by anyone who has a pileated woodpecker in regular attendance at a suet feeder.

Most recently I was the victim of a sneak attack by a reader named Melinda. The title of her email was simply, “question” and I opened the file without adequately preparing myself for what might lie within. There were no photos attached, but as I read the first sentence I felt a conniption coming on. It seems that Melinda had bluebirds at her feeders and she wondered if bluebirds in winter were normal and, if so, what sort of food they might like. My right eye began to flutter of its own accord.

The bluebird-at-the-feeder scenario is one that strikes deep into the core of my birder’s envy. Years and years ago, a reader almost ended me when she sent a photo of a flock of bluebirds sipping water from a birdbath on her deck. That was a close one, but I survived and moved on with my life. That being said, I clearly carry memories that haunt me to this day.

The eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is one of our most beautiful native species, and from personal experience I can tell you that they are among the most charming creatures I have ever met. Here in Massachusetts, we find ourselves near the northern limit of their winter range. As a result, it is not at all uncommon to find bluebirds here in winter, though I must confess that I am amazed every time I see one in the winter months.

During the breeding season, bluebirds are highly insectivorous. I’ve seen male bluebirds head for the front door of their nest boxes with beaks full of grasshoppers, crickets, etc. I’ve also published photos of bluebirds with earthworms in this very column. Basically, a bluebird will capture any small creature that is edible for a nest full of hungry chicks.

In the winter, I have no idea what they could possibly eat. I’ll qualify that statement with the fact that in my personal library I have a reprint of a book called “American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide To Wildlife Food Habits.” Originally published in 1951, this book clearly has a target audience and I seem to be square in the bull’s eye of that target. When I open up to the page where the bluebird is listed, I see that the following plants are utilized by winter bluebirds: dogwood, red cedar, sumac bayberry, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, pokeweed and bittersweet, among others.

So it is clear that there are things for bluebirds to eat, but whenever I have seen them in the winter I simply cannot grasp the idea that they can find enough to stay alive. Wild animals are astounding when you stop to think about it.

All of this is just a preamble to my big announcement. Just last weekend, I noticed that there was a pair of bluebirds that appeared to be out house hunting. This happens every spring, but with the favorable weather they seemed willing to get a jump on things. The little couple went from one bluebird box to another and peeked in the entrance, then sat on the box and chatted. This was all very normal, but it was what happened next that astounded me.

I happened to be passing my kitchen window and noticed that there was a titmouse at my suet feeder. But when I shifted position to get a better view, I realized it wasn’t a titmouse at all. It was the male bluebird! I reached for my camera, but he flew off. Then he came back again, and again, until I was finally able to capture photos of him at my suet feeder. After all these years, I can finally proclaim, “Look Who Came To My Feeder!”

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.