Nature Notes: Eastern bluebirds are elegant little fighters

I can’t think of a prettier bird to profile in my first column of the new year than the lovely eastern bluebird.

Outwardly, the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) seems elegant, almost soft and gentle, in flight or sitting. But to David Kinneer, who has studied and photographed bluebirds for 15 years, both inside and outside their nesting boxes, where territory and livelihoods matter greatly for these birds, they can be anything but gentle.

“[Bluebirds] can be surprisingly aggressive at times, especially the males,” said Kinneer, a retired marine JAG officer and military judge from Fredericksburg, Va., who captured the photo related to this column. “And while they are willing to challenge a house sparrow out in the open, bluebirds are simply no match for them when trapped inside the nest box.”

Kinneer is referring to an age-old battle between starlings and house sparrows, two invasive species, imported to America from the Old World in the late 1800s, who frequently spar with bluebirds for nesting privileges in the boxes.

“I have lost several (bluebirds), unfortunately,” Kinneer said. “In fact, I have never heard of a case where a bluebird won in a fight with a house sparrow inside a nest box.”

Kinneer has cameras inside several of his bluebird nesting boxes and watches them on a TV monitor in his basement.

“The house sparrow immediately grabs his foe and pecks out its eyes,” Kinneer said. “It’s very hard to watch scenes like this.”

“The bluebird has a soft beak and simply is no match,” he added, “Death comes within a few seconds.”

When bluebirds fight with each other, Kinneer said they typically wrestle around on the ground for several minutes, until one tires and flees.

“I have seen female bluebirds fight with one another too, but such fights are rare,” he said.

There are three species of bluebirds in North America. The eastern bluebird largely inhabits field edges, meadows, open woods, suburban parks, backyards and golf courses east of the Continental Divide, while mountain bluebirds live above 7,000 feet in the Rockies, and western bluebirds typically reside west of the Rockies. Their colors vary slightly.

What impresses me most about these handsome members of the thrush family is their exquisite skill in capturing insects. Bluebirds must have incredible eyesight, because they seem to perch hunt from the lower boughs of trees, then suddenly fly down to the ground to snatch tiny, almost invisible insects that we can’t see, but they surely can.

In the winter, eastern bluebirds subsist on fruit from sumac, blueberries, juniper, dogwood, pokeweed and black cherry.

Finally, Bet Smith, compiler of the brilliant bluebird web site silias.org, reminds us of the many ways this pretty bird has touched our lives. Here are three examples:

In 1839, Henry David Thoreau scribbled in his field journal: The bluebird’s “soft warble melts in your ear...”

In the famous 1939 movie, “Wizard of Oz,” who can forget Judy Garland singing, “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why, then oh why can’t I?”

And in 1964, Frank Sinatra recorded, “I Wish You Love,” a melody with the words, “I wish you bluebirds in the spring, to give your heart a song to sing…”

I can attest to how delightful it is to hear the soft warbles of the eastern bluebird.

Indeed, once you memorize their song of three or four “gurglin notes that sounds like chur-wee, or truly-lee — and actually hear it — you’ll instantly smile and say to yourself, “Ah, that’s the bluebird,” and almost simultaneously think, “Spring must not be too far away.”

Bill Hobbs lives in Stonington. He can be reached for comments at whobbs246@gmail.com.

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