Background Switcher (Hidden)

Big Old Bluebird Tale

Sunday, May 23, 2021

  “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of the formative books of my youth. It was the first book I'd ever read that celebrated being outdoors and noticing things in the immediate, abundant and joyful way I experienced them. It was a journal, condensed; it was a reaction to things seen, felt, lived, in the here and now. I fully ascribe to her sense of urgency here, and it's frustrating to have to hold back.

In spring, I have ever so much trouble keeping up with writing. So much is happening, and each thing, each day, it seems, could be its own book. I collect and journal and record and photograph and there's just so much to do, managing 80 acres and keeping this house in repair and really, just experiencing everything wonderful about living here, that my time runs too short to write much. If only some of the wild bloom and song could be sprinkled through November-February, so I could have time to write about it!

I've been messing about with bluebirds all spring, "helping" the birds nesting in my boxes here and there in my highly interventionist way, and I've learned gobs more about them. That is saying something, because I've been messing about with bluebirds since 1982. What I've learned is all so big and fascinating and wonderful that I've had trouble throwing a rope around it to write about it, but I have kept careful notes in my journal and bluebird notebook and I am trying to summarize all that's happened. Bluebirds--and all birds--always surprise me. My bluebird trail is a big old laboratory and I am the mad scientist.

It’s hard to overemphasize how much one snow in late April can screw things up for the bluebirds I tend, and for me. I have been paddling as hard as I can to keep up with the flow of events that have rolled out from one little cold snap, one little dump of snow on green leaves and nestboxes full of eggs and chicks. It's mid-May as I write, and I'm still tracking the chicks I worked with in the last two weeks of April. 


It was already shaping up to be a tough spring. On my modest trail of 18 boxes, bluebird pairs were down by half—no doubt because the winter of 2020-21 was so cruel down south, where they migrate to get away from such weather. A freeze like the Deep South saw, with snow and ice in south Texas, must kill a lot of wintering bluebirds. 


As the light slowly grew on the dawn of April 21, I was stunned to see two inches of snow coating everything. Snow on green leaves is one of my least favorite sights. I wanted so badly to stay under the covers and hold Curtis close, but I had to get up. Before my work started, I walked out the orchard to photograph dogwoods in the snow. Sourly, I observed that snow on white dogwoods just looks like more snow. I took photos anyway, and I’m glad I did, because they’re quite beautiful, now that I’m not facing days of hard labor thanks to that beautiful snow. 


See, what happens when it snows on April 21 is that the insects bluebirds depend on are suddenly and unequivocally unavailable. That means that adults will hardly be able to feed themselves, much less their new chicks. Bluebirds have no other choice than insects for baby food. So, realizing it’s useless to even try to find them, some pairs will abruptly desert their nests. 


Ten of my boxes were occupied, one by Carolina chickadees still building a nest, and nine by eastern bluebirds. 

There were chicks in six, and eggs in three of those bluebird nests. It’s not a huge deal for a female bluebird to sit out a cold spell on her eggs. She's got nobody to feed but herself, and her mate helps with that. She’s got a snug nestbox, a thick grass nest, and her own body heat to keep them warm.

It was the six boxes of chicks I was worried about. The brooding female can keep them warm, but without food, they won’t survive. 


So it was that I came in from snow photography and set straight to work in the kitchen, mixing up some bug omelet. I gathered my bent forceps, tissues, water, eyedropper, nestbox notebook, and fixed up a picnic cooler with hot water bottles and a makeshift tissue nest. Did I have everything? I hoped so. I opened the meadow box and was relieved to find five hungry six-day old bluebirds. I took the nest from the box, sheltered it as best I could with my body, and quickly fed the chicks to repletion with warm bug omelet. I stuffed the nest back in the rapidly cooling box and trotted back to the house, allowing the female bluebird to return and settle back on her chicks. No photos--it was all I could do to get them fed in the freezing cold wind, and put back in the box, without trying to record the moment. 

This is one of the easier boxes to deal with. It's close to my house, and all I had to do was pop out, walk a few hundred yards, and feed the chicks three times a day as long as the weather stayed frigid. Was that easy? No. But it was easier than having to drive to do it. I got in the car and set out for the closest box with chicks, at the old Ritchie place. Here's what I'd found back on April 18: 

This morning, April 21, an ominous silence greeted me at the Ritchie box. In the nest were two unhatched eggs and a three-day-old chick, cold and still as death. Death, in fact, was all that lay ahead for this poor chick. It might already be too far gone. I turned it over in my hand, felt it for any sign of life. 


I picked it up and moved its legs and wings. It wasn’t stiff, so it might not be dead. Without even thinking about it, I dropped the chick down the front of my shirt, into the warm pocket of what amounts to my cleavage. Careful not to squish the chick with the seat belt’s shoulder strap, I headed my car toward the township road where the rest of my nestboxes waited to be checked. I checked a box that could have chicks—still eggs. Heaving a sigh of relief, I pressed on to the next stop. As I neared it, I felt a stirring on my chest. Was it just my imagination, or was that stone-cold chick squirming? 


Agog, I reached into my shirt and brought the chick out. Once yellowish and blue, its skin was flushed with pink, and it was moving weakly. However many times I deploy the bracubator, I will never quite get over the magic it can do. I never tire of feeling life come back into a tiny bird, lying so close to my heart. I crooned to the little thing, wiped a tear away, and put it back in my bra to cook awhile more. I had more boxes to hit, and a heavy day with three appointments in town besides. It's kind of weird how busy and hard life can become for someone who loves birds like I do. I feel responsible for them to an abnormal extent.

My charge safe within its little pocket, I fought my way up a steep snowy bank to a nestbox put up by my late friend Jeff Warren. It wasn’t really part of my trail, but I felt I had to check it anyway, to see if anyone needed help. I was shocked to find six—SIX!! newly hatched chicks, barely alive and nearly as cold as the first one. Their mother was nowhere to be found. Oh, no. No no no. I placed them in a grass nest in the picnic cooler, which was near 100 degrees inside thanks to the hot water bottles. 


This was a fine kettle of fish. I’d gone from zero to seven bluebirds to care for in less than 15 minutes.


As luck would have it, I had deliberately scheduled this Wednesday with three appointments in town, reasoning that I wouldn’t be able to do much orchard clearing or lawnmowing if it was snowing. It hadn’t occurred to me when I scheduled this day that I might be busy saving bluebird lives. 


Well, they would just have to come to town with me. I had food for them. All I had to do was find more hot water along the way. This proved to be easier said than done. It came home to me that grocery store bathrooms almost never have hot water in the bathroom sink, which is kind of gross when you think about it. I finally found some reasonably hot water at an Indian restaurant, where I ordered two takeout dinners for myself, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to cook in the next few days. The cooler had lost almost all its heat when I finally replenished it in the restaurant’s restroom. I also fed the babies there. You do what you must. 


It was a hectic day. I had several out of body moments, one in the lounge at the auto repair shop, where I barely suppressed laughter as I thought how surprised Larry the Mechanic would be to know that, as he explained about the possible cause of my blinking dash lights, I had six newborn bluebirds squirming away in my bra, each one stuffed full of bug omelet. I hoped there was no security camera. I can only imagine what it all would look like on security video. Phoebe planted that idea in my head, and it made me laugh. I needed the laugh, with the day I was having. 

All this thanks to a couple inches of snow on April 21. 


More snow fallout in the next installments. 


I knew you didn't really have time to worry about that pond. I'm not the least surprised you carried bluebirds in your bra. It was a very dedicated thing to do! Along with cooking bug omelets! Hoping for success with the babies.

I wish my Aunt Sally Spofford was still alive. She would have loved this story!

When you get time to write again--this will make a great essay.

I would love to see Liam draw a comic of you with 7 baby bluebirds in your bra!!!

I would love to see Liam draw a comic of you with 7 baby bluebirds in your bra!!!

I absolutely love how you opened with that quote. 💕

[Back to Top]