EAST CHATHAM, N.Y
Autumn is here in full fig, yet we still have not had a hard frost. The leaves turn brilliant colors anyway, ripped from their branches by the recent storm's wind and water. The green lawns and dusty roads are now covered with patches of downed foliage looking like Persian carpets tossed hither and thither. Now and again flocks of robins strut across these damp leaf rugs, pecking through the surface. Slowly the fall migration progresses.
On my morning walk, I see and hear few birds. Woodpeckers still call to one another as they probe tree trunks for tiny morsels. Robins sing but only briefly. Chickadees and nuthatches are now joined by brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets. Five phoebes, perhaps a family, make their way from wire to shrub, snagging insects every few moments. And there are plenty of insects around.
Out and about, we come across a lazy great blue heron standing serenely by a pond's edge, reluctant to head south. Then one afternoon on the way home via the back road, Danny and I see birds landing on the wire and then flying across the field. A few more come in until there are seven on the wire. We immediately know these are not starlings. We stop the car and get out, binoculars in hand.
Bluebirds! a very active flock of bluebirds! Some are brilliant males, other rather dull females and yet others are rather nondescript first year birds. As we get out of the car, the wiresitters fly to a tree in the middle of the overgrown field. We watch them as they hop from branch to branch. When I take down my binoculars, I realize more have come from behind us to land on the wire. Eventually we count 19, a good-sized, fall flock. We may think of bluebirds as harbingers of spring, but sportsmen, noticing these impressive fall flocks, have for years called the Indian summer days of October, "bluebird weather."
The three bluebird species in the United States -- the eastern, the western and the all-blue mountain -- are each as flamboyant as the next. This is a flock of eastern bluebirds, Sialia sialis, and are easily recognized. Arthur Bent in his "Life Histories of the North American Birds" claims: "The bluebird is well named for he wears a coat of the purest, richest and most gorgeous blue on his back, wings and tail; no North American bird better deserves the name, for no other flashes before our admiring eyes so much brilliant blue."
From the time of the colonists, bluebirds have attracted much attention. The early settlers compared them to their beloved robin redbreast and called them the blue redbreasts. Eventually these birds, found only in North America, were dubbed, quite appropriately, bluebirds.
Curiously, the colonists were right in comparing them to robins, but wrong in thinking they were related to the English robin. They are members of the thrush family, Turdidae, which includes the American robin. I find it interesting that the bluebirds are thrushes even though they do not act much like our robins, veeries or wood thrushes, all of whom walk along the ground when foraging for insects. When sitting on a branch or wire, bluebirds are more compact and erect than robins, with that slightly hunched over appearance perhaps caused by constantly looking down for insects.
Bluebirds do not forage like thrushes, nor do they sally from a perch like flycatchers when insecting. They sit on the perch observing the lawn, field or meadow beneath, then dart down and snag the bug. Often they will hover like a kestrel a few feet above the ground when honing in on the moving insect. Back then to the perch to kill and devour.
Bluebirds have a very distinct song, if one can call it a song. It's a burble or warble, almost impossible to imitate. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, talks of this as, "its disembodied voice, a rumor in the air...before it takes visible shape before you." Even William Bartram talks of its "most endearing warblings." In Sibley's, the song is described as a "pleasing soft phrase of mellow whistles."
These birds became more and more visible as the country grew. They are birds of woodlands, farms and fields and are relatively tame. Put up a bluebird box (hole exactly 11 2 inches across) near your house and the birds will come. They will, though, have to fend off tree swallows and wrens before taking possession. Once they are ensconced in the birdhouse, bluebirds tend to return to the same place year after year.
In the mid 20th century, the U.S. bluebird population declined as a result of the extensive use of DDT and of the competition with the imported starlings and English sparrows that also like to dwell around houses and farms. There was not enough room for all. But these beautiful birds are on the rebound not only because of the ban on DDT, but also because of hundreds, if not thousands, of birdhouses put up by the North American Bluebird Society in fields and meadows along the highways and byways, visible to us along Route 20.
We all know of the bluebird of happiness and of the bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, but only a Woody Allen could claim that "Early in life, I was visited by the bluebird of anxiety," and a Charles Bukowki could write a tortured poem, "Bluebird," that begins: "There's a bluebird in my heart that/ wants to get out...."
Don't ask what happens to the poor bluebird that inhabits Bukowski's chest. Better to remember the words of Miss Emily Dickenson in her poem, The Bluebird, "... he goes/to some superior tree/Without a single leaf/ And shouts for joy to nobody/But his seraphic self."
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.