- West Side Story: Spring 2007
Eastern Bluebirds: Their colorful place in history
"Henry David Thoreau was this country’s first and, perhaps, foremost nature writer. He rigorously kept a journal, recording the happenings around his home in Concord, Massachusetts. On April 26, 1838 he scribed a poem that began, “In the midst of the poplar that stands by our door, We planted a bluebird box, And we hoped before summer was o’er, A transient pair to coax.”
Thoreau ended the long entry with the lines, “The bluebird had come from the distant South, To his box in the poplar tree, And he opened wide his slender mouth, On purpose to sing to me.”
It’s now been 169 years since the master of Walden waxed poetic about Eastern bluebirds, but his words seem just as appropriate today as they were then because people still love the birds that “carry the sky on their backs” and a song in their hearts.
Eastern bluebirds are mid-sized members of the Thrush family—a group noted for their singing. Their songs are raspy warbling chatters: “turr, turr-lee, turr-lee.” Yet, there’s a note of lament in their tunes, a melancholy counterpoint that serves as the yin to the yang of an otherwise cheerful spring day. This spot of sadness seems to suggest that even the joy of spring is fleeting.
Native American legend has it that the bluebird was once drab but obtained its brilliant azure from repeatedly bathing in the blue water of an isolated lake. It is reported that the colorful birds greeted the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, who called them “blue robins” because the songbirds reminded them of their beloved English robins. For them, it was a cheerful welcome in an otherwise strange and hostile land. In “Song of Hiawatha,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of the bluebird singing from the thickets and meadows. Hiawatha’s people called the songster, “Owaissa”
By the early 1800s, when Thoreau was exploring the countryside around his beloved New England on foot, this nascent country was beginning to stretch its limbs and expand. Settlers first trickled and then flooded inland from the coast and New England into the wilderness, cutting down forests and building homesteads, eager to start a new life, plant a garden, orchard or hayfield for livestock. This rapid expansion was a boon to bluebirds; their population undoubtedly soared because the sky blue songbirds don’t live in the woods. They prefer the edges that open up to grasslands, pastures and fields.
Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters...
For the rest of my article about bluebirds look for the spring issue of the West Side Story.
Special thanks to editor/publisher Dan Barile