Red, White, and Bluebird

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

One of my early thrills as a beginning birder back in the mid-fifties was finding Eastern Bluebirds nesting in a birdbox out at a friend’s house near the airport. The birds had successfully competed with a pair of Tree Swallows for this nesting spot and I remember there were several chicks in the box. Whether they successfully left the nest and flew I can’t remember. As a beginning birder I kept good, but not great, records of my sightings.

This species is an American favorite. It is never common on the island and only nests irregularly during the summer. We actually see more in the winter than in the summer, but perhaps that’s just because bluebirds gather into flocks during the cold months. This year on a bitter morning in January, the Sunday morning birders found a flock of about ten up at Prospect Hill Cemetery. It was so cold, near zero, that we didn’t want to open our car windows. Yet here were the bluebirds, cheerfully perching on headstones, flying down to catch a bug, then back to their perch to munch on that and look for the next snack.

In most of New England, Eastern Bluebirds are considered to be a sign of spring, along with robins and red-wings. They are watched for during the first warm days of February. They are so hardy that often they overextend themselves and end up succumbing to the cold. Where there is a group, they will physically clump themselves together in a nesting cavity or even on a branch – a round, blue and red, ball of fluff – to try and collectively use their body heat to survive.

So, how do you know when you are seeing an actual bluebird? Most blue birds here on Nantucket are Blue Jays – larger and much more raucous than Sialia sialis. Linnaeus gave this species its Latin name and must have been tired that day, for it translates to ‘a type of bird’, both genus and species names being redundant. Perhaps he was working with a dull winter female specimen, because if he had a more colorful one, he would certainly have been more enthusiastic.

Bluebirds are about seven inches in length and appear a bit round-shouldered when you see them perched. They are one of the species silhouetted on the inside cover of the Peterson Field Guides. Peterson cleverly illustrates many species this way and it is an excellent tool for learning to recognize common birds. He also shows our bluebird perched on a fence, which is how they are often seen. Although they are thrushes, they have their own style of ‘hawking’ for insects, making repeated flights down from low perches, to snatch an unwary beetle or grasshopper from the ground.

The bluebird’s color is a wondrous shade of blue. When you see them flying away, the soft blue seems to radiate from their backs and tails. It is described as ‘sky blue’ but seems brighter than that. It’s only when they are perched that you get to see the robin-red color on the breast and their white belly.

Their call note is very subtle, sort of a low warble. It’s a sound that frequently you don’t realize you are hearing until after it has stopped. They often sing in flight, so this is your opportunity to pick them up when passing over. Then you may see where they land and get a good look.

On Nantucket, there seem to be several flocks that spend the winter here, and they favor a behavior pattern I think of as roving. The Prospect Hill flock last winter was seen in that area for a week or two, then headed west, being reported from the Madaket area. Other years there have been flocks in Madaquecham. These birds probably nest up in Canada in the summer.

When our summer bluebirds arrive, they don’t travel in flocks. Hole nesters, they must compete with Tree Swallows and House Sparrows for the nesting boxes around our island. These other species are generally no match for a determined bluebird, but the starling is another case. These competitive European birds will muscle their way into any birdhouse in which they fit. But that is the secret. If you keep the entry hole on your birdbox no larger than one inch, it is big enough for a bluebird, but too small for a starling. If you want to promote bluebirds, keep the nesting hole to an inch.

The Eastern Bluebird is the State Bird of New York, and there are many programs to re-establish the species by putting up birdboxes. Between the aggressive starlings and the parasitic cowbirds, bluebirds were becoming rare, so these nesting box programs have made a great difference.

So, you may find bluebirds year ‘round on Nantucket. Listen for the soft chirring call note and then try and catch a glimpse of this unique red, white, and blue bird that is a joyous sight on our island.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.