A SUMMER MIRACLE by Marion Ball, Washington County Coordinator

created in category From Our Members


My husband, Dennis, and I are avid "birders". Our property is located on a wooded hill right above the Elkhorn River, which attracts a wide variety of local and migrating birds throughout the year. We are blessed, to say the least. Nesting boxes adorn our backyard along with a shepherd's crook, assorted feeders and a large birdbath that is easily accessible to birds and various other critters throughout the year. We also maintain a series of nesting boxes along a mini-trail, out in the country.

With the arrival of summer, we begin our weekend mornings with coffee on the patio while watching the assortment of birds that inhabit the property. July 7th of this year was an exceptionally lovely Saturday morning, and, as I waited for my husband, a familiar sound trilled through the air. A male Bluebird had lighted upon the shepherd's crook, which was about 10 feet from a nesting box! I held my breath. Was it possible the nest box would have Bluebird occupants this summer? Was the drought over? Bluebirds had rasied offspring in that box in 2009 and 2010, but it stayed vacant in 2011.

The nest boxes along the trail already had eggs in them by April 8th of this year. This was a record since we had put up the boxes on March 27th. Only pesky Wrens seemed interested in the backyard boxes and had started to claim them one by one. To discourage the Wrens, we removed the nesting boxes, except for the one box near the patio. Once, in June, a Bluebird camped out on the shepherd's crook for several days, calling and calling, but no female accepted his propsal. The poor fellow finally gave up and flew away. Now we had another potential tenant.

Dennis was just about to step out onto the patio when I diverted his sttention toward the shepherd's crook. We eased back into the house and continued watching the male Bluebird from the sunroom (which offers a great view of the nesting box). Before too long, a female joined him and the "house inspection" began. First, they checked out the roof, then the inside of the box and lastly, the shepherd's crook. Meanwhile, the other birds in residence decided to investigate the newcomers. The welcoming committee had arrived! First came the House Finches, who landed upon the roof; Chickadees tried to look inside the nest box, much to the consternation of the Bluebirds; even the White-breasted Nuthatch joined in. It was quite a spectacle. And later that evening, I noticed that a nest had been started.

The Bluebird couple spent the next two days (July 7th and 8th) building the nest. More and more material was brought into the nesting box. They appeared relaxed, unafraid and friendly, taking brief breaks by perching atop the roof or shepherd's crook. As I watched their progress from the sunroom window, I was amazed to see the female "declare" a certain type of grass "unsuitable" - then watched the male carry it away!

Monday morning brought a change in the Bluebird's routine. They arrived early, checked the nest box and made a few, last-minute changes (rearranging the "furniture"?). Breakfast came next, with the male feeding the female. (Wasn't that something only done while the female sat on her clutch?) Another change was in attitude: whenever the pair saw me or noticed some movement elsewhere, they flew off. Perhaps they didn't want to draw attention to the nesting box for fear of attracting predator birds. Later, however, the pair returned in the early evening to check the box and its contents, and Tuesday was a repeat of Monday's routine.

Four days passed. Every morning, between 6-6:30 AM, the pair checked the nest box, and returned for the 7:00 PM "bed check". Meanwhile, a nosy Sparrow and curious Wren added tension with their antics. I installed a Wren guard, but the process upset the female Bluebird to the point that she left the nest. "Maybe she won't come back", I worried, as I removed the Wren guard. Hopefully, the Wren had satisfied its curiosity and would steer clear of the Bluebird house.

In spite of the annoying curiosity seekers, the male remained faithful as ever, feeding his mate as she 'puttered' around the nest. He seemed at ease with my occasional presence on the patio, whereas the female was much more timid. Sunday morning, she flew to the shepherd's crook, where she sat for quite some time. Her longing to return to the nest box was evident, but eventually she flew to the Bluebird house and fidgeted at its entrance. Several times she made as if to enter the box, but eventually lost her nerve and flew away as her mate settled on the shepherd's crook. I returned to the house in hopes of giving the female Bluebird some "space", and later observed her at the bird bath. Before she could get a drink or bathe, a rowdy bunch of House Finches joined her and, no doubt put off by the unwelcome company, she flew back to the relative calm of the trees. Finally, Friday afternoon we had the first white egg. To my surprise we didn't have an egg on Saturday. Sunday afternoon we had the second and a third egg Monday early afternoon. That completed the clutch.

Tuesday morning, around 9:30 AM, I spied the male Bluebird through the window, sitting at the opening of the Bluebird house. He took a peek inside, only to discover his mate was not at home. Off he flew to the shepherd's crook, with a worm he had evidently brought for the missing female. Next he flew into a nearby tree and ate the hapless worm himself. "Smart fellow", I thought. We were experiencing the hottest, driest summer since the 1980's, and the news media was likening this summer to the dust bowl: brown grass, no sign of the usual gnats or mosquitoes...very unusual. It would take some effort to feed two adult birds, plus the clutch.

The female Bluebird started to incubate the eggs, and we tried to stay out of her way. We still enjoyed our weekend mornings of coffee, though, and as Dennis and I sat quietly on the patio the morning of July 21st, the skittish female left the nest and would not return to it. Instead, she perched upon the shepherd's crook, flew back to the Bluebird house, but remained outside. Not long after, the male made his appearance and entered the nest, where he stayed for a while. Dennis and I took that moment to quietly make our departure back into the house. The flightiness of the female had me wondering if this was her first year of being a "mom", as well as her first exposure to humans.

The first baby Bluebird hatched on Sunday, July 29th, and a second egg was cracked. I was surprised to see that still only one egg had hatched by Monday morning. The second egg did have a slightly large crack, but that was all. By mid-afternoon, there was a large hole in the shell and the baby was visible; by evening it had finally hatched. It must have been quite an ordeal for the little fellow, and I could not help but feel helpless pity for it.

I peekded in the nest box Tuesday morning to discover the first hatchling, looking like a giant compared to its sibling. All I could see of it was its head. And the third egg was missing from the nest. Odd. Then, Wednesday morning, I spotted something hanging from the opening of the nest box. Sadly, it was the body of the second hatchling, which the Bluebirds had attempted to remove from the nest. Apparently it didn't survive the ordeal because it was so little and fragile. After removing the remains, I took a seat on the patio to ponder and observe the parents as they fed the last of their offspring. "Nature is cruel, no doubt about it", I mused.

By mid-afternoon, the outside temperature had soared, breaking all records. Concerned over the welfare of the remaining baby, Dennis and I did a quick check of the nest. The 100-degree heat was taking its toll, and he looked totally exhausted; we felt frustrated and helpless, not knowing what to do to help the little one. We conjectured if the parents knew if anyone had a chance of survival it would be the first born. By Thursday morning, the lone baby appeared barely alive, and Friday morning brought more record-breaking temperatures. There were times when we thought it, too, had not survived, but then a small movement would give us hope. The little Bluebird boy did appear to be growing. Too bad he doesn't know what a fan club he has, both here and abroad, who were worrying and rooting for his survival.

Early Saturday morning a cold front rolled in, bringing high winds and much cooler temperatures - a welcomed relief for everyone. I checked the nest mid-morning and saw the little Bluebird's eyes were open and pinfeathers breaking through the skin on his wings and back. Sunday morning brought another cold front, with 60-degree temperatures and, best of all, the baby Bluebird seemed hungry. He even made small noises when his parents appeared.

Our little Bluebird baby is a true miracle, and he is growing and chirping in the nest box. It's odd seeing only him in the nest. I have a difficult time understanding how four to six little baby birds can share one nest. I guess such a small nest encourages them to leave as soon as possible. But right now, this little guy has no interest in leaving...yet.

"Flight school" began the morning of Monday, August 13th. The Bluebird parents sat on the neighbor's chimney and called and called, but to no avail. Baby was not ready, so the parents finally gave it up and fed him, which naturally attracted several young House Finches and Chippers. Ever since the Blubird's started to feed their baby, those hungry House Finches and Chippers were looking for a free meal. The Bluebird parents seemed to take these "groupies" in stride.

Tusday morning I spotted mama Bluebird on the shepherd's crook. The baby was still in the nest when I checked at 9:00 AM, but the afternoon check found the nest empty! I spotted mama Bluebird in the old oak tree when she flew to a top branch. Then the leaves moved a bit, and I saw the fledgling being fed.

With every birding season, I gain more insight into the Bluebird's life and behavior. This year I have a new appreciation of their incredible instinct for survival and family responsibility. Even though this experience was bittersweet, we had a happy ending. And I am an empty-nester again...hopefully only until next year.