The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

How we saved the birds that carry the sky on their backs

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Thompson Bluebird

One man’s initial efforts led to the bluebird’s recovery

Eastern bluebirds have long been cherished.

Henry David Thoreau was this country’s first widely regarded 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 has now been 183 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 singing. Their songs are raspy warbling chatters: “turr, turr-lee, turr-lee.” 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 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 Onondaga 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 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. They seek out natural tree cavities or holes chipped out by woodpeckers in dead snags or branches that border open spaces. They do not shy away from people and often nest near barns and farmhouses. The settlers liked the bluebird’s good cheer and knew that they ate harmful insects found in the pastures. The pioneers also began to build crude bluebird boxes to attract the pest-eating songbirds. These rudimentary nurseries became fixtures of nineteenth-century farms. Today, Revolutionary or Civil War reenactment sites will have period reproductions of the nest boxes on fence posts along the battlefields to accurately depict the agricultural practices of the era.

Bluebird population begins to decline

By the early 1900s, however, bluebird populations began to drop, in part because many of the snags they nested in were cut down for firewood. The invention of the gas-powered chainsaw in the late 1920s hastened the felling of dead trees. As tractors replaced mules, the need for large hayfields diminished and this valuable bluebird habitat began to disappear. And since the bluebirds’ principal food was the beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars found in the pastures, America’s use of pesticides, especially DDT, reduced bluebird populations as well.

The “Blue Gems” of the field also began to face competition for the remaining nest holes from two introduced bird species: the European starling and house sparrow. Both are very aggressive and will kill young bluebird nestlings and even adults while taking over their home.

Luckily for bluebirds, they found a champion. In the late 1930s, Dr. Thomas E. Musselman of Quincy, Illinois began to build bluebird boxes and create lines of them known as bluebird trails around his state. He also traveled and spoke to groups about the importance of nest boxes. His one-man conservation movement caught on with school students and bird-loving adults. Many bluebird trails were created. Musselman himself is credited for setting up over 1,000 nest boxes. One followed a road for 68 miles and had 150 nest boxes.

Yet the bluebird population in the East continued to decline for the next 60 years. They went from being as “common as a robin” to so rare they were marked for inevitable extinction by many birders. In the days before the Endangered Species Act, many bemoaned their ultimate loss. Some estimated that their population was down by over 90 percent.

Flash forward: Sometimes it only takes one champion to save a single species, just one hero to ignite the fire. Thomas Musselman’s grassroots movement to erect bluebird boxes had slowly spread throughout the East. In the Tennessee Valley, TVA biologists, including Ben Jaco and Dick Fitz, set out a pickup truck full of boxes below Norris Dam in 1968 and again in 1969. Today, many people have at least one box on their property.

1970: A pivotal year for bluebirds, and all birds

The bluebird turnaround is believed to have begun about 1970. Ironically, the National Audubon Society announced in late summer 2019 that since that same year, overall avian populations in this country were down by 29 percent. Many species are affected. One in four birds are lost. Poof! That is 3 billion total birds gone principally from habitat loss, but pesticide use is always the specter lurking in the background. The biggest overall drops were among the grassland and meadow birds, and with species that eat insects. Yet, the Eastern bluebird, traditionally a farmland and orchard dweller, seems to be holding steady with an estimated population of 22 million birds.

Today, the bluebird population has recovered and it is generally believed that it’s stable and perhaps on the rise, returning them to their rightful place in history. For bluebird aficionados, that news is as welcome as their early spring song.   

But nature is always in a state of perpetual flux. Today’s rate of change is unprecedented. Climate change looms large. We have to hold our collective breath. Can it be slowed? Reversed? Sometimes it only takes one superhero.

Thank you, Thomas Musselman.

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Published in Creature Features, Air