BluebirdersStory: A Chance Encounter with a Bluebird

Story: A Chance Encounter with a Bluebird

– by Paul Kilduff

It’s a mild day in early December. I’ve come to Oregon Ridge Park to pick up the volunteers’ log sheets for the nestbox trail, so I can total up the number of birds we fledged in 2005. The day is gray; the clouds hang low.

As I drive up the lane and look out the window of my car I think of my friend and fellow nestbox monitor Ted Chadeayne, and the time he and I were walking around the park the past spring, at about 5 in the morning. While most of us nestbox monitors try hard to be knowledgeable about Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, Ted is a birder. That morning, as he and I walked and talked, he suddenly stopped for no reason that I could see and said, “Eastern Meadowlark.”

“Hmm?” I asked.

“Did you hear that? (Me: No!) That’s an Eastern Meadowlark. That’s a first for me.”

See, what Ted has done is study recordings and mnemonics of different birds so that when he hears one, he’ll know what it is. As I say, Ted is a birder.

It was Ted who taught me to recognize the bluebird’s call (in Maryland our bluebirds are Eastern Bluebirds, AKA Sialia sialis). “Cheer, cheerful charmer.” That’s what a bluebird’s call sounds like. It doesn’t sound exactly like that, of course, but the cadence and accents of the bird’s normal call (“this is my territory,” as opposed to “Predator!” or “Ain’t I a pretty one!” or “Food over here!”) are the same as the cadence and accents of the words, “cheer, cheerful charmer.” Another example is the White Throated Sparrow: “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

After getting the monitors’ books and saying hi to Maryjane at the desk, I walked back to sit in my car, where I added up all of last year’s numbers (see table). I had a little free time, and decided to walk to the pond, where some of our boxes are. As I looked for a bluebird my thoughts turned to the great bluebird photographer and naturalist, Wendell Long, who likes to pretend that bluebirds actually talk to him. At least I always thought he was pretending. Now . . . well — let me tell you what happened.

As I went inside the fence I heard the cadence, now familiar: “Cheer, cheerful charmer.” I looked up into a tree in the direction of the sound, and there, not 20 feet from me, was a male bluebird. Let me just take a second to talk about the “blue” in “bluebird.” Most people, when you say “bluebird,” think of a Blue Jay. But the bluebird doesn’t look at all like a Blue Jay, and it is much smaller. The male bluebird is bright colored, while the female’s colors are more subdued. The back of the male Eastern Bluebird is a striking and vibrant blue, not iridescent, but quite vivid. “Pure blue” woul! d be one way to describe it. The bluebird I saw was a male, and I heard him before I saw him.

Two can play at this game, I thought. “Cheer, cheerful charmer!” I replied.
From the bird came a series of sounds whose meaning seemed unmistakable. “I think you’ll find that’s a misnomer.”

I just stood there for a moment. It wasn’t like hearing a parrot talk. But the cadence of the bird’s trills sounded for all the world as though the bird was correcting me.
“That’s funny,” I said. “I would have sworn I heard you talk back to me.”

“Cheerful charmer! Cheerful charmer! Makes me sick! Oh, I’m charming all right! You should see me in the spring, pal! Got ‘em lining up! But cheerful? Not me!”
I was speechless. The whole thing was just so unreal. I just looked at him. “You are talking!” was all I finally managed to squeeze out.

“Well I’m not just whistling Dixie! Hey, that’s pretty good, ‘not just whistling Dixie!’ I slay myself.”

“Yeah. Heh heh.” I was still a bit unsettled.

“Well, you’re pretty good with the comebacks, I’ll give you that!”

I just stood there.”Hey, Genius, say something.”

“Uh. Okay…. Well, what are you so steamed about?”

“Well, for one thing, the food stinks around here, know what I mean?”

“Well, it’s bugs — you’re supposed to like bugs.”

The bird regarded me with one shiny black eye. “You’re dumber than you look, you know that? And that’s not easy! Do you see any bugs around here? Well; do you?”

I felt a little defensive. “No bugs now, of course. You’re supposed to live on berries in the winter.”

“Rrright. And you’re supposed to live on tenderized cardboard.”

“You don’t like berries?”

‘You don’t like berries?'” I wouldn’t have thought it possible that bird trills could sound sarcastic, but this retort seemed to drip with sarcasm.

He continued: “I’m a carnivore, pal. Besides, try to find some berries around here! There’s a holly tree over that way,” he waved his wing towards the west, “but all the berries are gone — starlings! Enough berries to feed me and my flock for the rest of the winter, and those starlings came in and stripped it bare in a couple of days.”

I decided not to mention that it was humans, like me, who had brought those starlings to North America. “Well,” I said, trying to salvage the situation, “the weather’s pretty nice.”
At this he just stood looking at me. Whoo! This guy was tough. I sighed.

“Aren’t you talking?”

“I would if I heard anything worth talking about!”

All this from bird whistles. It was almost unbelievable!

Let’s change the subject. “My name’s Paul. What’s yours?”


“You got a problem with that?”

“Well, no, but — Jerome?”

“Look, you know, nobody here’s making fun of your name.”

“No, of course not, I uh — sorry!”

Jerome gave me that beady stare again. Here I was, actually talking to a bluebird, and I was stumped for something to say. I tried to think: food? – no; weather? – no; sports?

“So how ‘bout those Ravens!”

Suddenly the little bird was all over the tree, giving the “predator” call: chit-chit-chit-chit-phweer! I scanned the sky, checked all around, and suddenly I understood.

“Jerome, stop! Jerome, please, stop! Not the bird, raven! The football team, Ravens! The ‘Baltimore Ravens’!” Football!

I could swear I saw him sigh. “Look, buddy…”


“Yeah, look, uh, whatever — maybe we should skip the small talk.”

“Sure, no problem. Actually, what I came out here for was to tally up some numbers — to see how many new bluebirds we helped bring into the world last mating season.”

The bird gave me a beady stare. “Okay, now, when you say ‘we’…”

“Ah. Okay! Last mating season did you use any of these boxes, like that one over there, to put your nest in?”

“I did — a couple times, actually.”

“Okay, chances are I built that box.”

“Really.” A trace of interest.

“I’m one of the volunteers who monitor the nestboxes to help give bluebirds and Tree Swallows a safe place to build your nests.”

“The ones who come around and take the roofs off and scare the bejabbers out of me and the wife and kids?”

“Aaand the ones who trap and kill any House Sparrows who nest in any of the boxes….”

As the bluebird stood there, grasping a branch with his feet, a change seemed to come over him.

“You kill House Sparrows? And here I was, all set not to like you. One of them got one of my sisters last year. Murderous ______!” Here the bird trilled something that did not resemble English, but the sound was far from pleasant. “I want to fight one some day.”

“Don’t get trapped inside the box,” I warned him. “If he gets on top of you in a closed space, you’re done. I’ve seen what happens — it’s horrible.”

“Where did they come from? They don’t belong here!”

“It’s a very sad story. Humans brought them here, I’m sorry to say. You’re right, they don’t belong here, they’re invasive, just as the starlings are, and they’ve made it much harder for bluebirds and other native cavity-nesting species to reproduce.”

“Humans feed them too.”

“Well, some of us do. Well-meaning humans feed common birdseed in outdoor feeders, and mostly what they’re feeding is European Starlings and House Sparrows. Bluebirds were once a common sight — nowadays, thanks to starlings and House Sparrows, most people have never seen one.”

“I do hope you tell people to be careful what kind of food they put out.”

“I try, Jerome, I try.”

“Is there a place people could go for advice on this?”

“Well, they could go to a retail establishment that specializes in wild bird supplies, such as they might find in the Yellow Pages under Pets and Animals – Food and Supplies – Bird Feeders and Houses. There’s a Wild Bird Center very near here, at Roundwood Center on Padonia Rd. Maybe they’ll even buy a bluebird feeder and some mealworms.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” He was quiet for a moment. “So, anyway, how’d we do?”


“Remember you said you came here today to see how many bluebirds and Tree Swallows you’d helped bring into the world? Try and keep up with me here!”

This was one impatient bird!

“Not too bad. Except for one exceptional season, the best year was the season before last, but other than that these numbers are excellent for bluebirds, and we counted more Tree Swallows than any other year since we’ve been keeping records. I think the reason the season before last was so good was because of the cicadas.”

“Is that what you call them? Big, slow, dumb flyers?”

“Don’t forget ‘noisy’! Yeah, cicadas, 17-year cicadas, because they only come out every 17 years. What do you call them?”

He uttered something shrill and melodious. “In your language it would be something like ‘Lucky Meat Wagons.’ I didn’t think they really existed, just a grandmother’s tale. But oh, that was good eating! You talk about food — now there was some food! We kept telling the babies, ‘don’t expect this every year.’ But it was good while it lasted. You’d be so full you couldn’t eat any more, and — here’d come another couple of dozen Lucky Meat Wagons, just begging to be eaten….”

We stood for a moment, considering the magic of 17-year cicadas.

“Well,” said Jerome, “all this talk has made me hungry. I guess I’ll go find some delicious BERRIES to eat!” And, shaking his head, off he flew. I stood there for a little longer, looking at the tree where little Jerome had stood.

I’d learned a valuable lesson. While charmers they may be, not all bluebirds are cheerful. In fact, at least one of them is downright grumpy!


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