Me thinks it was Henry David Thoreau who once said that the Bluebird “carries the sky on its back.” That is indeed an apt physical description of this intensely blue-backed bird which has come to represent all that is cheerful, sunny, and happy. No one wants the Starling of Sickness or the Fickle Flicker of Foul Play to perch upon their doorstep. Instead, it is the legendary Bluebird of Happiness that is expected to deliver those blue skies of spring and summer. It is best to be cautious about these things, however. These beautiful birds can also bear tidings of snow and cold gray skies upon their blue backs. A winter bluebird offers no more promise of spring than the Robin of Regret. The fact is, Robins overwinter and so do Bluebirds. The sight of a bluebird this time of year simply means “cloudy with a chance of flurries” but that is not a bad thing.
No matter what the season, the sight of these red, white and blue birds can never be considered a bad thing. It is safe to say that they are even more stunning when framed against a white winter landscape. I encountered a flock of these birds in the winter landscape of the Petersburg Game area the other day. It was cloudy with sporadic snow flurries that afternoon, but the birds added a welcome dash of color to it. There were about ten birds in the group and they all proved to be very timid. I bring you evidence of my encounter in the form of a few hard earned photos.
My sighting, though welcome, wasn’t especially remarkable. This past season, around 40 bluebirds were counted in one regional Christmas bird count. They are now a regular feature of these counts. Their numbers have increased over the past few decades due to conservation efforts and bluebird house projects, not to any change in winter conditions. It is has been estimated that as much as one-third of any given eastern bluebird population will overwinter in their North Country range. It is a risky ploy. During some winters, such as those of the late seventies, all or most of a wintering group of birds will not survive due to the effects of severe cold, exposure, and starvation. Bluebirds are meant to be blue from warmth, not blue from being frozen stiff.
All these winterers ask of their cold weather habitat is that it provides good cover and food. Cover wise, they will cluster into dense thickets to avoid chilling winds. Some birds have been recorded using bluebird houses as winter roosting sites during especially cold periods. In these cases a half dozen birds may huddle together within the cramped space – sharing warmth and possibly telling each other summer stories until the worst is past.
Throughout the warm season, these small thrushes are insect eaters. During the cold season they switch to fleshy fruits such as dogwood berries and rose hips. Sumac berries are an especially important late winter food. It was no accident that “my” little gang of blues spent most of their time in the smooth sumac thickets (like shown in the first photo) or in the wild rose tangles (see here).
In these pictures, the male birds are easy to identify with their bright blue backs, ruddy chests and white bellies (see above). The Females possess a much more subtle coloration consisting of pale blue with a hint of redness (see below). I hate to call her dull. You never call a female dull because it is like referring to hip padding or slightly large thighs. Let’s just say she exhibits a “laid-back but assured look.”
A letter to the editor of the New York Times, written Jan. 22, 1901 by Emily Morton of upper New York State, perhaps puts the best spin on this winter bluebird thing while putting in a good word for the “laid back” females of the species. She writes: “…we have bluebirds all the winter months; they sing, too, on the milder sunny days, and can be seen flitting about even in the coldest weather, if the sun shines. There is one female, which is always more intelligent than the male, picking off juniper berries tied on a little branch directly in front of my window.”
O.K., we’ll leave it at that if it’s alright with you.