The Bluebird Effect
I HAD KNOWN this day would come, had been thinking about it a lot lately, but I wasn’t truly prepared for it. Mr. Troyer didn’t come in for his mealworms this afternoon, February 16, 2000. His widow, if widow she be, is already consorting with another male, the same day Mr. Troyer disappeared. He came to the kitchen window to remind me about his mealworms this morning, and this afternoon he is simply gone, erased, replaced. Such is the nature of songbird bonds, even long-standing ones. Bluebirds can’t live forever, after all, and this one, I know, was at least eight years old, and probably closer to nine: a Methuselah among bluebirds.
He wasn’t banded, but he had been marked just the same, by the quick talons of a sharp-shinned hawk, on May 19, 1993. It was at that moment that he became more than just another bluebird to me, that our lives were knit together, that I
began to know him as an individual.
Bill and I had been gardening all day, and dusk was approaching. My notes from that day:
Bill saved the male bluebird from a sharpie who barreled between the forsythia and garage, picked the male bluebird off the clothesline pole, and carried him, shrilling, for a distance before Bill’s yelling scared the hawk into dropping him! Oh! I picked him up and checked him over, finding nothing that would keep him from flying. He sat sleeked and terrified on the TV antenna for about 40 seconds before flying to the orchard. He looked OK. His mate just sat on the wire, stunned. If Bill hadn’t heard a robin scolding and thought fast, the bluebird just would have been gone in the morning.
This was not the considered action of a well-informed naturalist—though Bill more than qualifies. This was the same primitive response that snatches a toddler off a curb as a taxi sweeps by. Denying a sharp-shinned hawk a well-earned meal is not something we routinely do or recommend. There was no thought involved, and thus no excuse to be made for my husband’s intervention. I think back on that moment as pivotal, though I couldn’t have known it at the time. People speak of the “butterfly effect,” describing the unknown consequences of a seemingly irrelevant action. Taken to its extreme, one flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might alter the atmosphere sufficiently to cause a tornado in Texas. Though I couldn’t know it, this moment, for me, would herald eight years of the bluebird effect.
When the sharpshin dropped the bluebird, I picked him up. His tiny chest was heaving, his bill was wide open, and bright beads of blood dotted his left bicep and breast. Carefully, I spread both wings, stretched his legs, and blew a stream of air on the feathers on his breast to part them and search for wounds. Finding nothing gashed or broken, I smoothed his feathers and released him. His brood was due to fledge in four days, and he had work to do.
For two days, we didn’t see much of him; he sat mopily in the wooded border, left wing drooping. But then his parental instincts won out over his discomfort, and he helped his mate see the brood out of the box. But there was a marked difference in his demeanor. This once skittish bird seemed to have completely lost his fear of us, and he’d bathe merrily in the birdbath as I weeded less than ten feet away. On my hands and knees, I could feel the spray flying from his fluttering wings. A bird will not bathe if it feels the least bit threatened, because wet feathers spell vulnerability to predators. Clearly, he no longer regarded me as a threat. Could he view me as a protector after the hawk incident and actually feel safer when I was near? I thought back to other similar instances. One concerned barn swallows and can be found on pages 46 and 47; another involved a woodpecker.
A female hairy woodpecker who visited our peanut and suet feeders hit our large plate-glass window twice in the winter of 2000. The second time, she was knocked almost cold and lay sprawled on the lawn, vulnerable to attack from a predator. My heart sinking, I picked her up, checked her for broken bones, and, finding her intact, gently placed her in the crotch of a thick pine tree to recover. I checked on her several times over the next two hours and was glad to find her preening, then flying back to the feeding station for a snack. Her mate remained as shy as ever, as befits a hairy woodpecker, but the female showed not the slightest fear of me from that day on, feeding calmly as I filled feeders only a few feet away. Was she still stunned or had she reclassified me to “nonthreatening” in her mental catalog? I know it’s unfashionable to conjure words like trust in a discussion of animal behavior, but as much as my mind circles around this and similar incidents, it keeps running into the same conclusion.
Having forged this bond of trust, however mysterious, with the rescued bluebird, I took renewed interest in the course of his life. After all, he was instantly identifiable, with his drooping left wing. He was to nest with the same mate in the east box for the next three seasons, successfully fledging eighteen young. When the male bluebird nesting in our front yard suddenly disappeared, on March 16, 1996, I was surprised to see the injured male making forays from his eastern territory into the front yard. Little matter that he had a mate building a nest in the east box. He waved his wings at the widowed front yard female, who, seemingly energized by his presence, began gathering nesting material.
Singing vigorously, he encouraged her to build again in the front yard box. The widow had other ideas. She flew around the corner of our house to a box on the west side and began to build in it. Savagely, the droop-winged male attacked her and drove her back to the front yard box. Again and again she attempted to build in the west box, and each time he drove her back to the front yard. He went so far as to enter the west box and toss her nesting material on the ground!
I was mystified at his behavior, until I realized that he may have wanted both his mates in sight at once. From the front yard box, he could keep an eye on the east box. The west box, where the widowed female wanted to nest, was blocked by our house; there was no sightline between it and the east box. If he was to have a chance of squiring two females and holding two territories at once, he had to keep an eye on both at all times. When the widow finally gave in and took a billful of possum fur to the front yard box, he rewarded her with a soft caterpillar. His aggression ceased, and peace reigned. I marveled at this vehement demonstration of his preferences; it spoke to me of planning and forethought, an awareness of the way nest box placement played into his plan to raise broods with two females at once.
With greatly reduced help from him, the injured male’s first mate raised a brood of five in the east box. But his affections clearly had been won by the widowed front yard female. When, on June 16, 1996, a new male arrived to woo the east box female, the two-timing male had little argument. He settled in with the front yard female and conceded his first mate to the interloper. He’d had two broods by two females at one time, though, a rarely achieved feat in the bluebird world.
Now that they were an official pair, the droopy-winged male and the widowed female seemed to need a name. I decided on the Troyers, after the Amish bluebirder and inventor Andy Troyer. He had sent me a nifty slot box and PVC baffle to try out, and it was here that the pair settled. The name Mr. Troyer fit the injured bluebird som...