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Plants & Animals

Eastern Bluebird

I sometimes refer to our farm in Franklin County as “Bluebird Central” because we see so many of these colorful little thrushes year-round on a daily basis. Our setting is perfect for bluebirds, perched high on a hilltop and surrounded by hayfields, prairies, and brushy fencerows lined with cedar trees. The tiny blue-cedar cones, which I call cedar berries, provide abundant food for wintering bluebirds, and our yard is a great source of insects for the bluebirds of spring.

Although eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite social in winter (see inset photo below) they can be very territorial during nesting season in early spring. I was never more aware of this than last spring when I walked out the door one sunny morning. I actually heard the chatters of distress before I spotted two bluebirds on the north side of our yard beneath an aging sugar maple. At first I could only see a bluish blur, bouncing along the lawn, so it took me a second to make out two female bluebirds in a fierce squabble. Seeing a great photo opportunity, I raced back into the house and grabbed my camera.

Unfortunately, it was attached to my longest lens, a 500mm, and my tripod was nowhere to be found.

I returned to the yard with the awkward photo rig and was surprised to find the female bluebirds still going at it, now about 50 feet from the maple tree. I dropped to the prone position and focused on the birds with the big lens. As I dialed in the action from about 50 feet away I realized the squabble had taken a turn for the worse. The dominant bird had pinned down the weaker bird and was pecking at its neck and chest. After capturing a few frames, I fully expected the birds to disperse, but the altercation continued. Finally, contrary to my training as a biologist, I decided to intervene.

As I started toward the birds I expected them to take flight, but the pecking persisted, and I feared the lesser bird a goner. When I actually reached the battleground, my shadow hanging over both birds, I looked down and shouted, “Hey — that’s enough!” and received no response. I finally put my foot down, literally, and gently nudged the attacker off of the defeated bluebird. I stepped back and watched in awe as the bottom bird regained its senses and took flight, apparently none the worse for wear, the victor close on its tail.

As each bird lighted in a different tree, I was happy to see that the fight was over, for a while at least. I headed off to work, eager to describe my observations to my colleagues. Along the way, I was reminded of how important it is to space your bluebird houses a generous distance away from each other. I’d learned firsthand just how ornery Missouri’s state bird could be.

—Story and photograph by Danny Brown

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