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 somehow; like Andy, he was intelligent, with a zest for life. He came to know our schedule and would appear like magic at breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime, peering into the appropriate windows with a gentle reminder that he'd like to eat, too. In the morning, when I was rising from bed and dressing, he'd perch on a cast-iron bell just outside the window and watch for me to raise the blind. When the two set to their mealworm feast, Mr. Troyer always let his mate eat her fill before feeding himself.
The pair seemed set on making bluebird history. While in 1994 and 1995, Mr. Troyer had managed to raise a total of only fourteen young with his first mate, in 1996, with the widow by his side, his production took off. That season alone, fourteen young in three broods fledged from the Troyers' box. (One of those was an orphan that I slipped into the box.) The 1997 season saw thirteen young in three broods, and 1998 resulted in seventeen fledged from four broods--a first for me in Ohio. There was a downturn in 1999, when all but one of the Troyers' second brood died of bacterial enteritis; still they managed to fledge nine that year in three broods. Carefully paging through my notes, I found that Mr. Troyer had fathered and fledged no fewer than sixty-seven young in his eight years of nesting in our yard, an awesome output for a droopy-winged bluebird.
I have to take some credit--or blame--for this production, for it was unique among the fifteen bluebird boxes on our farm. Thanks to the close relationship we enjoyed with the pair, the Troyers were heavily subsidized with mealworms that I doled out onto the deck railing. Feeding them was easy and fun, and I enjoyed having the Troyers heckle me for food as I went about my chores. Spurred by this abundance of food, Mrs. Troyer usually had her first clutch complete by April Fools' Day, even as snow flew around the little slot box. In 1998, the banner year of four broods, I fed the pair as many mealworms as they could eat. And I learned a lesson at their expense.
By the time their fourth and final brood of the year had fledged, at the astonishingly late date of September 14, 1998, the Troyers were clearly done in. Neither had followed a proper bluebird molting schedule, gradually replacing their feathers in late July through September. Instead, they looked like bad taxidermists' mounts. Mr. Troyer lost his tail all at once, and every feather on his head, and Mrs. Troyer didn't look much better. It was a wonder they were able to fly, much less feed their young. I realized that I had overtaxed their systems by offering too much food and encouraging them to raise one too many broods. I'd thrown their metabolisms off, and I clearly hadn't done them any favors. The fact was that they didn't need all those mealworms; the superabundance of food brought on overproduction and exhausted their energy reserves.
Not only that, but I would find out later that mealworms are quite high in phosphorus, which can upset a bird's calcium balance and lead to a deficiency of this all-important mineral--a clue to why their feathers looked so shabby. All that fall, I watched and worried as cool weather came on and the Troyers still wore their shabby summer feathers. To my great relief, their smooth autumnal plumage finally emerged, and the Troyers looked good by mid-October. I resolved never to do that to any bird again and quit offering mealworms in anything but cold, wet, or icy weather.
By the spring of 1999, I realized that Mr. Troyer was getting old. A house sparrow had cornered him in his box and pecked the back of his head bald: another identifying mark for the bird who'd become a beloved neighbor to me. We tackled the house sparrow problem, trapping the offending pair, and the Troyers carried on with their fourth season together. It wasn't to be their best; that was the year bacterial enteritis killed all but one of their young in the second brood. After the Troyers abandoned her, I took her in and fed her until she was strong enough to be fostered into another box. Wisely, they switched boxes for their third brood, nesting on the west side of the house. That's the best way to avoid an infectious disease, I thought. I rinsed the first box with bleach and settled back to watch. I hoped Mrs. Troyer was pleased to finally occupy the box she'd chosen and been dissuaded from using three years earlier.
Five healthy young fledged from their third brood of 1999, and then construction started on an addition to our house, which effectively eliminated the Troyers' territory. Great gaping pits and piles of earth replaced their lush lawn and flower garden habitat. The Troyers wisely quit the premises. They'd appear first thing in the morning, a few fledglings in tow, and sit atop the chimney, surveying what had once been their yard. Then they'd fly off down the orchard to parts unknown. I felt terrible about it and promised them that we'd rebuild their old home better than ever once the addition was completed in the winter. I hoped they wouldn't desert us altogether, though I couldn't have blamed them if they did.
On a fine September day in 1999, the Troyers returned and asked for a handout as if nothing had ever happened. Their box was back up in the front yard, and they inspected it. From then on they were regulars, navigating the construction moonscape with aplomb. All winter they stayed around, accepting mealworm snacks at sunup and sundown, and disappearing deep into the woods during
Spring crept on and buds started to swell, and the Troyers' thoughts turned to nesting once again. Mr. Troyer spent increasing periods sitting on and near the box, singing intermittently and waving his wings on fine mornings. What a trouper, what a life he'd had, I thought, and marveled that he was ready to start perhaps his ninth season of nesting, to feed and fledge yet more young. He was the first bluebird to nest on our farm, moving in the same spring that we did and nesting in the first box we ever put up. He'd weathered floods and drought and ice storms, construction and excavation, a sharpshin attack and a sparrow drubbing, and who knows what other vicissitudes that I hadn't had the privilege of witnessing. One summer he'd taken ill and developed a sneeze and cough, and he became sluggish and stopped feeding his young. I worried him through that, trying to figure out how to administer an antibiotic in his mealworms, but against the odds he recovered and carried on.
We'd intervened so often on his behalf that I suppose it was open to question whether Mr. Troyer was truly a wild bird. He should have been dead in 1993, and would have been, but for Bill. That was fifty-three young and seven years ago. Through it all, he taught me the ways of a bluebird, the thought processes of which he was capable, the dispassionate hedging of bets that led him to abandon a sickly brood and try again. I was desperately fond of him, his old droopy wing, and his bald spot.
The last time I saw him, he was perched on the front door awning, peering in the kitchen window at me as I played with our new baby, Liam, on the floor. "Mealworms? Aren't you forgetting my mealworms?" he seemed to say. Dutifully, I put them out, and he and Mrs. Troyer feasted. That afternoon, he was gone. The smooth, gunmetal blue male sharpshin who often strafed the yard might have borne him off without a trace, plucked him in the woods, littering the duff with bright azure feathers as he stoked his own frantic fire. I would never know what happened to Mr. Troyer.