TERN as were our Pilgrim Fathers, they could not fail to welcome certain birds with plumage the color of June skies, whose sweet voices brought hope and cheer to their homesick hearts at the close of that first, long, hard winter of 1621. The red breasts of these birds brought to memory the robins of old England and so they were called "Blue robins"; and this name expresses well the relationship implied, because the bluebirds and robins of America are both members of the thrush family, a family noted for exquisite song.
The bluebirds are usually ahead of the robins in the northward journey and arrive in New York often amid the blizzards of early March, their soft, rich "curly" notes bringing, even to the doubting mind, glad convictions of coming spring. There is a family resemblance between voices of bluebird and robin, a certain rich quality of tone, but the robin's song is far more assertive and complex than is the soft, "purling" song of the bluebird, which has been vocalized as "tru-al-ly, tru-al-ly." These love songs cease with the hard work of feeding the nestlings in April, but may be heard again as a prelude to the second brood in June. The red breast of the bluebird is its only color resemblance to the robin, although the young bluebirds and robins are both spotted, showing the thrush colors. The robin is so much larger than the bluebird that commonly the relationship is not noticed. This is easily explained because there is nothing to suggest a robin in the exquisite cerulean blue of the bluebird's head, back, tail and wings. This color is most brilliant when the bird is on the wing, in the sunshine. However, there is a certain mirror-like quality in these blue feathers; and among leaf shadows or even among bare branches they in a measure, reflect the surroundings and render the bird less noticeable. The female is paler, being grayish blue above and with only a tinge of red-brown on the breast; both birds are white beneath.
The bluebirds haunt open woods, fields of second growth and especially old orchards. They flit about in companies of three or four until they mate for nesting. While feeding, the bluebird usually sits on a low branch keeping a keen eye on the ground below, now and then dropping suddenly on an unsuspecting insect and then returning to its perch; it does not remain on the ground hunting food as does the robin. The nest is usually built in a hole in a tree or post and is made of soft grass. A hollow apple tree is a favorite nesting site.
In building birdhouses we should bear in mind that a cavity about ten inches deep and six inches in height and width will give a pair of bluebirds room for building a nest. The opening should not be more than two or two and one-half inches in diameter and there should be no threshold; this latter is a very particular point. If there is a threshold or place to alight upon, the sparrows are likely to dispute with the bluebirds and drive them away, but the sparrow does not care for a place which has no threshold. The box for the bluebird may be made out of old boards or may be a section of an old tree trunk; it should be fastened from six to fifteen feet above the ground, and should be in nowise noticeable in color from its surroundings. To protect the nest from cats, barbed wire should be wound around the tree or post below the box. If the box for the nest is placed upon a post the barbed wire will also protect it from the squirrels. The eggs are bluish white; the young birds, in their first feathers, are spotted on the back and have whitish breasts mottled with brown. The food of the nestlings is almost entirely insects. In fact, this bird during its entire life is a great friend to man. The food of the adult is more than three-fourths insects and the remainder is wild berries and fruits, the winter food being largely mistletoe berries. It makes a specialty of injurious beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers, and never touches any of our cultivated fruits. We should do everything in our power to encourage and protect these birds from their enemies, which are chiefly cats, squirrels and English sparrows.
Bluebird at the entrance of its nest.
From Country Life in America.
The migration takes place in flocks during autumn, but it is done in a most leisurely manner with frequent stops where food is plenty. The bluebirds we see in September are probably not the ones we have had with us during the summer, but are those which have come from farther north.
They winter largely in the Gulf States; the writer has often heard them singing in midwinter in Southern Mississippi. The bluebirds seem to be the only ones that sing while at their winter resorts. They live the year round in the Bermudas, contrasting their heavenly blue plumage with the vivid red of the cardinals. The bluebird should not be confused with the indigo bunting; the latter is darker blue and has a blue breast.
References— Bulletin, Some Common Birds in Their Relation to Man, U. S. Dept. of Agr.; Bulletin, The Food of Nestling Birds, U. S. Dept. of Agr.; Birds in Their Relation to Man, Weed & Dearborn, pp. 86-88; Nature-Study and Life, Hodge, chapters 18-21; Junior Audubon Leaflets; Birds of Eastern North America, Chapman, 9. 403; Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, Mathews, pp. 251-254; Nature-Study in Elementary Schools, Wilson, p. 188.
"Winged lute that we call a bluebird,
You blend in a silver strain
The sound of the laughing waters,
The patter of spring's sweet rain,
The voice of the winds, the sunshine,
And fragrance of blossoming things.
Ah! You are an April poem,
That God has dowered with wings."
—The Bluebird, Rexford.
Leading thought—The bluebird is related to the robins and thrushes and is as beneficial as it is beautiful. We should study its habits and learn how to make nesting boxes for it, and protect it in all ways.
Methods—The observations of this lesson must be made in the field and by the pupils individually. Give to each an outline of questions to answer through seeing. There should follow reading lessons on the bluebird's value to us and its winter migrations, and the lesson should end in discussions of best way to build boxes for its use in nesting season, its protection from cats and other enemies.
1. Which comes North earlier in spring, the robin or the bluebird?
2. How do the two resemble each other and differ from each other?
3. Describe the bluebirds' song. Do they sing all summer?
4. Describe the colors of the bluebird as follows: The head, back, breast, under parts, wings, tail. How does the male bluebird differ from his mate in colors?
5. Where were the bluebirds you saw? What were they doing? If feeding, how did they act?
6. Can you see the color of the bluebird as plainly when it is in a tree as when it is flying? If not, why?
7. Where do the bluebirds build their nests? Of what material are the nests made? Do both parents work at the nest building?
8. What is the color of the eggs? How do the young birds look, when old enough to leave the nest, as compared with their parents?
9. What do the bluebirds eat? How do they benefit us? Do they do our fruit any injury?
10. What can we do to induce the bluebirds to live near our houses? How can we protect them?
11. Where do the bluebirds spend the winter?
12. Make a colored picture of a bluebird. How can we tell the bluebird from the indigo bunting?
13. What are the bluebirds' chief enemies?
Supplementary reading—Nestlings of Forest and Marsh, Wheelock, p. 62; True Bird Stories, Miller, p. 12; How to Attract the Birds, Blanchan; Bird Neighbors, Blanchan; Our Birds and their Nestlings, Walker, p. 17; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge; Audubon Leaflet, No. 24.
Hark! 'tis the bluebird's venturous strain
High on the old fringed elm at the gate—
Sweet-voiced, valiant on the swaying bough,
Dodging the fitful spits of snow,
New England's poet-laureate
Telling us Spring has come again!
—Thomas Bailey Aldrich.