The bluebird comes bouncing back

The bluebird comes bouncing back

As kind and gentle a soul as the Lord has ever created, my mother bore animosity toward no one. Creatures of all shapes and sizes made their way home with me at one time or another, and Mom tolerated most of them too — some for only a very short time, of course. For Mom, all people and all creatures had a place in this world with just a pair exceptions: the English sparrow and the European starling.

And while my dear, sweet mother never took up arms against the birds, I do recall her having not one single good thing to say about them. Should one of these “exotics,” as they were once called, be spotted on the feeder outside the kitchen window, Mom would smack a spatula against the window frame and spook them off into the scrub.

“They chased away all my little bluebirds,” she would say. “And they make a mess every time they come around.”

I didn’t fully understand the “bluebird” comment until many years later when I learned about the plight of the eastern bluebird.

Mom was correct to a certain degree. The English sparrow, a non-native species brought to the North American continent with the best of intentions, turned out to be an astoundingly invasive species and direct competitor of the eastern bluebird — same for the European starling that arrived on the scene a few decades later.

Not only did the scrappy, sloppy intruders compete for the same food sources, worse still they competed for nesting sites and had no qualms about killing the competition in its own home. English sparrows and starlings have been found nesting directly on top of the slain corpses of bluebirds in raided nesting boxes.

While these invasive competitors exacted a heavy toll on the bluebird, they were only a part of the perfect storm that undid the abundant native bluebird populations of my mother’s childhood days on the farm back in the 1920s and 1930s.

A heavy preference for insects in their diet — a habit that had especially endeared them to early settlers — actually led to heavy losses as pesticide use became common in the mid-20th century. This was at nearly the same time fence rows and standing snags that contained the bird’s preferred cavity nesting sites were being systematically displaced by changing farming methods.

In short, the eastern bluebird had a whole lot working against it until a group of conservation activists — birders, biologists and citizens turned scientists — stepped into the ring in the late 1970s to form the North American Bluebird Society. The organization has served as a model for conservation groups working to right the wrongs of man’s folly.

And while their efforts at dialing in nest box specifications, habitat creation, and restoration and eradication of non-native species has been huge in the rebound of the eastern bluebird, perhaps their most effective contribution to the effort has been education.

Catch up to a member of the Bluebird Society sometime and ask about their mission. Chances are good you’ll hang a bluebird box on your fence post by the time the conversation ends.

Despite the fact that by Ohio law (ORC Section 133.07) European starlings and English sparrows may be killed and their nests or eggs may be destroyed at any time, there is little hope any significant reduction in their overall numbers will result. The best hope for species like the eastern bluebird, northern cardinal and other such natives is good science, strong advocacy and impassioned education.

Consider joining or contributing to a conservation organization today. The world will thank you for it long into the future.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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