April 22nd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 16
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Bluer Than the Sky
Looking Back
Ron Asp Photography
The males are small flying wonders, pieces cut from the bluest sky. They take wing each spring here in the foothills and most times give you but a brief, fleeting glimpse of their spectacularly cerulean blue foliage. Sialia Currucoides is the Latin name for that beautiful harbinger of spring, the Mountain Bluebird, and they have come back to our mountains and foothills once again this year, as they always have.

Last year, on April 12th, my daughter Kelly and I went out to North Burmis Road to help out our dear friends and long-time blue birders, Gordie and Mary Bayes. The Bayes have been cleaning, maintaining and installing bluebird boxes out their way for 17 years now on what they call the old North Burmis Road. It is a disused trail east of the existing access road that wends its way south and east along the bottom of a low ridge dotted with limber pine. There is barbwire fencing along the road and it seems like it is perfect bluebird country. Fence posts, wires for perching, a smattering of trees and serenity.

You’ve probably noticed bluebird boxes in your travels along rural roads, attached to fence posts or mounted to trees just off a road. Bluebird nesting boxes are designed to be attractive to bluebirds, simple in design and construction, easy to monitor, and resistant to inclement weather and predators. There are some very specific design criteria for them, including the entrance hole diameter, the sloping roof pitch with an overhang and the all- important hinged front panel for cleaning them out. Bluebird boxes also need ventilation holes in the roof and in the floor and should be installed facing east, away from the prevailing winds and the strong afternoon heat.
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There is some discussion about spacing of the nest boxes and local blue birder Denise Coccioloni-Amatto suggested to me that most are spaced entirely too close together. According to Denise they should be at least 0.8 of a kilometer apart (½ mile) apart. Most bluebird trails I have seen around the Pass are substantially less than that and some Internet sites suggest more like 300 yards apart. The issue here is allowing the territorial bluebird male enough area to defend his nest site from competitors and predators, which he does while the female sits on the nest.

On that fine April morning on the eastern flank of the Livingstone Range, the Bayes and my daughter and I worked our way south along that old trail, checking boxes, replacing some weathered and worn-out ones and fixing up the ones that were still habitable. The crocuses and rooster heads were out and the clear mountain air carried the invigorating smell of spring and regrowth.

A couple of boxes already had eggs in them, which we deduced were not bluebird eggs, as they were white not light blue. Another clue that they were more likely tree swallows, was the fact that the nest was lined with feathers, something bluebirds typically do not do.
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Tree swallows, unlike starlings, can fit through the 1 ½ inch diameter hole, the size that is specified for bluebird boxes. Swallows have been systematically displacing bluebirds on these trails and are having an impact on their overall numbers. According to Denise, “At one time swallows’ eggs were deliberately destroyed when found in the boxes but that, thankfully, is no longer the case. Swallows will happily nest close together so when boxes are placed too close it encourages swallows rather than bluebirds.”

I was surprised to learn that Denise, along with fellow bluebird enthusiast Cindy Wilson, have been managing over 100 bluebird boxes themselves. Their routes are mostly west of Coleman on roadways like the Chinook Lake (Alison Road) access, where there are 28 boxes to tend. Denise prefers to clean them out in the fall and then do a double check on them in the early spring. You will find bluebird boxes along Tecumseh Road, the Drain Property area, and north of Bohomolec’s Ranch. It is always a delight in early spring to drive into these areas and watch for that elusive flick of blue or spot a male seated on the barbed wire next to a box.

That April day we found no evidence of bluebird eggs but the season was still early and many boxes showed no sign of occupation yet. We systematically stopped at each box, stripped it out if unoccupied, checked its stability and moved on to the next. By the end of the day it was nice to glance back down that old trail and know that the 20 or so nest boxes were ready for another year.
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I called Roxanne McKenzie, who also lives on North Burmis Road, to chat about bluebirds and the banding process. Roxanne was trained by the much- respected blue birder Gwen Tietz, whom we lost in 2015 at the age of 54. Roxanne was drawn in by Gwen to help with the always tricky process of banding and took over for Gwen. As you can imagine, this is much more intensive than the cleanup and maintenance process and involves weekly checks of boxes, packing a lunch and being out there for days with over a 100 or more boxes to monitor. Young swallow chicks can look very similar to bluebird chicks so one really has to be careful.

Roxanne spent 10 years in the program before retiring from it but shared some insights into technique and behavior that I found interesting. The males she said, arrive 3 weeks earlier than the females and work hard at finding an attractive nest box or cavity. Competition is fierce over cavity sites and they try to arrive before the tree swallows. According to Roxanne they put on quite a show, flying in and out of the house and then waiting for her to inspect their choice. Most females are more preoccupied with the site location and its potential to raise a clutch safely with a good food supply than they are with the male’s finery.
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A good site location for nest box maintenance and bluebird success would be to place them near native grass or pasture with a few trees nearby. Bluebird males are busy foragers, and being insectivores, they haul back all manner of bugs like grasshoppers, grubs, beetle, spiders and moths to the female and her brood in the nest. According to Roxanne, swallows, on the other hand, will eat their own weight in mosquitoes a day. She also said a bluebird nest is discernable from a swallow’s nest by the fact that swallows build large, shallow, sloppy nests while the bluebird’s is a perfectly shaped cup that fills the box.

There is so much to learn about these remarkable birds and the continuing man-made planned restoration of this iconic ambassador of spring. What really shocked me was to learn was that the dazzling blue colour of the male bluebird is not exactly what meets the eye. I recall being surprised to learn that polar bears are in fact not white and that each individual hair on the bear is a clear hollow tube (guard hair) which looks white because of reflected light. Then I learned that bluebird feathers are not blue. What? No, it seems that azure sparkle is a visual trick of sorts. The bluebird colour is structural as opposed to pigmental.
No bird can make blue pigment. What we see is light waves interacting with tiny air pockets and melanin pigment crystals in each feather. Colours like red and yellow come from carotenoids (the food birds eat) but the blue is strictly optical. When I learned this I thought about my spectacular blue and gold macaw parrot Jonah or the blue jay that went screaming through my yard last week. You’re telling me that two foot long blue tail feather from my macaw is in fact not really blue?

It matters not how the bluebird gets his sky-blue appearance but that he comes back each year to bring joy to the eye of the beholder. Judy Garland got it right when she sang,”
And when you see clouds up on a hill
You know they'll bring crowds of daffodils
So just keep looking for a bluebird
And listening for his song
Whenever April showers come along
Sung by Judy Garland
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April 22nd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 16
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