Mountain Bluebird, wings beating time, follows the wire down the line. Her flight, a path that plies just above the barbs with which (in our pedestrian desire) we strive to set apart. Cedar from silage. Sweet corn from forest mosses. Nature from what we nurture. Untamed darkling woods, ungovernable rocks and rills – fenced off – from cows and fields in crop or fallow.
But when it comes to Mountain Bluebird we are temperance on the vine. We consign, what Bluebird seeks to find:
Nest boxes, arranged every twenty fenceposts like pulses, like Hollows of the Human Heart.
Bluebird has come to depend upon us this built wooden refuge to provide, roof over head. Vindictive as we are against what is unkempt, our dread, of wild things, of wilderness, our fell hand bringing forest to its knees with two-man saw and chain saw. Yet Bluebird earns Reprieve. In a field returned to Nature insects abound, the greening hills alive. There Bluebirds, thrive.
Bluebird lands at the cross-corner of the section divide –
To the gate post –
To the bleached twig with its single empty pinecone –
Then to the twisted pair of tines, shining, sharp against weather that is sure to arrive. There, though pressed, by shortness of season Bluebird hesitates. She holds, in her beak, beetles with mirrored wings, their backs in crackled hues of fluorescein, of crushed-violet blue –
She waits. Then leaps!
Then comes to rest on a lichen-crusted tree all gray and yellow-green, unintended compliment to her pale cyan and cerulean.
Significant Other stands nearby, her guard and her decoy (her muted watercolors a non-compete against his feathered lightning). Like a bolt from the blue he tackles a sprig of mullein just off to the side, it sways as he lands, his tail spread wide. Balancing, he stretches out his wings. And, while the world eyes the bright star of him –
Quick to the nest she tips in.
Only two babies inside but they make quick work of the parcel that she brings. No murmurings of motherhood (work is her every reason and her rhyme), she launches into thin blue air, to answer, that collect call of the wild, in mime, quick-time:
Bluebird toes the line!
Mountain bluebirds are cavity nesters and there are no longer enough natural cavities. Nest boxes are readily accepted in substitution. Though hesitant when they see a human being nearby, those boxes are too useful to ignore. This in turn means proximity and eventual habituation, to us. The problem is our lack of dependability. Case in point, west of the Mississippi purple martin colonies are almost totally reliant on the special purple martin houses that we build. But we have by and large lost interest in it and fewer and fewer purple martin houses is a significant cause of the purple martin’s decline. Once responsibility is taken it cannot be casually discarded.
I have two favorite encounters with mountain bluebirds. One, in the middle of a country road, occurred at the end of the day in early spring in Catron County, New Mexico. A mixed flock, mountain bluebirds and barn swallows (all those varied shades and hues!), was soaking up the last warmth from the asphalt, yet another use of and accommodation to the human alteration of their landscape. The other memorable sighting was much closer to home, in Madison, Connecticut. I was on the edge of the great saltmarsh that surrounds the East River. The color, bright electric blue, was startling. I thought someone’s caged exotic had escaped. I saw the bird twice more, I can no longer remember the time of year, and still had no idea what I was looking at. It was not until years late and the full-blown encounter in British Columbia (where the photographs for this story come from) that I knew with certainty what I’d seen.
Though not often, mountain bluebirds do come our way. Perhaps what we deem rare is merely a comment on what we are missing, or a paean to that which, before a sudden revelation, we did not remark or adequately understand.
Mark Seth Lender is the Explorer in Residence at Public Radio’s Living on Earth and the author of the children’s picture book, Smeagull the Seagull (Seahouse Press), available for purchase at http://Smeagull.com
Images and text © 2022 Mark Seth Lender All Rights Reserved