Who Killed the Bluebird?
This is a murder mystery. I wrote it for Sykesville Online back around 2009, when I spent a lot of time watching out for Bluebirds. This past year, in 2020, we had our first successful pair in many years. It was nice.
A Murder Mystery
The scene is my backyard in Sykesville, Maryland. The characters are the local House Sparrows and the local Eastern Bluebirds. The war’s been going on ten years without end, and at the moment, things are looking bleak. Summer’s winding down. The bluebirds have suffered a defeat.
Meet the Bad Guys
You know the House Sparrows, right? Small and brown and black, hopping and chirping around the rafters at Home Depot, or building nests in the ducts that take the hot air from your dryer outside the house. You stick your arm in there and pull out sparrow stuff for ten minutes. They’ll build a nest anywhere, but if there’s a nesting box nearby, the kind the bluebirds need to survive, they’ve got to have it.
The males have dark spots on their chests and necks, black or dark brown, and the females are just bland, brown, boring birds.
The Good Guys
Of course, you know the bluebirds, especially the males. Small and blue with breasts of red and white, okay maybe more orange and white, not quite the colors of the American flag, but they’re pretty and they stand up straight. They’re seven inches long from bill tip to tail tip and they weigh one ounce, about the same as the teaspoon of sugar you drop in your coffee. They nearly went extinct not that long ago. A lot of people blame the House Sparrow.
The First Skirmish of Spring
This year got off to a good start for the bluebirds. A male showed up on the nesting box near our deck in late May. He checked it out and came back later with a pretty female. They took turns going into the box. They chirped at each other about the suitability of the box. Next day, they moved in.
Then came the sparrow. Sparrows are usually first to the box each year. I let them build awhile and then I throw the stuff away. I do this a few times. If that doesn’t discourage them, I open the box from the side and leave it open. They won’t build a nest if the box is open, and eventually they give up. I’d already evicted this guy a couple times and didn’t close the box till I saw the bluebird. Now that the box was closed again, the sparrow wanted it again.
They seemed like experienced bluebirds. The male was vigilant and fearless. He watched the box constantly from our roof or a tree or a nearby fence, and eventually drove the sparrow off — seemingly for good and with a minimum of struggle. I thought this was a particularly tough bluebird.
The nest was ready in a few days. My daughter Anna and I began speculating on how many eggs she would lay and how many batches they would have before summer ended. It was early and we were thinking 10 to 15 small birds would hatch in that box and fly away by September.
And then tragedy struck. I didn’t realize something had gone wrong, until I saw the sparrow standing on the box. I still don’t know exactly what happened. At first, I thought it was a mistake. Now, I’m thinking it was murder.
Bad Things Happen
I wasn’t that shocked. Bad things happen to bluebirds. Once, an entire set of eggs disappeared. There one day, gone the next. Sparrows can do that. Another time, two sad blue eggs just sat there forever. Long after I realized they would never hatch, the female still didn’t get it. She kept going into that box, sitting on those eggs, waiting. After the male left, she persisted. Eventually, I took the eggs out so she could get on with things.
On another occasion, I found the box on the ground, eggs mostly gone or shattered or scattered about in pieces. Wind maybe, squirrels, failed hardware? Beats me.
Rhythm and Blues
But sometimes, things go well. The first year was our best. The bluebirds came early. We named her Rhythm and him Blues. They had three sets of eggs. I think 14 birds grew up and flew out of our box that summer. But it wasn’t easy. There was a sparrow.
Male sparrows are cunning and the females are vicious. They’ll raid the nest. They’ll smash the eggs, steal the eggs, murder the young or just tear them up and leave them to die.
This particular sparrow, let’s call him Don, hated Blues and wanted his box. For days they battled. Usually these battles consist of the sparrow landing on the nesting box and the bluebird swooping in and chasing him off, or vice versa, until one of them finally gives up.
But these two would not give up. Once they actually met in mid air, fell to the ground, and began rolling on the grass.
But most amazing was the assassination attempt. There were eggs in the box. Rhythm was off somewhere. Blues went into the box through the hole in front. The second he went inside, something streaked across the sky.
Don had been watching from our roof. When Blues went in, Don struck. It was planned and well-timed. An ambush. They were both in the box.
The box was maybe 30 yards away, but around the other side of our pool, so I couldn't get there in a direct line. I was in socks and running. I could see the box moving as the birds flailed about inside. I could hear the scuffling and flapping.
This was our first box. It loaded from the front instead of the side like the box we have now. I flipped open the door and heard the frantic flap of wings, felt the pressure and the breeze, as Blues went by one ear and Don went by the other ear, both narrowly missing my head. I closed the box and sat in the grass.
A few seconds later, Blues landed on top of the box a few feet above me. He stood straight and tall, all one ounce of him. He looked fine. And it seems at that point, the sparrow finally conceded.
I learned that bluebirds like mealworms, ugly little things you buy by the batch and keep in the refrigerator so they’re docile and tasty. I’d put them on the deck in a shallow tin each evening. The sun would thaw them and they’d start sizzling and squirming. Bluebirds love sizzling squirming mealworms.
I’d sit a couple feet away and watch them scoop up worms. Sometimes Rhythm would stand a few feet from my chair with a bunch of mealworms flailing about in her bill till she gulped them down, or flew into to the box and fed them to her young.
Sometimes the pair stood side by side at the mealworm dish just looking around.
Eventually the birds would grow, the box would fill, and the parents would coax them into the air. And for several weeks thereafter, two or three, or all of them, would come to our deck for a reunion by our mealworm dish. And then the process would start all over. Some of the young ones would help with the next batch.
Years of Bluebird Drama
That’s the friendliest we ever got with a pair of bluebirds, but there’ve been many dramas and many interventions over the years. One year, bluebirds filled the box and laid eggs in early spring, and then it got real cold. I have a thick brown two-layer wool hat, sort of a ski mask, so I slipped that over the box.
The birds could come in and out through the opening where your nose and mouth show through. They didn’t seem to mind the pompom on top of their house. The weather warmed, the hat came off, the eggs hatched. The birds survived. Some years in spring, before we got the side-loading box that you can just leave open to discourage sparrows, there’d be times when no bluebirds had moved in yet, and I couldn’t drive the sparrows off. Finally, I’d stuff a sock in the entry hole. I once watched a crew of sparrows waste hours trying to pull an old sweat sock out of that hole.
My strategy’s always been to frustrate them, outlast them, and wait for the bluebirds to come, but some people have no time for that.
The Old Lady and the Gas Chamber
I’ve heard of people catching sparrows in traps, then drowning them or snapping their necks. At the bird store in Ellicott City, I heard a mild-mannered woman in her seventies explain her technique. She snared them with a trap, stuffed them in plastic bags, fixed the bags to her exhaust pipe with rubber bands, and turned on the car. The proprietor of the store, another older woman, nodded approvingly.
Among bluebird lovers, it’s a crime to catch House Sparrows and free them somewhere else. You have to kill them. It’s legal. They’re not native birds, and they’re considered pests. In the early 1800s, there were no House Sparrows in this country. I’ve read that they stowed away on ships bringing immigrants from Europe, but it’s more likely they were intentionally imported from England to kill insects, or in service of some other misguided bit of reasoning, and then let loose to thrive. Which they did.
A lot of people say House Sparrows were responsible for a dramatic decline in the Eastern Bluebird population in the United States in the early part of the last century. But it’s complicated and there are other factors. One thing’s for certain, people began building bluebird trails with nesting boxes. People started putting the boxes in their backyards. And the Eastern Bluebird made a comeback.
Unfortunately, when you put a box in your backyard there's a good chance you'll attract House Sparrows instead of Eastern Bluebirds. And what a difference. Bluebirds are a pair — a male who defends the box, a female who builds the nest and lays the eggs, and together they feed the young birds.
The male bluebird is attached to the female bluebird. He stays with her from the beginning of the season until the end. The male sparrow doesn’t care about the female, he cares about the box. Any female will do and sometimes several. When bluebirds are in the box, it’s a home. When sparrows are in the box, it’s a den of iniquity.
Bluebirds are a family taking care of their young. Sparrows are a horde perpetuating their species. Bluebirds defend. Sparrows attack.
So Who Done It?
Which brings us back to our yard, this year’s tragedy, and the mystery.
The female spent a lot of time in the box one Saturday. The next day with neither bird around, I opened the side of the box and looked in. I expected to see a blue egg, maybe two or three, lying safely in the middle of the nest. Instead, I found a single egg sticking to the wall of the box, cracked at the side, and glued to the wood by a bit of oozing orange yolk.
I figured it was a botched attempt to lay an egg. I picked the egg off and closed the box. I figured she would try again. I saw the male the next day in the early morning and figured his partner would be working on egg number two before the day was over.
Later, I got the news. Anna said, “The sparrows are moving in.”
I didn’t believe her, even when I saw him on top of the box with his black chest. I looked to the trees and the roof, where the male bluebird had watched the box for days. I expected him to swoop in any minute and take back his box. But I couldn’t find him. And haven’t seen him since.
Finally, I opened the box. Anna was right. A bluebird nest is a neatly crafted and amazing bed of carefully selected, arranged, and woven twigs. It’s a solid cradle. Pick it up. Toss it in the air. It won’t come apart.
A sparrow’s nest, on the other hand, is just a rotten mattress tossed on a floor. And that’s what I found, a pile of twigs, grass, feathers, and a bit of gum wrapper thrown on top of the bluebird’s masterpiece.
Her first egg had broken, sparrows had defiled her nest, and she was gone. I took it all out and tossed it on the grass. They’d seemed like such a promising pair. I couldn’t understand how they’d messed up like that.
But What If?
But maybe that’s not what happened. How could such a smart, confident bluebird build this perfect nest, go inside, spend a long time in there and somehow hatch her egg outside the nest, not only missing the nest, which filled the whole bottom of the box, but slamming the egg two inches above it against the wooden wall?
And if she had one egg to lay, she had to have more. So why did she suddenly leave this nice nest and head off never to be seen again, rather than trying to lay the rest of her eggs?
Could it be that this wasn’t the mislaying of an egg, but rather the failure to protect one? Could it be she didn’t leave because she was discouraged, but because she was scared? Or that she had lost faith in the male to protect her in my dangerous backyard?
Could it be that when the bluebirds were away the sparrow flew into their box, destroyed their egg, and maybe even attempted to carry it out, but got stuck halfway up the wall? Or maybe just left it behind as a warning?
I'm leaning that way, but I don’t know. For now the box is open. I’m scanning the trees, the fences, and the roofs for a flash of blue. But bluebirds are hard to come by, summer’s winding down, and I doubt we’ll be seeing any more bluebirds this year.
So I’m thinking next year I’ll buy a sparrow trap. I’ve already got some plastic bags, some rubber bands, and a car. Now all I need is an old lady to start the engine.