Once April arrives, it is amazing how quickly nature glides into "Spring." The recent rain showers, warm temperatures, and sunny days have joined to reveal totally new green surroundings. And every evening, our neighborhood is resplendent with the sounds of amphibian mating calls as their breeding activity rules the night outdoors. There is no doubt now that animals of all kinds are awakening, and it won't be long before their young venture out into the open to explore a fresh new world.
On a recent walk in our neighborhood, I eagerly took in the sights, sounds, and smells of a beautiful spring day. I noticed how green the grass was now in the horse pasture down the hill, and how beautiful were the daffodils and wild violets blooming in clumps along the way. As a child, I remember how in spring large patches of violets would magically appear next to the fence of a horse pasture near where we lived. I would spend all morning carefully picking them one by one until my hands were filled with rounded mounds of tiny flowers. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old, and sometimes I would bring my little sister along to help me pick them. We would take home fistfuls of as many as we could carry and eagerly present them to our mother. She would always make a fuss over them and gently place the crumpled bouquets of white and purple blooms in small glasses of water, and we would beam at each other with pride that we had pleased her with such small tokens from nature. Sweet memories of a life that seemed so simple then.
On my way home the day of my recent walk, my steps retraced the path I'd taken earlier along the roadway near the pasture. I braced myself for the hike up the hill that always takes my breath away (it's a steep climb). But just before I got there, my eyes caught a glimpse of blue darting away from a fencepost and quickly alighting on the one just ahead. As I approached ever closer, the same blue flash appeared and was joined by another, so that now there were two on consecutive posts ahead of me. Each time I drew near, the closest one would rise up and fly over the other one, landing on the post just ahead, and then the other would do the same, leapfrogging over the first as we proceeded to advance along the fence row. If I slowed down and stopped to observe them, they would remain perched on whichever post they had landed, but if I resumed walking and got too close (within about ten feet or so), then the leapfrogging behavior began anew. It was as though we were playing a game of tag, and as soon as the imaginary ten foot span was breached, it was, "Tag, you're it!" and then off we'd go again. This leapfrogging as I walked continued back and forth all along the fence until the line of posts ended, the driveway intervened, and the birds finally rose up and away. I had never been that close to bluebirds before, and certainly not for such an extended length of time before they flew away for good. It really was quite extraordinary!
Sialia sialis -- Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are among the most beautiful of Illinois birds and are found in areas throughout the United States. There are three species of bluebirds and their names imply the regions where they are found: Eastern, Western, and Mountain. While they vary somewhat in appearance and song, they occupy very similar habitats and are all breathtaking to behold. When European starlings and House sparrows were introduced to North America, bluebirds faced stiff competition for valuable cavity-nesting habitat, and their numbers seriously declined. But thanks to conservationists and bluebird organizations dedicated to preserving habitat and perfecting the design and placement of nesting boxes that help deter predators and competitive species, the bluebird can be found throughout Illinois and is no longer on the endangered list. They are most prevalent in the southern third of the state, especially in winter, but do commonly breed in Central Illinois as well. They migrate south when temperatures plunge, and sometimes return to our area as early as February, when late winter storms become a danger to them. Their early return is often disastrous because many cannot withstand the freezing conditions and heavy, wet snow, and so will sometimes perish during the early breeding and nesting periods.
A member of the Thrush family, the Eastern Bluebird has beautifully distinctive markings and is a beloved harbinger of springtime in East Central Illinois. As its name implies, it is predominantly azure blue on the wings, back, and tail, with throat and upper chest a robin like reddish brown. The belly is white, and bill and legs are dark in color. The female is similarly marked, but her color pattern is somewhat paler by comparison. Juvenile birds may begin to show shades of blue on the wings and tail, but they have distinctive spotted breasts, similar to those of young robin fledglings that are commonly seen in the spring.
Slightly smaller than its robin cousins, the bluebird is about seven inches long with a wingspan of 11 to 13 inches. Because they are cavity nesters, they are very affected by loss of habitat and suitable nesting sites due to human development and the competition from other more aggressive cavity nesters such as Tree swallows, and the nonnative European starlings and House sparrows. Although the pairs are mostly monogamous, males and females sometimes have more than one mate. Generally the male stays near the nest site, singing his heart out in beautiful song, while the female arranges nesting materials to her liking of grass and weeds before laying 4 to 6 pale blue eggs. The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks, after which they hatch to reveal altricial young (born naked, eyes closed, and helpless). The baby birds are fed a diet of insects, snails, worms, berries, and fruits by both parents before fledging the nest in about 20 days. Sometimes, the female may fly away a bit early to start building another nest, and this is when she may pair up with a new mate to start a new brood. It is not uncommon in this area for a female to produce two broods per season.
Among the most beautiful of Illinois birds, it's no wonder that so many of us feel uplifted when we catch a glimpse of a bluebird perched on a fencepost or overhead telephone wire, or see a dazzling flash of blue as they dart along a roadway or across a grassy meadow in the country. But how do we attract these creatures to our own homes and gardens? Next month, we will explore a few points to consider if we are planning to put up bluebird boxes in our own backyards and neighborhoods so that we may enjoy up close these elusive spring and summer beauties.