Tag Archives: english sparrows

Bird Drama

A Bluebird Update

"Landscape," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache

A recent newspaper article told about the removal of a popular “bird-cam” from an osprey nest. Viewers were outraged when the mother bird didn’t seem to be doing proper mothering. They demanded that someone take those baby birds away from the unfit mother and “raise them right.”

Interfering with Mother Nature is a hard call. Here in Alaska we had a governor who said, “You can’t just let nature run wild.” (This was not the same governor who could see Russia from her house.)

Nature did run a bit wild on my recent visit to Whirlwind Hill. My brother had put up some new bluebird houses, cleaned up the old ones, and was excited to tell me that the bluebirds had arrived. But when I looked through my binoculars, I saw he was mistaken. The birds on the house were tree swallows. Tree swallows have shiny blue backs, but the color blue does not necessarily a bluebird make. The male bluebird has a reddish breast, where the swallow’s is white. A swallow’s flight pattern is swooping and diving, and the bluebird’s is fluttering and dipping.

For the next week of my visit, my brother and I enjoyed monitoring the birds (swallows, sparrows, starlings, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, finches, and one huge wild turkey) and their ongoing kerfuffles over feeder access and home ownership. We could see three equally occupation-ready birdhouses from the kitchen window, but all the birds wanted possession of the same one – the old house in the middle.

"Bluebird Houses," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2016

“Bluebird Houses,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2016

There was not a bluebird in sight. One morning, my mother’s sworn enemy, the English sparrow, ravaged the swallow’s nest in the popular house and then sat on top guarding his new property. A male sparrow will bond with a house before it bonds with a mate, and this particular sparrow had fallen in love with the swallow’s house and was not about to give it up. The next day some big starlings tried to drive away the little sparrow, only to be chased by red-winged blackbirds. A starling tried to squeeze into one of the new boxes, but after a while he lost interest. My brother chased away the sparrow. The swallows moved back in. Another sparrow showed up, but was routed by a larger group of swallows.

"Bird Drama," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2016

“Bird Drama,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2016

Then, one evening, I saw a bluebird. He sat on a limb of the dogwood tree in the puffy, peaceful way of a bluebird. And two days later we noticed that while our attention had been on the drama we could see from the window, the bluebird had quietly built a nest and installed his wife in a house far removed from the action. My brother confirmed that there were indeed eggs in the nest, and just yesterday told me that all was still going well for the bluebirds. We’re hopeful that the turf wars settle down, and that the bluebird and swallow babies will hatch and come back next spring to raise their own families.

"Bluebird on a Fence," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2015

“Bluebird on a Fence,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2015



The colorful and cheerful bluebird is often called the “Bluebird of Happiness.” Hearing their first spring song or seeing their bright blue bodies coming to land on a fence post is as joyful to me as having one land on my shoulder. They bring life to a landscape, and that’s the truth.

My mother's "Bluebird of Happiness," made by Ron Ray, 1994

My mother’s “Bluebird of Happiness,” made by Ron Ray, 1994

When I talked to my brother recently, he was sitting on the front steps of our house on Whirlwind Hill drinking a glass of wine and looking over the front yard to the reservoir. I asked why he wasn’t sitting out back on the deck, which is the usual place to relax on a late spring evening. He told me it was because of the bluebirds. They had returned, and he didn’t want to disturb them.

"View of the Reservoir," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 1992

“View of the Reservoir,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 1992

My mother, Janet Hall Crump, kept a pair of binoculars close by in winter when she sat at the kitchen table looking at the bird feeder and in summer as she enjoyed the peaceful view over the fields toward the ponds. She grew up watching birds and learning their habits, songs, and nesting patterns. In her later years she got more and more involved in the fluttering and tweeting world of her back yard. I know she was lonely much of the time, and for her the birds were cheerful, entertaining, and often dramatic neighbors.

Cousin Sue and Janet Crump sitting on the deck, spring, 2006

Cousin Sue and Janet Crump sitting on the deck, spring, 2006

In the 1980’s, when an effort to bring bluebirds back to the New England countryside caught her fancy, she joined the crusade. Because these birds like to nest near open fields, experts advised building nesting boxes to certain specifications in order to encourage the “good” bluebirds and discourage the “bad” imports – European starlings and English sparrows.

"Bluebird House without Bluebirds - Whirlwind Hill," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1991

“Bluebird House without Bluebirds – Whirlwind Hill,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1991

My mother had birdhouses built out in the fields along the fence line and around the horse ring. She read books, followed the directions for maintaining the nesting sites, and spent hours behind her binoculars watching and waiting. Her obsession led to many years of her giving and receiving bluebird-related greeting cards, gifts, and trinkets.

Bluebird book - gift from Janet Crump to Carol and Mara Bryner - paper cover made by Carol and Mara

Bluebird book – gift from Janet Crump to Carol and Mara Bryner – paper cover made by Carol and Mara

On a June day in 1992, my mom, my daughter Mara, and I drove to Cheshire, Connecticut to watch a “bluebird banding.” In a letter to a friend I wrote about that event:

June 23, 1992 – “I had wanted to draw a bluebird house. But the day got away from me. We were busy all day. Went at 12:30 to see a man band baby bluebirds – they are trying to bring bluebirds back to this area. We each held one (5 altogether) until he put them back into the nest. What a beautiful spot it was.” – Carol Crump Bryner

Bluebird banding, summer 1992

Bluebird banding, summer 1992

Determined to raise as many bluebird families as possible, my mother waged a one-woman war against the English sparrows. She was unabashedly anti-immigration as far as this bird species was concerned. Through her we got excited about the nest building, suffered through the waiting and hoping and watching, and then all too often received sad news about the dramatic destruction of the bluebirds’ nest, eggs, and babies.

When I was on Whirlwind Hill this spring I didn’t see a single bluebird. But after I left, my brother cleaned out one of the old nesting boxes, and shortly after that a bluebird family moved in. They built their nest, laid their eggs, and now it’s my brother’s turn to be the watcher. He tells me that Mr. Bluebird sits on top of the house all day long, guarding his potential offspring. We wish him well and hope that the children will come back year after year with their songs of happiness.

"View from the back yard - Whirlwind Hill," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and pencil, 1992

“View from the back yard – Whirlwind Hill,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and pencil, 1992