Bluebirds and blue sky

EASTERN BLUEBIRDS have arrived. That is a sure sign of spring, along with longer days, warmer air, rain, wind, and the emergence of insects. It is nice to see bluebirds going about their business of living as a whole new year awaits them and us. Enjoying wildlife of all kinds, observing their behavior, and learning how they go about surviving is just one way people interested in conservation can add knowledge to our store of gray matter.

Watching nature on her terms beats watching any television show hands down, at least in this scribe’s opinion. Yes I do watch a select few television shows if the mood strikes me. But for the most part I do not wish to participate in dumb-me-down episodes of another murder mystery. I’d rather read a book. And to do so requires the television to be in the OFF position.

Now back to nature on her terms. I’m glad the outdoors and what it offers me is free for the taking. Of course nothing is really “free.” One must expend effort to go places, hike further afield into the far reaches of forests, prairies or wetlands to see, hear and absorb what is going on in these wild and free parcels of lands dedicated to long term conservation of its botanical and biotic communities. The effort expended is refreshing, good exercise, and time well spent.

Avid outdoors people can identify readily with what I just described. For some the hunt for morel mushrooms will bring them into the woodlands looking for the fungi that is good to eat. Spring time is also the time for hunters to wait patiently for wild turkeys to strut their stuff, hopefully to get in close range to a few strategically set decoys. Fishermen and women are chomping at the bit to get onto the water in the pursuit of pan fish, bass or other lurking finned critter of the deep lagoons of area lakes, rivers and ponds. Woodland wildflowers are decorating the forest floor again, in spite of what appeared this winter as barren landscape. Owls, eagles and wood ducks are all sitting on nests. Trees will soon sprout new leaves to begin the chemical process of photosynthesis. Mother Nature is waking up all manner of her amazing life forms. Good for her.

Bluebirds are a perfect example of new life’s unrelenting demand to live. Their job is to follow the script Mother Nature has written. And here are a few of the lines of that script. Male bluebirds are a bit smaller than a robin. They have an orange-brown throat and white belly. Its back is blue which is more obvious when it is observed during flight. Females have a grayish-blue back, an orange-red chest and a white eye ring. Bluebird calls include mellow whistles that are softly made. They will chatter and bill snap if scolding at a predator.

Foods include insects to the tune of about 68 percent insect life. Perched on its tree branch observation point overlooking short grasslands, they can spot insects on the ground. Crickets beetles, spiders and caterpillars are fair game. They will also eat the fruits of flowering dogwood, holly, mulberry, wild grape, Virginia creeper and others. Bluebirds love mealworms if they have an opportunity to find them. On occasion bluebirds eat shrews, small snakes, salamanders, tree frogs and lizards.

Once a nest has been made and 5 -7 eggs have been laid in a soft grass lined cup, the female will begin incubation. This takes 12-14 days on average. Only the female incubates as she has brood patches on her skin that allow good egg contact and warmth to permeate the eggs. Hatching of the young bluebirds takes about 24-48 hours and usually within the first two hours of dawn. Parents will remove the egg shells or even eat them. The young are kept warm continually for the first 5-7 days of life until their bodies are able to regulate their body temperature.

Young bluebirds on day one of hatching have a huge head in comparison to the rest of its body. It has dingy gray down and its eyes are closed. Day two contour feathers begin to develop and on day three, femoral tract feathers begin to emerge. Day four sees the wing nubs extended a lot in a few short days and the color of the wings is dark. Day five the eyes open. On day 7 or 8 its body temperature can be self regulated and wing coverts break out of their sheaths. Day nine has continued feather development and the young bird begins to work those feathers with their bill. On day 10 and 11, most feathers are fully emerged if not yet fully grown to length. The young birds can stand on day 12 and even flap their wings, preen and pull at feather sheaths. Each stretch and wing beat is exercise for new muscles. On day 13 the feather color is sufficient to be able to tell males from females. Day 14 has no area of the body without feathers. Its wings are longer and capable of short flights if it had to. Day 15 might be called launch day minus one as they stand at the edge of the nest cavity hole and observe the world outside. On day 16, 17 or 18 at the latest, they are out of the nest. Once gone from the nest, they do not return. Young bluebirds have not dispersed too far as the parents will readily feed the begging youngsters for the next 28 days. Once 3-4 weeks old, they can find and feed themselves.

The entire eastern portion of North America including Central America is the home range of this species. Overall, the population of bluebirds is estimated at over 10 million! People who have made nest boxes can say they helped insure that this vivid little bird remains a charming and interesting part of the wildlife scene for all of us to enjoy. I hope you get the chance this season to observe and take the time to watch these little jewels of blue.

q q q

Last week I told the story of grassland fires as a management tool. Well, this week you may get the chance to watch a controlled burn yourself. Sometime during the week of April 11, exact day unknown, and when wind and humidity levels allow, the public is invited to the Grimes Farm (2359 233rd St, Marshalltown) to see a burning of the prairie. Time to start will be about 7:30 p.m. Listen daily to local radio stations to see if the prairie burn is a go or no-go that day. The first opportunity for a safe burn will be the decision time by Marshall County Conservation Board staff. One can also call the MCCB at 752-5490 during regular office hours to inquire about the night fire. Bring a camera to watch as slow backfires eat away at the grasses. When sufficient fire breaks have widened, a new fire line may be set for the wind to take it faster. The experienced crew of staffers know what they are doing when it comes to prairie grassland fire management. Come watch for yourself. I’ll see you there.

q q q

In Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, in the chapter title Round River, he reflects on this river supposedly discovered by Paul Bunyan. It is a parable of life flow. He uses the flow energy, a stream of energy, that flows out of the soil into plants, thence into animals, then back into the soil in a never ending cycle of life. In his description of conservation, Leopold stated “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve waters and waste ranges; you cannot build a forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and cooperate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them – cautiously – but not abolish them.”

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution in intelligent tinkering.”

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.