My Sibley’s Field Guide to the Blue Bird says that there are three kinds of bluebirds in North America: Eastern, Western, and Mountain. The first bluebird that I remember seeing had to have been an eastern. It was standing on an Ohio fence post in the late 1950’s. Two posts down there was one of twenty-five bluebird house that I had helped build. It was a controversial grade-school project dreamed up by my biology teacher. Looking back over the last fifty-five years it is hard to imagine, but the idea of increasing the population of songbirds by supplying them with nesting boxes was a new concept.
Those were different times. Bird watching was not an industry when I was a boy. I had heard of only one person who had a bird feeder in his backyard. He was a kooky, bespectacled, old guy named Mr. Price who had a low-level job at a local newspaper. He was thin like Ichabod Crane and he had gained renown as a whacko for approaching a group of high school kids who were picnicking in their car and throwing all their trash out the windows. Another thing that is now difficult to believe – littering was perfectly accepted. There was no such thing as a trash bag in a car, no roadside waste receptacles, and no such thing as a ticket for littering. The road ditches of nineteen-fifties Ohio looked a lot like the highways in many third world countries – bottles, cigarette butts, hamburger wrappers, and steel beer cans strewn with abandon. Mr. Price was ahead of his time. He had a big, brown, paper bag and walked all the way around the teenager’s car, picking up the trash. When the bag was full he went to the driver’s window, leaned in, and dumped the whole mess in the kid’s lap. Our little community went ballistic. Who was this guy that thought he could infringe on other people’s rights? What gave him the right to impose his views on the youth of our community? Complaints were aired on the Ed-op page of the newspaper where Mr. Price worked. His job was on shaky grounds. The sheriff’s department interviewed him and he got off with just a warning. Besides the biology teacher, Mr. Price was the only adult who helped us build the bluebird houses. By the time I graduated from high school and was on my way to spend the rest of my life on the Great Plains, eastern blue birds lined the roadsides of most of Ohio’s neat and tidy roads.
From then on bluebirds were scares in my life. The distribution map in Sibley’s Field Guide indicates that there are eastern bluebirds in South Dakota, but the South Dakota Ornithologist Union says they are uncommon, especially in the western half of the state. I’ve never seen one out here. But on the grasslands, in mid-April we have an invasion the subtle, powder-blue cousin of the eastern bluebird, the mountain bluebird. They are common nesters in the high meadows of the Black Hills and farther west in the Rockies, but I have never seen one nest on our ranch. It is frustrating that every spring, for the past thirty-five years, a day comes in April when they are suddenly everywhere – ten or twelve to the mile, flitting iridescent blue along our fence lines. I want them to nest on our ranch but, when I look closely at Sibley’s distribution map I see a thin but ominous crescent of yellow arching from extreme southwestern South Dakota up and into central North Dakota. It is hard to tell from the map but it looks as if the yellow slash might include our ranch. That shade of yellow is so rare in the distribution maps that I had to look up what it means.
In the Key to the Range Maps I found that the yellow means – MIGRATION. To the east of the yellow, bluebirds RARE, to the west is their SUMMER range, i.e. their breeding range. Who’s to say that that yellow smear is accurate? Who could even say that our ranch is included? Sibley seems to be saying that in their two thousand mile range that there are a few miles where bluebirds are neither rare, nor breeding. I know that I am beginning to sound like Mr. Price but that is okay. I want a couple of those bluebirds to stop on our ranch and raise little bluebirds. It would make my life, my kid’s lives, and the few people who visit us a little brighter. That is why I’m putting up bluebird houses along our driveway.
I expect that the bluebirds will begin to migrate through here any day now and I’ll be ready for them. If I’m successful, I’m going to hang out up there on the driveway and watch the blue birds courting. I’ll watch them forage for insects to feed there chicks. I’ll watch the chicks fledge and I hope that a few carloads of people will stop to watch them too. If they throw trash out of their cars I’m going to gather it up and toss it back in through the driver’s window.