Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Bluebirds and beavers

  • The Eastern bluebird eats mainly small fruit and insects, but especially favors mealworms. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHUCK STERN

  • The Eastern bluebird population has increased significantly in recent decades. FOR THE GAZETTE/CHUCK STERN

  • Beaver lodges in the marsh off the rail trail in Amherst by Station Rd. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Beaver lodges in the marsh off the rail trail in Amherst by Station Road. Stands of dead trees created by the beavers’ flooding make ideal habitat for bluebirds. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Beaver lodges in the marsh off the rail trail in Amherst by Station Rd. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bluebirds hang out on a birdbath at Mikey Rathbun’s home in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Eastern bluebirds at Mickey Rathbun’s home in Amherst. The birds can also be found nesting in holes in fence posts and dead trees. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bluebirds at Mikey Ratherbun's home in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Monday, February 01, 2021

When I was growing up in Virginia, my mother took my siblings and me on frequent bird-watching junkets. We fought over the family copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds” and kept our own life lists.

With our stubby pencils, we proudly ticked off each new bird we spotted — flickers, brown thrashers, thrushes, various sparrows and woodpeckers. But we never saw any bluebirds. Those potent, feathery symbols of happiness and good fortune were our holy grail.

One day while out bird-watching, my mother took me into the nearby woods to pee behind a tree. When we returned, my sibs gleefully announced that they had seen a bluebird. I was inconsolable. I was the youngest in the family and my siblings loved to taunt me. I still haven’t fully recovered from their announcement that they had been born in Disneyland while I, presumably, was found in a cabbage patch.

Fortunately, during the many years that have passed since those bluebird-less days of the 1960s, the bluebird population has increased significantly. The bluebirds we see in New England are Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialias); they live east of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Central America. They are omnivores that eat small fruits, insects and spiders.

You’re not likely to see them on your birdfeeder, because they rarely eat seeds and nuts. Their habitat is meadows and semi-open spaces where they nest in holes in fence posts and dead trees created by woodpeckers and other creatures. Because they cannot make their own nesting cavities, they’re especially dependent on their environment, manmade and otherwise.

According to Mark Faherty, science coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the decimation of the Eastern bluebird population in the 1960s had several causes. As Faherty explained in his Weekly Bird Report dated Jan. 18, 2017, these include the decrease in appropriate habitat, pesticides and competition for nesting cavities by house sparrows, invasive, non-native birds that drive bluebirds out of their nests and also kills them. The Eastern bluebird population had declined in New England by 90% in the 1970s.

Faherty attributes the increase in the bluebird population in part to the tireless legions of bird-lovers who have built nesting boxes to house the bluebirds and their young families. These volunteers have also maintained the boxes and deterred other predatory species, including house sparrows and wrens, from evicting the bluebirds. 

But concerned humans aren’t solely responsible for bringing the bluebird back. A surprising player in the surge of the Eastern bluebird population is the beaver, whose population has also increased significantly in New England since the 1970s. As Faherty explained, when beavers build dams they flood areas, which causes the trees there to die.

When the beavers move on to new territory, the dams fail and the flooded areas dry out and become meadows dotted with dead trees. This creates an ideal habitat not only for bluebirds but for Great Blue Herons, woodpeckers, Hooded Mergansers and other birds that inhabit swampland and dead trees. Anyone who takes bird-watching walks along the rail trail in Amherst has most likely seen a variety of herons, ducks and woodpeckers in the swampy areas beside the trail.

While some people curse the beavers as they survey gnawed tree trunks and gnarly dams, we must also appreciate the beneficial results of their industrious labors.

I moved to Massachusetts in the late 1980s and at some point — I don’t recall exactly when — I began to see the occasional bluebird. I was thrilled. For me, the scarcity of bluebirds in my childhood imbued them with a mythical quality. The sight of bluebirds still thrills me, although I’m happy to say they are not an uncommon sight around our property.

One of the most amazing encounters I’ve ever had with any sort of bird was on a summer evening several years ago. My husband and I were sitting on our patio with a couple of friends and I noticed that our birdbath was dry. The weather had been very hot and it hadn’t rained for a while. I had a guilty pang thinking about the birds not having water to bathe in and drink. I ran off to fill the birdbath. Seconds after I rejoined the group, a hoard of dusty, thirsty bluebirds descended on the birdbath. They took turns, about five at a time, dunking, flapping, drinking, while another crew fluttered in the bushes nearby awaiting their turn. The scene was magical. Our friends mused that perhaps we had deliberately orchestrated this scene for their amusement.

This winter has been mild so far, and many bluebirds appear to have decided to stay put in our neighborhood. In the interest of encouraging them to hang around, I did some research on what bluebirds most like to eat. It turns out that mealworms are a particular delicacy.

This gave me slight pause, I confess. Years ago, I attended an infamous Insect Dinner at the wonderful, now-closed Green Street Café in Northampton. I wrote about this feast in a Chef’s Best column for the Gazette. The main course was mealworm stew, a savory, tomatoey concoction that I vaguely recall was based on an African recipe. The mealworms were pasty and fat and bobbed on the surface of the stew like little dumplings. I managed to swallow a couple, washed down by big gulps of wine. Yuck.

Anyway, while some diehard bluebird lovers apparently buy fresh mealworms for their birds, mealworm suet is also available. The suet is a combination of dried mealworms and sunflower kernels bound together into a cake with vegetable oil. I overcame my distaste and bought a cake of this to hang behind the house. It’s become the hot new dining spot in our yard, not just for bluebirds but for all the other winter birds we feed.

By the way, a couple of years ago I invested in a heated birdbath. I can’t even begin to describe the joy I experience when birds come to drink and bathe on a chilly winter morning. Birds need water no matter what the temperature.

The story of the bluebirds’ comeback heartens me. I love knowing that the hard work of humans and beavers has contributed to saving one of the planets’ most beautiful and beloved creatures. For all the terrible things we’ve done to the earth, we can sometimes do good if we put our minds and our hands to it. 

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.