There’ll Be Bluebirds Over

The American composer of “There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover” either had the excuse of poetic license or didn’t know that bluebirds are absent from the British Isles. But the song became one of one of Dame Vera Lynn’s signature performances for stirring patriotic hope in 1942.

There are three species of bluebird in North America (all thrushes). Someone who grew up in Tidewater Virginia doesn’t remember seeing Eastern bluebirds here in the 1960s, probably because urban sprawl and competition from introduced species robbed them of natural cavities to make home. But no longer.

Male Eastern bluebird (photo: Inge Curtis)

The friendly songsters are now common in local meadows and suburban gardens thanks to human interference, sponsored by the Virginia Bluebird Society and kindly people who provide nestboxes. The best boxes are not the kind found in knickknack stores, gaily painted (for predators to find) and with a perch close to the entrance hole (to help predators look inside). Constructed of rot resistant cedar, an ideal box has a 1.5” entrance hole protected by a wire mesh predator guard and a snake guard on the pole. While these safeguards are not 100% effective, most broods reach the fledgling stage for the most dangerous days of their lives.

Bluebirds are nesting in two of our four boxes, each with five sky blue eggs. I don’t peep inside again until the chicks have flown after gorging on countless insects and arachnids brought by doting parents. Then, I clean out old nests that might harbor parasites, and usually find the lodgers have made new ones of pine straw and small sticks a few days later for a second brood. Even if I trained for months using forceps to weave the straw I doubt I could craft anything that would pass a bird’s inspection.

Our third box is still vacant and the fourth has a house wren sitting on brown speckled eggs.

Bird eggs are among the most beautiful objects in nature. They are delicate works of art, sometimes decorated with pigments as if squirted from paint guns in the oviduct on the day before laying. It is no surprise that ground-nesters have camouflaged eggs or that eggs laid further north tend to be darker to absorb more heat. We might expect cavity nesters, such as owls, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and wood ducks, would have pure white or buff eggs as coloring provides no obvious advantage. The colors of bluebird and wren eggs are among the exceptions, which goes to prove that nature hates uniformity and ruins our simple hypotheses.

Box taken over by house wrens
Adopted by house wrens

Data from over 4,500 nestboxes on 410 trails across Virginia are compiled by the Bluebird Society. Our local chapter of Master Naturalists monitors a few hundred boxes in parks and around golf courses every week between March and July. On a trail where I help to monitor 41 nestboxes, there were 63 bluebird fledglings in 2018  (a wet spring) and 97 last year, plus a few broods of chickadees and tufted titmice. Nestboxes raise thousands of extra birds.

This year the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our survey, but not the breeding season, which may even benefit from less human traffic and noise. But human nature doesn’t seem to change as I heard that three of our boxes have been vandalized. Who could do that to bluebirds?


Snake Hole

A snake has taken up residence in one of our bluebird boxes. Every morning three feet of coiled and blackened steel hose sunbathe on its roof.bluebird box with snake

Four species of snakes call our yard home. This one, the Eastern ratsnake, is the best climber and grows longer than garter or ring-necked snakes or the venomous copperhead. A six-foot ratsnake called George used to live in the woodshed owned an old lady next door. In one of our dry summers an itinerant garden worker knocked on her door asking for work. She wanted her parched lawn to be watered.

“Y’all find the hose in the shed,” Elspeth told him.

Next thing we heard the man screaming, and then watched him emerge from the shed and shake violently before running down the driveway. We never saw him again.

Eastern ratsnake
Home sweet home

Few people like snakes. Too few. The first impulse is to kill them and the second to summon their name when you need the most excoriating epithet. We curse with the names of all sorts of animals, but snake is reserved for the most despised and untrustworthy individuals, the lowest of the low. Don’t even check the Urban Dictionary for the meaning of ‘snakehole’.

The hole in our birdbox probably looked as homely to our snake as Bag End to Bilbo Baggins with its round, green door and brass knob—a cozy haven in an uncertain world. The snake may have found a clutch of blue eggs neatly laid out for supper in a twiggy nest, but I think it had been squatting there a long time. Either way, we leave it alone. It doesn’t bother us, although our species has been on bad terms with theirs for a long time.

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” King James Bible.

Eastern ratsnake
Just a couple more feet to go

In the Jungle Book, Kaa (the snake) was one of the bad guys, although understandably grumpy when he was hit by Bagheera (the panther). He hissed:

“Ooh, my s-s-sinus. You have just made a s-s-serious mistake. And very s-s-stupid.”

Snakes prefer to avoid confrontation and are not aggressive by nature. In a court of law, they would not be condemned for defending themselves because most bites occur from our blunders—like poking or stepping on one, or testing fate in a snake-handling church. Over seven thousand snake bites from venomous species are reported in North America annually, of which only five or six become fatal. In Australia, home to the most venomous snakes, there are even fewer fatalities per head of population, but thousands of people die in India every year because medical care is insufficiently prompt or effective. We don’t have to exterminate snakes to save people from snakebites.

The only good snake is a live snake. A dead snake can no longer contribute to the good of the land as a slice of the food pyramid that dine on the lower orders while in turn being on the menu for top predators. They are friends to farmers and gardeners as ravenous predators of rodents that raid our crops and grain stores and which transmit Lyme disease, hantavirus, and plague in their fleas, ticks, and waste products. And for people with heart disease the venom of a rattlesnake has been used to engineer an antiplatelet drug (Eptifibatide).

We shouldn’t justify preserving snakes only when they help to satisfy our own needs. As wonders of nature, beautiful and mysterious, they deserve respect. But the sight of a snake more often triggers a tide of revulsion within us and the impulse to kill, as it did one hot day when a snake slither close to D.H. Lawrence who lay resting by a water trough.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned…

 Then Lawrence threw a log at it… But as the creature disappeared his heart started warming to it, and he realized he was enjoying its company.

… immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.
And I have something to expiate: A pettiness.

 Next Post: Beehive Split

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