Species Spotlight: Bluebirds

Chuck Gates

Bluebirds of Happiness

By LeeAnn Kriegh

Is there any bird that inspires more passion and poetry than bluebirds? Henry David Thoreau, for one, wrote eloquently of the bird that “carries the sky on his back” and suggested that a person’s “interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.”

Out on the trails and backroads of central and eastern Oregon, Western and Mountain Bluebirds are perhaps more likely to inspire silent witness than poetry. Even old pros who’ve seen hundreds or thousands of bluebirds over the years will come to a standstill when they hear one, scanning the treetops and fence posts for a glimpse, and honoring the small birds with a few moments of quiet reverie.

The two species you’ll see in Oregon are the Western Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird. Don’t read too much into their common names, as Western Bluebirds are now rare in western Oregon and Washington, and Mountain Bluebirds favor both the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and the high desert’s sagebrush steppe and juniper woodlands.

voices

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

fact

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  

voices

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”

Western bluebird

Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana)

The Western Bluebird has a sky-blue back and russet chest and flanks. Or, as Florence Merriam Bailey wrote far more eloquently in 1890, in what many consider to be the first modern field guide, “note the cinnamon of his breast; and as he flies down and turns quickly to light on the fence post, see the cobalt-blue that flashes from his back. These colors are the poet’s signs that the bird’s sponsors are the earth and sky.”

Western Bluebirds don’t so much announce their presence as apologize for it with a hesitant, quavering kew, kew. They’re birds of open spaces, so look and listen for them year-round near fields, parks, pastures, and open woodlands—anyplace with junipers is a good bet. They’re also found in rural areas around Sisters at places such as Camp Polk Meadow and Camp Sherman.

Mountain bluebird

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides)

Mountain Bluebirds—the showier, all-blue bluebirds—are a bit more demonstrative, sometimes singing a song similar to that of a robin and other times warbling softly for minutes at a time. Listen to those notes out in the wild country of eastern Oregon, and you’ll understand what the “Bluebird of Happiness” lyrics are all about (“Life is sweet, tender and complete / When you find the bluebird of happiness”).

You can find powder-blue Mountain Bluebirds year-round perched on fence posts or atop junipers, or hovering over open fields. Keep an eye out for them when you head east from Bend on Highway 20, and when you visit more remote areas like Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

Caring for Bluebirds

Actually, it’s worth watching for bluebirds wherever people put up nest boxes for them, including in and near urban areas. ONDA supporter Cal Elshoff has posted and monitored more than 80 of the boxes at Tetherow Golf Course in Bend, which is but one example of the lengths people go to in order to help these beautiful birds.

One of the challenges for bluebirds is that they’re losing habitat, including the standing dead trees, or snags, they depend on for nesting—the same trees often “salvaged” after fires. If you live within the birds’ range, you can help them out by leaving existing trees and snags (and planting new trees), putting up nest boxes, and providing food in the form of both seed feeders and suet cakes.

First, though, visit central and eastern Oregon to get inspired. Simply head out to wide open lands and watch for the distinctive flashes of blue and the songs that Merriam Bailey say suggest the “freedom of the wandering summer winds.”

You’ll be hooked on our wild public land, and on the bluebirds that call it home.


About the Author

LeeAnn Kriegh is a Bend-based writer and author of "The Nature of Bend," a fun, full-color guide to the most common plants and animals in Central Oregon.

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