My bluebird neighbors became empty-nesters on June 21. The youngsters apparently began leaving in late morning – all except the last one. I happened to glance out the window just after eating lunch and noticed that one of the youngsters was still at the door and seemed reluctant to leave. That’s understandable, I suppose, since life was pretty easy with Mom and Dad doing all the work. Even with Mom and Dad still close by, life on the outside probably looked like a big unknown full of challenges and maybe even scary things.
The more I watched, the more concerned I became. Something seemed wrong with that last youngster. I soon realized that he couldn’t leave. Something had him tied to the house and when he tried to go it held him back. I didn’t see his parents and assumed that they were somewhere tending to his brother and sister who had left the house earlier. I discovered that he was indeed tied. His left leg had several tiny strands of some kind of synthetic fiber wrapped around it. Mom and Dad bluebird showed up and expressed deep concern as I gently lifted their young son and began freeing his leg. The little fibers were amazingly tough to break and I resorted to the tiny scissors on a little pocket knife I carry. The little guy was obviously exhausted from his struggle, but his leg seemed OK. He could perch all right when I set him on a branch in the nearby lilac bush. Fifteen minutes later, he, too, was gone.
It turned out that Mom bluebird had finished off her nest with the latest in comfort options, a cotton-like wad of fiberfill like you might find in a pillow top mattress or as stuffing in a child’s toy. I hadn’t seen it before because there were always babies sitting on it when I checked the nest. Had I not noticed the problem, it’s likely that the last little guy would have injured himself trying to get free and very possibly could have died. Man-made fibers, like monofilament fish line and plastic six-pack holders, are notorious wildlife killers when discarded outdoors. This is the first time I’ve encountered fiberfill as a problem, though. It may have come from one of the several houses that were under construction nearby when she was building her nest.
I had been trying to keep a second bluebird house empty to give the parent birds a nearby option for a second nest attempt, but even though I had thrown out several nest starts by the neighborhood wrens, they got ahead of me when I went to visit my grandkids. I checked the box upon returning home and found a new wren nest with three eggs. I’ll throw out sparrow or starling eggs, but I won’t throw out wren eggs. The bluebirds were still around the yard and objected when I tried to remove their old nest a day after the little ones fledged. I don’t like upsetting them, so I left it alone. I checked it again a day later and they didn’t seem to care anymore. The box sat empty for several days after their first family fledged, but then a new nest began taking form in the same old box. There are four pale blue eggs in it now.
I was out in the garden and noticed a couple of bluebirds perched on the garden fence on July 1. They had speckled breasts! A brother with deeper blue wing and tail feathers and his sister with grayer feathers like her mom seemed to be in good shape. Then I notice another young male in the apple tree. What a joy! All three little ones had made it through those critical and dangerous first few days outside the nest box. I look forward to watching them, and hope I’ll get to see them helping their folks feed their younger brothers and sisters that should hatch in less that two weeks. I have new neighbors moving in to the new houses nearby, but so far, that attractive couple that chose my backyard as a home is still my favorite.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.