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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Bluebird's Happy Return

Air Date: Week of

Dan Grossman spends time with Lillian Files, also known as "The Bluebird Lady," and reports on how human intervention is helping to bring back this rare species.


CURWOOD: With its cheerful call, bright blue back and red chest, the eastern bluebird has long been welcomed as a harbinger of spring. Henry David Thoreau observed that the bluebird carries the sky on its back, and John Burroughs added it has the earth on its breast. But earlier this century, those sprightly bearers of earth and sky nearly disappeared. English sparrows and starlings brought here from Europe squeezed the bluebird out of its springtime nesting and foraging areas, and pesticides further reduced their numbers. But today the bluebird is making a comeback, thanks to hundreds of volunteers. From Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, Daniel Grossman has our story.

(Birdsong. Woman's voice: "Ula! Hi there! I'm making a house call to see about your sparrows, okay? So can we go out in the yard and take a look now? "Sure." "Yeah, all right." "We'll go down this way...")

GROSSMAN: It's late in the day and a thunderstorm is approaching. But Lillian Files, known locally as the Bluebird Lady, has a mission to accomplish: to help get rid of a pair of English sparrows that has invaded the bird box of her neighbor Ula Quint.

QUINT: Yesterday morning I just thought it was strange because I didn't see the bluebirds any more. And then I looked out my window and the bird, a bird flew out, landed on the grass and I looked, and it was a sparrow. So um, you know, I came down here and I saw the mess. The eggs on the ground and, you know, it was - it's very discouraging.

GROSSMAN: The adults were spared. But the eggs were pecked with holes and tossed onto the ground. Files, past president of the North American Bluebird Society, says sparrows are only one of the many threats to the bluebird. Other birds such as house wrens and swallows also carry out aggressive attacks. And raccoons often eat the tiny eggs with chicks.

(Sound of metal scraping on metal. Files: "I have to hold this up right now. Oh boy, there it is...")

GROSSMAN: For sparrows, the solution is obvious. Files shows her neighbor how to install a trap to capture the predatory bird.

(Files: "You set it up here." "Okay." "Okay. Then the bird flies in the box, and it lands on this, and then it can't get out. And from your house you could see this - you could see it's red or something, you know. Now the only thing is - " "And then I have to call you." Files laughs. "I'm the villain!" Birdsong.)

GROSSMAN: With luck, the adult bluebirds will return and raise another clutch of chicks this season. Lillian Files says the bluebird was once as common as the robin. Its exquisite coloring, a deep, iridescent blue back and rusty red breast and spunky boldness, made it a favorite farm bird. Forty years ago, when Files was in her late 20s, the bluebird was common near her home here. But she soon discovered that it was uncommon elsewhere.

FILES: Some folks came up and said Lillian, you have a rare bird. And it was the bluebird. And of course I did admire this bird because it's so beautiful. And then I wanted to know why it was rare. I thought everybody had them here in the country. And then I found out why they were rare, and I sort of dedicated myself and the rest of all these years through trying to make the bluebird come back.

GROSSMAN: The bluebird prospered in the agrarian landscape of 19th century America. It lived in the cavities of rotted trees on the edges of fields. But in the 20th century, small farms began going under. Pastures became forest and suburbs. Meanwhile, the European house sparrow and starling proliferated. And after World War II the country was doused with harmful, persistent pesticides, including DDT. By 1977, the population had plummeted by as much as 90%. But a ban on DDT, and the efforts of volunteer organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society, helped to bring the bluebird back. Among other things, the society encouraged people to build wooden birdhouses to replace natural habitats. Files says these boxes are still essential, and that they require constant tending.

FILES: We always say if you don't want to monitor your boxes at least once a week, forget it. Don't even put up a bluebird box. Because these birds need human help so badly...Take a look, take a look! He's beautiful! Right in front of us. See that blue? You gotta fall in love with a bird like that! (Laughs)

GROSSMAN: With a pace nearly as peripatetic as a bird, Files leads me on a tour of her own little piece of bluebird habitat behind her home. She stops at one of her 47 boxes and pulls open the front. Inside is one of the 2 pairs of bluebirds nesting here this year.

FILES: Let's see; hopefully everything is okay in here. Okay. Now wait a minute. Yep, they're alive, okay. Now those are 5 baby chicks that were just born last Saturday, but they're kind of sleepy right now, and the father and mother...

GROSSMAN: Files's gentle meadow appears like a pastoral paradise. But for the bluebird it could be more like a cool jungle full of vicious predators.

FILES: Looking right over there now, there's one of our worst predators, and that's the English sparrow. And the starling and the English sparrow's not a native bird, and it's open season on them; you can trap them and do whatever you want. But I sometimes say recycle them, give them to a rehabilitation center so they can use them to feed owls and hawks.

GROSSMAN: Files compares the alien sparrow to the destructive gypsy moth. She kills those she catches and donates them for food to people rehabilitating ailing birds of prey. But Files also uses her property as a sort of laboratory for less drastic ways to discourage predators. She says it's efforts like these that have helped the eastern bluebird population to more than double in the last 2 decades.

FILES: This is the way we brought him back is by giving them human help. And if it wasn't for that, I'm sure the bluebird would have been gone by the way of the passenger pigeon.

GROSSMAN: For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.



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