Saturday, February 7, 2009

Early Birds

On the way home yesterday from my daily walk with the dogs, my neighbor Ann stopped me on her way to town. She turned off her car and said, “Hey, I just had to tell you that the bluebirds are back. I saw one right down the road here early in January and then I saw a group of them down around Cullen’s Corner (a local landmark on the road to town). At first, I wasn’t sure that’s what I saw, but one day John (her husband) was driving and I had a chance to look out for them and sure enough there they were.” The earliest she’d seen them was in February, when they’d flown into to claim one of her bluebird nesting boxes and prepare for the breeding season.

“Wow, that’s amazing. So, where do they migrate from?”

She shrugged, “Boy, I don’t know. But I’ve spotted groups of four and five on the road to town these last few weeks, so they seem to be hanging around.”

“You know, I saw a robin this winter and I’ve heard other people talk about them, but I hadn’t heard about the bluebirds coming back. Boy, you wonder what’s going on?”

“I don’t know. My sister in Cedaredge told me the Sandhill Cranes are back already down there. But you watch down the road here. That’s where I saw the first one.”

Ann seemed to laugh at her enthusiasm, “Well, I better go. I just had to tell you I’d seen them.”

So, as I drove to town this morning, I thought I’d look for Ann’s bluebirds. Just around the bend at Cullen’s Corner there it was, a small azure creature. I’d forgotten how little they were, just 6-8 inches. The brilliant blue bird, characteristic of the Mountain Bluebirds who prefer open ranchlands and other open areas of Routt County and the American West, flew to the top of a fence post, landing gracefully.

Once home, I couldn’t help but research bluebirds. Where did they come from and why were they here? In the late 1970s, bluebird populations declined by up to 70% due to both an inability to compete with two species introduced to their regions, the house sparrow and starlings, and a reduction in natural habitat. Since then, nationwide efforts to establish and maintain bluebird trails and provide nesting boxes have brought bluebird populations back to health.

Their migration patterns were interesting too. Their summer range is from central Alaska to Manitoba and southward to California and Texas. Their winter range is from Oregon and Colorado to Mexico. The map provided by the University of Cornell website indicates that the Mountain Bluebird resides in much of Colorado year round. However, northwest Colorado is considered summer breeding ground. So, what are these early birds doing here with several feet of snow on the ground? Perhaps they too, have found good food sources here just as the robins that are thought to be here because of the great berry crop from this past year. Is it too, that the weather patterns have shifted just enough that the line between summer and winter breeding grounds has begun to blur. Have northwestern Colorado temperatures in January warmed enough to bid Mountain Bluebirds an invitation to return, to prepare for their mating season?

Whatever has beckoned their return, it was a pleasure this morning to discover such a brillant blue bird on the fence post at Cullen’s Corner. For a moment I, too, understood Ann’s unbridled enthusiasm at the return of a these beautiful, diminutive creatures to our neighborhood.

For more information or to hear the sound of a Mountain Bluebird, click:

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