“…Rural development encroaches on the traditional habitat of coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, bears, mosquitoes and other animals that can be dangerous and you need to know how to deal with them.”
from “Code of the West,” created by John Clarke, former Larimer County (Colorado) Commissioner
Moving to the country from the city is a common enough theme in the modern era to have spawned a minor literary genre. Writers offer advice about what to expect and how to ease the transition in rueful first-person memoirs, boosterish how-to magazine articles, and cautionary tales. Guidelines such as the “Code of the West,” quoted above, are more blunt in their effort to moderate the idealism of newcomers to rural and agricultural lands.
None of these resources, to my knowledge, warn you about the bluebirds.
Can you see him? Cerulean on cerulean.
They are pretty, no question. Male mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides), in particular, are a shock of color this time of year, fluttering like windblown scraps of blue silk. The word often used to describe the shade is “cerulean,” a term sufficiently uncommon to put you on alert that we’re not talking just any shade of blue. These birds can sizzle your optic nerves.
When we moved to this part of central Colorado years ago, bluebirds were new avifauna to me. Our old house was situated the foothills west of Boulder, where the forest cover is thicker than the open canopies preferred by Western Bluebirds or the open grasslands favored by Mountain Bluebirds, both of which are common here.
We lived in the small cabin attached to the horse barn while we were building the house in 2001-2002. We didn’t have a garage, and we learned pretty quickly not to leave our car windows down. Bluebirds are cavity nesters, and evidently a parked vehicle is worth investigating as a cavity.
For the most part, we inferred their reconnaissance from splashes of whitewash on the dashboard or seat backs, but I once started for town with a bluebird in the car. This latter fact was unbeknownst to me until pandemonium broke out in the rear window after I’d driven a few dozen yards down the driveway. Bluebirds aren’t large, but they’re capable of explosive noise, particularly in a confined space.
Once the house was finished and we had a garage to park in, this particular issue mostly resolved itself—although a female Mountain Bluebird did manage to get herself trapped in the garage last summer. I didn’t know she was in there until she gave me a mild myocardial infarction bursting off the roof of my care and out through the garage door as it lifted. Inside the car, bird poop on my dashboard and steering wheel led me to reconsider the wisdom of leaving car windows down even when the vehicle is parked inside the garage.
Keeping windows closed obviates birds-in-the-car, but does not eliminate bird-ON-the-car issues. Male bluebirds are territorial, and will fight with their own reflection should they encounter it in, say, the side mirror of a parked Dodge pickup. Our truck lived outside, and the wing mirrors and side windows bore streaky smears of bird shit every summer for years. Whether from exertion or as a means of chemical warfare, battling bluebirds seem to defecate quite a lot.
This reflection-fighting behavior can be also be triggered by house windows, if conditions are right.
One morning in our third or fourth year in the house, we were awakened by a dull thudding/scratching noise. It was first light, about 4:30 a.m., and the sound was coming from the front door.
Details have been fuzzed by the passage of time, but there’s little doubt that one of us mumbled “What the hell??” The person who crawled out of bed was almost certainly Doug and not me as, a) I am not a morning person and b) his side of the bed is closer to the bedroom door and c) he’s much bigger than me and thereby more qualified to investigate odd noises coming from outside.
He shuffled down the hall to the small entry where the front door is located—a door with a full-length window.
NOT the Crazy Bluebird: this was a juvenile who–peacefully–rested on the handle of the door onto our back deck long enough to have his portrait taken. Note that the plumage is not breeding-bright.
Sound of door opening.
“Get the [expletive deleted] out of here!!”
Sound of door slamming shut, with as much force as you would wish to apply to a door that is mostly glass.
Doug came back to bed. “[Expletive deleted] bluebird,” he growled.
When the noise resumed a few minutes later, he stomped back down the hall, repeated the “scram!” and door slam procedure, this time also closing the interior entry door on his way back to bed. This muffled the noise when it resumed a few minutes later, but only slightly.
And so began the chapter of the Crazy Bluebird. We were convinced that if he wasn’t brain damaged at the time he declared war on his reflection in our front door, he was by the time the urge to battle had dissipated, weeks later.
Hazing didn’t faze him—if one of us charged out the door he’d flit to the top of a ponderosa, catch his breath, and take up the fight refreshed once the door closed again. I tried different things to deter the cerulean psychopath, first applying multiple hawk silhouettes to the glass. These are the stickers you can place on your windows to keep birds from flying into them, but the hawk outlines didn’t bother this bluebird in the least—which probably isn’t a surprise, given that the utter lack of an actual opponent didn’t bother him either.
The early morning noise was bad enough, but in addition to a sworn and invincible enemy, the Crazy Bluebird had a superior fighting position. The deck railing next to the door provided a perch on which he could take a breather (presumably glaring at his nemesis as it, too, rested), re-gather his resources, and jettison some waste. The next time he landed there, he would do so in fresh poo. Not only did the deck railing accumulate a significant coating of bird crap, the door glass did too, since he tended to attack feet-first.
I finally ended up shutting a beach towel in the door, with most of it draped over the glass outside. This did the trick insofar as keeping the mad bluebird at bay, but it evoked funny looks from guests and was a major pain to reposition every time anyone used the door.
My best guess is that the Crazy Bluebird was nesting in the box on the nearby fence line. Either the baby birds fledged and the family moved on, or the light shifted enough to disrupt the reflection, but in any event, the morning battles stopped and we could sleep in to a normal hour…until the nesting season the following year.
As a non-lethal intervention, the following season, I crafted a curtain of curling ribbon out of my gift-wrapping supplies. Taped above the door, it didn’t have to be re-hung every time the door opened, and the long streamers blew spookily in the breeze while also breaking up the reflection of whatever approached, whether in a testosterone-charged huff or not. I suppose the ribbons tangled in a bird’s feet and wings, too, but in any event the curtain worked—although the looks I got from visitors made it clear they thought I was the one who was nuts, not some bluebird.
The Crazy Bluebird attacked our door four years in a row, if memory serves. I assume he stopped coming because he found someplace else to nest or because he died. If four to five years is a short lifespan for a male Mountain Bluebird, I have a theory for this one’s early demise.
We worried that the combative trait might be passed on to the next generation, but we’re coming up on a decade now without avian warfare breaking out on our doorstep in the predawn hours of early summer.
So, yes, country living poses challenges and urges self-reliance. Wild animals don’t have to be dangerous for you to need to know how to deal with them. If you’re thinking about a move to rural Colorado, don’t say nobody warned you about the bluebirds.
Neighbors: a family of Western Bluebirds, the young newly fledged, hanging out at the nest box on the fence line.