With a stroke of a pen, President Biden signed executive orders canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, pausing border wall construction, rejoining the Paris climate accord, and directing agencies to review and reverse more than than 100 TR actions taken against the environment.
January 20, 2020 marks a glorious day for our nation. I imagine many are, as am I, still processing all, though wasn’t it magnificent to wake up this morning and not worry in what manner the former president had harmed our nation and it citizens, whether racially, environmentally, pandemic related, or on the world stage. There is still much to set right again, to repair, to restore, to rebuild, and ultimately to move forward with. In thinking about these profound changes and how a stroke of the pen puts pause to the insane wall construction, how this simple act will help people, communities, butterflies, and myriad species of wildlife along our border with Mexico, I am reminded of ED’s “Hope” is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
The male Eastern Bluebird shows a brilliant indigo blue on the head and back, with a rusty reddish brown breast. The female is more softly colored overall, with elegant gray wings, tinged in shades of blue, and paler breast. Joe Ciaramitaro photo
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
Several days ago my friend Joe from Good Morning Gloucester blog captured (with camera) a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. Everyone who responded in the comment section spoke so fondly of this beautiful bird that I thought we’d all enjoy knowing a bit more about its current status in Massachusetts. And too, sightings at this time of year give reason to share a favorite Emily Dickinson poem—“Before you thought of spring, except as a surmise…”
Before you thought of spring,
Except as a surmise,
You see, God bless his suddenness,
A fellow in the skies
Of independent hues,
A little weather-worn,
Of indigo and brown.
With specimens of song,
As if for you to choose,
Discretion in the interval,
With gay delays he goes
To some superior tree
Without a single leaf,
And shouts for joy to nobody
But his seraphic self!
Bluebirds do indeed appear to sing with great joy from the treetops, and reading this poem always makes me smile, thinking about “a fellow in the skies” singing to nobody but his rapt self. As is so typical of her work, Emily Dickinson’s poem is an astute and honest observation of the natural world, but I also interpret her poem to mean that joy is an emotion that doesn’t need an audience; that it can be expressed for the sake of joy itself.
Eastern Bluebirds sing several types of songs; one is a liquid birdsong—sort of a turee song—and another is a soft melodious warble. When trying to attract a mate, unpaired males typically sing from a high perch, and sometimes even in flight. Both male and female sing in all seasons to keep in touch with each other and to signal to nestlings that food is on its way. Bluebirds are in the Thrush Family, as are American Robins, and Robins too sing a lovely liquid birdsong.
From the Mass Audubon State of Birds:
“The very widespread breeding distribution seen in the Eastern Bluebird in Massachusetts today is, in large part, the result of considerable support received by concerned citizens who, for more than half a century, erected large numbers of nest boxes across the state and helped save the species from near-extirpation.”
What does “extirpation” mean? Not that a species has become extinct from our planet, but that it is no longer found in a particular area. We are very fortunate that the Eastern Bluebird did not become extirpated from our region. Bluebirds are cavity nesters and use suitable bird boxes, tree cavities, and old woodpecker holes in trees and fence posts to build their nests. During the era when settlers cleared forests and planted fields and orchards, the Eastern Bluebird became quite common. In the 20th century their population decreased by nearly 90 percent for several reasons, two of which are because vast areas of New England have reverted to forest, and because the bluebird is competing for nesting sites with the alien European House Sparrow and European Starling. The return of the Eastern Bluebird during the spring and summer breeding period is due in large measure to citizens throughout the state building and placing nest boxes along “bluebird trails.”
Eastern Bluebird and Winterberry
If you are fortunate enough to have bluebirds visiting your backyard, you may want to provide them with supplemental food. Bluebirds are primarily insectivores. They do not visit bird feeders because their bills are not designed for cracking open seed and nut shells (but they will eat hulled sunflower seeds). They eat berries at this time of year because there aren’t any insects. The winterberries won’t last long on the bush with flocks of hungry birds descending to your garden. Mealworms (which aren’t really worms at all, but are the larval form of the darling beetle) are the most nutritious supplement you can provide bluebirds. For more information on feeding mealworms to bluebirds go to this fact sheet: North American Bluebird Society’s Mealworms Fact Sheet.
For a wonderful FREE downloadable 15 page education packet designed for grades 1-5, with coloring pages and puzzles follow this link: Education Packet
For more information on how to build, and where to site, bluebird nest boxes, along with plan drawings, follow this link: Getting Started with Bluebirds
To read more about the devastating effects of European House Sparrows and European Starlings follow this link: House Sparrow Control.
Just this past week, 15 Eastern Bluebirds were spotted at Allens Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Westport, Massachusetts. See Bluebird Nestbox Walk at Allens Neck post for information about an upcoming.
For Christmas Liv gave me an early edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I cried. The poems of Emily Dickinson play a beautiful role in my book, Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities, but the sweetest poem of all found within the books’ pagesis the poem written by Liv, when she was only twelve.
Emily Dickinson, published 1892
When Liv was twelve I hired her to transcribe the first draft of the manuscript for Oh Garden, which I had written in longhand, to our then new computer. I had not yet learned how to use the computer and she was quite proficient. The original manuscript included recipes and illustrations, but no poetry. She took her job transcribing very seriously and one day, about halfway through the project, announced that I needed a poem for the book. She dashed upstairs to her bedroom, returning only half an hour later with her contribution, “My Mother’s Garden.” Her tender poem suggested to me that I include more poetry and it was a joyous experience searching for just the right poem to illuminate each chapter. The book grew to comprise many poems by Emily Dickinson, along with works by Federico García Lorca, John Keats, Amy Lowell, Chinese painter- poets, and even a funny and sweetly sarcastic poem by Dorothy Parker titled “One Perfect Rose.” When the time came, I showed my publisher, Mr. Godine, Liv’s poem. He was delighted to include “My Mother’s Garden” and it can be found on page 206.
Now I keep this cherished gift of Emily Dickinson poems by my bedside table and each time I reach to read it or simply when the cover catches my eye, I am reminded of Liv’s gentle, thoughtful love and of the most cherished gift of all, my daughter.
My Mother’s Garden
An exotic sunset-tinted rose
Intoxicating breath of a magnolia
The small windy brick path
Leading to a hidden paradise
Butterflies flutter their own petal-wings
Over the smiling face of a daisy
A hushed lullaby to the garden sings the stream
Honeysuckle vines twist their elegant tendril,
Grasping the delicate lattice
Gorgeous, vibrant hollyhocks stretch their faces
Towards the radiant sun
Drinking in the soft light
Soon the sweet mellow silence is broken
By a joyful cry of children,
Two, three, now four
Suddenly the garden is a place of singing and frolicking and dancing,
Youthful and inviting.
This blessed garden’s soul shines forth in each and every existence
From the flitting butterflies
To the smallest thriving plant
To the noisiest child that finds peaceful comfort,
My deepest thanks and appreciation to Pat Leuchtman for her wonderful review. Pat has been writing a weekly garden column for The Recorder in Greenfield since 1980. She has been blogging for the past several years and has posted and archived all her columns on her blog Commonweeder. Read more of Pat’s review and spend time perusing her blog, which is brimming with useful information, book reviews, insights, and missives– all beautifully organized.
Pat’s Review: Fresh Possibilities are just what I am looking for at this time of the year, so it is no surprise that I have been spending happy evenings with Kim Smith’s beautiful book that includes so many of her own delicate paintings of flowers, birds and butterflies.
Kim Smith gardens, and paints, in Gloucester. Over the years her garden has grown, as has her concern about conservation and her delight in the roads to literature and art that her garden has opened to her. Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities: Notes from a Gloucester Garden (David R. Godine Publisher) combines all these aspects of her life in the garden in the most beautiful way.
With its delicate paintings of individual flowers, and butterflies, the book does not look like a how-to book, yet it includes plant lists to attract butterflies, of fragrant flowers and plants through the seasons, seasonal blooms and useful annuals. I can hardly decide which I enjoy more, the charming prose of chapters titled The Narrative of the Garden, Flowers of the Air and The Memorable Garden, the exquisite paintings, or the poetry that ranges from our own Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker to Li Bai (701-762 CE), a famous Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. I enjoy knowing that Kim has found the same delight in the connections to history and the arts that I find in the garden.
One of the two chapters I particularly found useful as well as beautiful right now is Flowers of the Air which includes information about a variety of butterflies, and the plants that they need for their life cycle. We have to remember that butterflies are not only lovely, they are important pollinators.
It is no surprise that I also enjoy Roses for the Intimate Garden. Kim’s climate is a bit more gentle than mine and she can grow more tender roses that I can, but we are both devoted to the fragrance that roses bring to our gardens and to the uncorseted exuberance of old fashioned roses.
If you want information, but also want the kind of delicious prose you find in evocative essays, an aesthetic sensibility, and beautiful illustrations, this is the book for you. Kim is an inspired gardener and writer, but she isn’t stopping there. Watch for more news about Kim and her latest project soon.
They’re back this winter, and in legions! The Robins have returned to our garden to feast on the fruits of the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. For more information on the American Robin see older post: Round Robin Red-breast.
Dear Gardening Friends, Please forgive when I am slow to answer your kind and thoughtful letters. I am struggling with an elbow injury and have had to limit my writing and photography somewhat (with extreme reluctance!!!). I love to hear about your bird and butterfly encounters, so please, keep your letters coming–just know that I am slow! Warmest wishes, Kim
From Jeannette in Marblehead – Kim Happy New Year, So enjoy your emails. Walter and I were in Gloucester in November and drove by your home to try to peak at your garden but of course, it was the end of November and the gardens were sleeping. It looked enchanting with the little sparkling lights. A quick questions where does one find the Nyjer feeder and seeds. We have been so unsuccessful, all our bird feeders in the past have become squirrel feeders. I hope to come and see your gardens this Spring/Summer.
Dear Jeannette, We purchase Nyjer and safflower seeds from our local Essex Bird Shop and Pet Supply and I imagine most Mom and Pop type bird and pet supply shops stock both varieties of seeds as well as the Nyjer seed feeder. I like looking at the Duncraft website–they have quite a selection of Nyjer seed feeders. We have the very basic single tube feeders, but I lust after their three tube copper feeder. I wonder if they photoshopped all those finches!
From Judy in Gloucester –Thanks for the wonderful information, Kim. I have what I think is a sparrow that spends each evening tucked into the corner of the little porch over my side door facing your house. S/he is there reliably every late afternoon as soon as it is dark and leaves in the early morning. It was the same routine last year. I’m wondering if it’s the same bird every evening and perhaps even the same bird last year and this.
Dear Judy, I can’t say for sure without seeing a photo or the actual bird, however, House Finches and European House Sparrows are well known for their habit of nesting in the eaves. We have had several pairs of House Finches build their nests on top of the porch pillars that are tucked under the porch roof, as well as House Sparrows sleeping overnight in the same areas, just as you describe yours. I would think it is the same bird every evening and possibly from year to year. House Sparrows are year round residents on Cape Ann (and nearly everywhere else).
From Joan in Gloucester –Dear Kim, As always, I enjoy your email messages. We use Nyger seed for one feeder, as well as sunflower seed for another and sunflower hearts for the third. We happily feed whoever comes to eat‹birds (our preference), but the cleverness and ingenuity of squirrels as well as their acrobatic antics have brought us much laughter over the years. For a while we tried many different types of feeders guaranteed to defeat squirrels, but found that the squirrels almost always could find their way to defeat the feeder designers.
It turns out that we also feed a lot of pigeons, starlings and other (I consider) less than appealing species of birds, but in the end, we are feeding hungry creatures who are our neighbors (including a brown rat who lives in the marsh next to our yard).
I love watching the various eaters and how they perch on nearby trees or shrubs waiting their turn, having little spats, diving in to disrupt each other, chasing each other away and reflecting the behavior of the humans who occupy our world in many of the same ways.
Thanks for your always wonderful photographs and the information that is so interesting.
From Diane in Ipswich –Hi Kim,I so enjoy your e-mails! Today one of our “mystery birds” was identified in your e-mail! We have had Eastern Towhees in our yard the past couple of weeks. I could not find them in my Audubon book. I saw Eastern Towhee mentioned in the e-mail and googled it to see what that was and voila! There was our mystery bird!
We have also had many Pine Siskins lately. I did not know what they were called either!
I too delight in watching the birds. I have two sets of feeders and keep them well stocked with Nyger, woodpecker food, black oil sunflowers and suet. I also throw millet, sunflower and sometimes, as a treat, peanuts in the shell for the ground birds – and squirrels. Since I have been doing that the squirrels leave the feeders alone. Although watching their acrobatics on the feeders is very entertaining!
The birds I know the names of that are here in my Argilla Rd. Ipswich yard are chickadees, siskins, red & yellow finches, various sparrow like birds, a wren or two, towhees, titmouses, lots of juncos, two kinds of woodpeckers, mourning doves, blue jays and 3 or 4 pairs of cardinals. Sometimes the chickadees will eat out of my hand. What a feeling! Have a lovely day!
Ipswich Garden Club
CBR, CRS, GRI, Green
Broker / Owner
Coast & Country Real Estate
From the Byers in Gloucester – Thanks for your very interesting email on Pine Siskins! I have never been able to identify any on the feeders previously, but thanks to your excellent photo (which I printed & stuck in my bird book) I may now have a chance. We have all the rest of the gang, goldfinches, chickadees, 2 var of nuthatches, titmice, purple (or maybe house) finches, juncos (ours seem to be much darker than your photo shows) & of course, zillions of sparrows. So maybe we can now separate out those pine siskins. Thanks again!
A quick note on the subject of butterflies: if you haven’t seen it yet, you should, & I would say ASAP. The Library has, in their 1st display case on right as you go in the front, a fantastic display of tropical butterflies! The story Tom & I got from a couple of the librarians is that these display trays they have were seized by customs authorities for some malfeasance; & that customs has the option, instead of destroying the stuff, to “lend” it to educational, nonprofit, etc. institutions. I would suspect they will not be on display for long, & probably the fluorescent overhead lights would in any case be detrimental to the magnificent colors.
Best wishes & here’s to an EARLY spring! Ann (& Tom) Byers Western Ave., Gloucester
From Sally on the South Shore – Hi Kim — I just heard yesterday for squirrrel proof feeders, you hang a SLINKY at the top! Remember them? I guess a toy store would be the place to look. I am going to get 2 and can’t wait to see if it works. Love your column. Sally Goodrich