Renee Tate's got the blues, and they're a blessing.
At the far end of her clothesline, two bluebirds feed three rambunctious chicks in the birdhouse Renee and her husband, Ray, put up a few years ago. At the opposite end of the line, a bluebird couple fly back and forth with slender twigs for the nest they're building in a second birdhouse.
They've all been welcome company for a gardener who's alone more often than she'd like to be.
Renee, who lives in Wesley Chapel, watches her bluebirds in the morning as she sips coffee on her lanai. During the day, she can hear the babies squawking for beetles while she's inside on her computer searching job listings. As the sun sets, Renee returns to the lanai and the dramedy of parents shooshing tots and dive-bombing squirrels.
Twenty-five miles away in Town 'N Country, my husband and I have been enjoying our own bird show. Since Ben mostly retired six months ago he, like Renee, has become a master bird wooer.
He buys only Premium Fruit & Nut Blend seed mix. He lines up peanuts on the fence to distract the blue jays so the little tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees can get a chance at the feeder, which he's constantly re-engineering. We're getting lots of woodpeckers and cardinals, mockingbirds and doves.
But no bluebirds, darn it.
"They don't like a yard that's like a jungle," says Mary Miller, the Tampa Audubon Society's bluebird trail monitor at Flatwoods Park.
Bad news for Ben and me, but not necessarily for you.
"Most people will say we don't have bluebirds in Florida, but they're all around us and, in Florida, they're year-round residents," Mary says. They're in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, and — maybe — in the less densely populated northern tip of Pinellas.
They forage for insects so they like open spaces, like pastures, cemeteries, golf courses and Renee Tate's 1-acre lot.
They began nesting in March and will continue through August, with each bluebird couple raising multiple broods. Right now, their nests fill most of the 50 birdhouse boxes on the 30-plus-year-old trail at Flatwoods Park in northeast Hillsborough. The few boxes without bluebirds hold titmouse and chickadee nests. One is home to a dozen Brazilian free-tailed bat moms and their babies — a maternity colony, Mary calls it.
The red, white and brilliant blue of Eastern bluebird males and their sing-song warbles were common in 19th century America, thanks to the proliferation of small farms, a perfect habitat. They inspired countless poets, musicians and nature lovers to pen odes to their beauty and cheerful presence.
In 1851, English house sparrows were introduced in the United States to eat up mosquitoes, followed by European starlings in 1890. Both competed with bluebirds for the old woodpecker holes and rotten tree cavities where all three make their nests. The newcomers won.
That, plus pesticides and changes in farming practices that further reduced nesting places, caused bluebirds to nearly disappear by the early 20th century.
Thomas E. Musselman of Quincy, Ill., noticed and in 1926 started building experimental birdhouse boxes. He created the first birdhouse trail and, in 1934, called for others to follow suit in an article published in the National Audubon Society's magazine.
Today the little songbirds rank a happy "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species.
That's a terrific testament to the power of bird lovers like Renee and Mary, who's been monitoring the Flatwoods bluebirds for nine years. While the numbers have rebounded, Mary says they still need our help.
The shortage of natural nesting places remains, and bluebirds contend with an abundance of predators. Last week, Mary opened a box for her weekly check and found a big rat snake inside. Digesting.
Renee is more than happy to do her part. Mr. Bluebird gives her days a needed zip-a-dee-doo-dah.
Renee's husband is a merchant seaman, so he's gone for months at a time. She's used to that. But until her company downsized in September, she had co-workers to talk to when he headed out to sea.
She's not unhappy. She has her hollyhocks, foxglove and gladiolus, an herb garden and a vegetable garden. She enjoys potting plants in the greenhouse she and Ray built.
But it's the bluebirds that remind her to count her blessings.
"Bluebirds are very friendly, very social," she says. "Every time I come out I say, 'Hello, mama! Hello, daddy! Hello, baby!' "
And they sing back to her.
Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; join the gardening chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt, or follow her on Twitter @DigginPenny.