THONOTOSASSA — In the spring, when bluebirds mate, a voyeur named Mary Miller watches. The Audubon volunteer qualifies as one of Florida's top bluebird matchmakers. Her ambition is to repopulate the state with a once-robust species that has fallen onto hard times.
"Bluebirds put a smile on my face,'' she says.
We should mention that our matchmaker never stokes bluebird libidos by selling them avian porn. Nor does she attempt to lace their succulent grubs and beetles with powdered, double-strength Viagra.
Our matchmaker's philosophy falls into the "if you provide bluebirds with motel rooms they will do what comes naturally'' category.
At present, she has 41 bluebird nesting boxes scattered through the woods at Hillsborough County's sexy Flatwoods Park.
Do the polite thing and avert your gaze.
Or do what Mary does and gawk through binoculars.
Ooh la la!
Bluebirds, Thoreau wrote, carry the sky on their backs. The matchmaker couldn't agree more. The blue of a bluebird is so blue it almost hurts her eyes.
In west-central Florida, as she watches, bluebirds swoop through the pines and flit over the pastures. The males sing their hearts out — "Trooo-ley. Trooo-ley'' — to bashful females. Playing hard to get, the femme fatale retreats to another branch and snubs him. The determined Lothario flies to her side with a bluebird version of a diamond ring.
A juicy worm.
Somehow they communicate their fondness for each other.
Perhaps we should cue the Sinatra music and let the movie screen go black for a sec.
Now, as we fade back in, he is looking for a safe place where they can set up a household. If he is lucky, he finds a classy tree cavity on the edge of a meadow. Because those places are no longer common, he may settle for one of Mary Miller's bird motels at Flatwoods Park.
If the female bluebird agrees with the arrangement, she'll collect grass and pine needles and carry them into the bird box. She'll weave her treasure into a lovely vortex of a nest.
Pretty soon she will be incubating a clutch of pale blue eggs. Dad will fly in and out of the nest box with dinner.
• • •
"Good morning!'' the matchmaker calls from afar. Mary Miller lets the bluebirds in the nesting box know she is on the way. Sometimes an adult will perch on a nearby branch and cheep. They are too polite to dive-bomb her head.
Next Miller knocks on the nest box, waits a moment and opens the door.
"We have some newly hatched chicks!'' she announces.
They're about the size of the matchmaker's pinky, mostly bald and, frankly, kind of stupid. Blind and trusting, they throw open their beaks and peep insistently for food. That's not the matchmaker's job; her job is counting. Every Wednesday from April to August she counts bluebird eggs and bluebird chicks. Some industrious parents raise several broods.
"I am the luckiest person in Florida,'' the matchmaker says. "I get to see bluebirds. What's there not to love?''
The matchmaker has bluebird-colored eyes and wears bluebird-colored clothing. In her 63 years she has been a tomboy daughter, a snake-catching sister, a nature-loving wife, a mostly patient mother, a schoolteacher and a social worker. She has no regrets, though she really likes being retired. Now she has time for bluebirds.
“Blue skies smiling at me,'' Irving Berlin wrote in 1927. "Nothing but blue skies do I see. Bluebirds singing a song. Nothing but bluebirds all day long.''
• • •
In the 21st century, more Americans know bluebirds from poetry or popular music than from their actual song. More of us have seen bluebirds in books than on tree limbs.
Nobody set out to destroy America's bluebird population, but it almost happened. A century ago, bright boys in New York introduced a sparrow from England to the Americas, hoping the hungry sparrows would eat the insects that ate their crops. English sparrows took over bluebird nests and tossed bluebird chicks to the ground.
Loggers, meanwhile, lopped down bluebird trees while developers bulldozed fields and pastures where bluebirds hunted. Pesticides in the food chain silenced bird voices everywhere.
Bluebirds, unlike raucous jays and aggressive mockingbirds, are lousy at change. They don't do civilization. They don't do the tree in the parking lot behind the neighborhood CVS. Bluebirds need forests — but those forests have to be adjacent to pastures and meadows where bluebirds can pluck insects off the ground and out of the air.
Picky bluebirds nest only in tree cavities probably hollowed out in the past by woodpeckers. The entry hole has to be large enough to admit an adult bluebird but too small to admit bluebird-eating critters. Finally, the cavity has to be no more than 5 or 6 feet off the ground.
Bluebirds are so 19th century. Maybe Mary Miller is too.
• • •
"Good mo-rn-ing!'' she trills politely.
She draws close to the birdhouse and knocks on the door.
The bluebird eggs are hardly larger than Easter candy. "Oh, look, there's a crack in the egg. I think a chick is trying to peck his way out of that egg!''
As a kid, she loved everything about nature, even her brother's pet rattlesnakes. In Florida, she still likes snakes — as long as she doesn't catch one eating bluebirds or see one in the high grass between her feet, which sometimes happens.
She closes the nest box door quietly and writes on her clipboard.
When she started the program five years ago, Mary Miller's nesting boxes produced about 100 bluebird chicks. Last year, her bluebird motels resulted in 160 bluebirds at Flatwoods Park.
"Goooood morning!'' she calls out a moment later.
The chicks in this nest, a week old, are already as big as their parents. Next week, if everything goes well, they'll be flying, and the matchmaker will be watching and waiting.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.