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Bluebird Heroes

February 23, 2014

The ushers at the church I serve have become for me a network of valuable information. Frank Ezell, an avid railroad enthusiast, keeps me current on the latest news from Magnolia Station. Jim Barbee, a true blue University of North Carolina Tar Heel, gives me a regular report on the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball news. Tom Badger is my most reliable informant when it comes to the world of bluebirds.

Several years ago Tom and I had a lengthy conversation before the service about the possibility of a bluebird trail along a back entry to the church property. Within two weeks Tom had placed a dozen or so bluebird boxes mounted on galvanized pipe around the perimeter of the church property. Tom keeps the houses in good repair and ready for occupancy in the spring each year.

Several weeks ago, before the big snowfall, I received a phone call from Herman Whitaker. Herman, an Inman resident, is known by many as the Bluebird Man. For more years than I can count, Herman has been giving away bluebird houses. He, too, mounts the boxes on galvanized pipe.

Herman makes an agreement with the recipients of his craft that they will clean the houses out in late winter.  Herman says he has placed more than 350 nesting boxes.

Because Herman knows of my fondness for bluebirds, he wanted to give me a bluebird feeder. His timing was perfect. I visited his farm three miles west of Inman on a warm afternoon in late January. He has developed a peaceful prayer garden, as well as an interesting display depicting his military service in the navy during World War II. Of course, the farm also features numerous bluebird houses.

February is a busy month for the Southern gardener. Traditionally, sugar snap peas and Irish potatoes are planted on Valentine’s Day. Last Saturday, with the help of a teenager, I repaired and cleaned bluebird boxes.

One of the perennial joys of spring and summer is the visitation of bluebirds. The sight of these beauties lifts my spirits. It is little wonder that bluebirds are associated with happiness.

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, sang of bluebirds that fly over the rainbow.  The lyrics to a song from the World War II era proclaimed, “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover” as a harbinger of peace.

Songs about bluebirds abound, but at one time the bluebird was an endangered species. They suffered from the use of pesticides.  The main culprit was DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a colorless, crystalline, tasteless, and almost odorless chemical. American biologist Rachel Carson questioned the environmental impact of indiscriminate DDT use in her book Silent Spring, published in 1962.

Sialia sialis, the Eastern bluebird, primarily feeds on insects.  Crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and Japanese beetles are all a part of a bluebird’s diet.  It is because they are insect-eaters that the native population of bluebirds was reduced to critically low numbers. The birds were victims of the overuse of pesticides.

When DDT was banned in 1972, the Eastern bluebird started to make a comeback. Continued conservation and backyard nesting boxes have contributed to the strong recovery.

The North American Bluebird Society was founded in 1978 by Dr. Lawrence Zeleny to promote the preservation of bluebirds.  In his book The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival, he called these feathered friends the “symbol of love, hope, and happiness.”

In late February 2001, I conducted a funeral at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, the same cemetery where our son Erik had been buried the previous November.

At the conclusion of the service, I stopped the car near our son’s newly-placed tombstone.  I could see an Eastern bluebird perched atop Erik’s marker.  I called Clare on the cell phone just as the bird flew away.

“Wait a minute or two.  Maybe the bird will come back,” Clare said.

Sure enough, the bluebird, joined by his mate, returned and perched on Erik’s gravestone. The bluebird became for us a symbol of hope.

Bluebirds are found in South Carolina year-round.  When insect populations decrease with frost and cold weather, the bluebirds expand their menu to include berries and seeds. Suet and mealworms are special treats.

In a single season, a nesting pair will rear two broods of four or five fledglings each.  The birds will nest in any cavity; however, bluebird boxes, mounted four or five feet above the ground, facing south over an open area, are almost sure to attract a mated pair.

The Cherokee Indians call the bluebird the “bird that carries the sky on its back.”  The bright blue feathers, accented by a chestnut throat and white belly, make this winged visitor a welcomed addition to any backyard.

Frank Nantz, a friend and member of the church I serve as pastor, fought a difficult battle with pancreatic cancer. As we sat together in a hospital room before his final surgery, he asked me to listen to and to write a rather lengthy story in which he described his love for bluebirds. I include part of that story here in his own words.

“If you travel east on Cannon’s Camp Ground Road in Spartanburg County, about where Mary Black Hospital is located, you can see bluebird boxes.  Some are on fence posts; some are on telephone poles.  If you turn left on Highway 110, just above Cowpens, and continue to the Spartanburg and Cherokee County line, you will arrive at my farm.  I refer to it as a plantation.  All along that stretch of road, I have put up bluebird boxes that I have built.  I clean them out each winter and keep them fixed up each year.  I refer to that road as the Frank Nantz Bluebird Trail.

“When you arrive at my 93-acre farm, you will see numerous bluebird boxes.  Traveling west back toward Cooley Springs along Highway 11, you will find even more bluebird boxes.  All of those are mine, too.  I refer to that stretch of road as the Frank Nantz Bluebird Trail Annex.

“If I was walking my bluebird trail and found a little bluebird with a broken wing, I would pick that bird up in my hands. It would break my heart, and I might even cry.  If somebody told me, ‘Frank, I can mend that little bluebird’s broken wing for fifty dollars, and it’ll be as good as new,’ why, I would pay fifty dollars of my hard-earned money to see that little bird healed.”

The first movie I can remember was Walt Disney’s Song of the South.  That film has now been removed from circulation because it is no longer considered politically correct.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see Uncle Remus and the animations of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear.  In one of my favorite scenes Uncle Remus is depicted with an animated bluebird perched first on one shoulder, and then on the other, as he sings “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

When I call to mind people like Tom Badger, Herman Whitaker, Lawrence Zeleny, Rachel Carson, or Frank Nantz, I can envision them with a bluebird perched on their shoulder.  They are a few among many bluebird heroes.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2014
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