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BLUEBIRD ON MY SHOULDER

February 23, 2019

Our oldest grandchild, now a college sophomore, posted a question on Facebook last week. What are your three favorite birds?

Being the bird lover that I am, I thought long and hard about this question. The mockingbird, the state bird of Tennessee, was my grandfather’s favorite. My mother loved the northern cardinal. I have a grandchild named for the Carolina wren. The bright goldfinch and the squawking bluejay are favorites. The diminutive ruby-throated hummingbird and the majestic golden eagle are on the list.

I am always fascinated by the flight of a red-tail hawk or an osprey. I pause to listen to the call of a wood thrush or a whippoorwill though I usually am unable to see them. All winter I have enjoyed watching a downy woodpecker at our suet feeder. There are so many favorites, but, without a doubt, at the top of my list is the eastern bluebird.

Herman Whitaker is a good friend who lives in Inman, South Carolina. Herman and I got to know each other through our mutual love of bluebirds. I often refer to him as the Bluebird King of the Upstate. He has built, painted, mounted, and placed more bluebird boxes than anyone since Frank Nantz, a good friend who is now deceased.

One February, always a busy month for the Southern gardener, Herman gave me three new bluebird boxes, painted, mounted, and ready to place in my yard. I did so that very day. In less than an hour, I saw a bright bluebird investigating one of the houses. Within a week a pair of new neighbors had moved in. They begun building a nest and were preparing to raise their fledglings. What joy!
One day last week when I went outside to fetch the newspaper, a bright bluebird flew directly in front of me. A second pair was nesting in a house built by another good friend, Bomar Edmunds. The day began with a bluebird blessing.
One of the perennial joys of spring and summer is the visitation of bluebirds. The sight of these beauties lifts my spirits.

The first movie I can remember was Walt Disney’s Song of the South.  That movie 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.”  The lyrics are, “Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder. It’s the truth. It’s actch’ll. Everything is satisfactch‘ll…”

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 there was a time when the bluebird was an endangered species. That is one reason it is my favorite. I can recall the absence of these lovely creatures.

Sialia sialis, the eastern bluebird, primarily feeds on insects.  Crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and Japanese beetles are all a part of a bluebird’s diet. Because they are insect-eaters, the native population of bluebirds was reduced to critically low numbers by the overuse of pesticides.  Through conservation efforts, the species has made a remarkable recovery.

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, mistletoe, Virginia creeper, red cedar, hollies, and dogwoods. I put out dried mealworms to encourage these feathered friends to stick around through the winter months. A few do, though many migrate to parts south.

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

Since the fall of 2000, bluebirds have become, for Clare and me, a special blessing.

November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to feel like winter. But on November 19, 2000, snow fell across the Upstate. It was the day of our twenty-seven-year-old son’s funeral.

Erik died on November 15, 2000, at his home in Charleston.  Temperatures in the Lowcountry were warm as normal.  The day we returned from Charleston to our home in the Spartanburg, the sky was bright and sunny.  Sunday morning, the day of the funeral, dawned grey, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to fall through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we arrived at the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

Some of our friends expressed regret that the weather was inclement on the day of our son’s service.  In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty with something like, “Lord, you know this will be a hard day for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?”

In my first sermon after Erik’s death, I interpreted the snow as a gentle touch from God, a gift of grace in our grief, and a symbol of hope.  Many of the Christmas cards and Christmas presents we received that year followed a snow theme. As Christmas approached, we decided to decorate our tree with only white lights, snowflakes, and snow-themed ornaments.  Hand-cut snowflakes adorned our windows.

As spring approached, Clare and I knew we needed a symbol of hope for the warmer months.  In late February, I conducted a funeral for a church member at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens; the same cemetery where Erik’s grave is located.

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.

“I think I’ve found a new symbol for spring and summer,” I said when she answered. “It’s a bluebird that has just flown away.”

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

Sure enough, the bluebird returned.  He perched on Erik’s gravestone and was joined by his mate, giving us our new symbol of hope.

Nesting boxes in our yard invite bluebirds to make their home near ours.  Every spring since Erik’s death we have enjoyed two or three winged families as guests in our yard. We welcome them as a symbol of hope, a tender mercy, and a touch of grace.

I have developed the habit of draping my necktie over my shoulder when I eat at a restaurant. It keeps gravy off my tie. After a meal at a local eatery last fall, I walked to the parking lot with my tie still over my shoulder. As I passed a lady on her way into the restaurant, she noticed my tie with a bright blue stripe.

“Oh,” she said. “I thought for a moment you had a bluebird perched on your shoulder!”

Spontaneously I sang, “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah.”

 

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