Mr. Troyer's Story

by Julie Zickefoose

I had known this day would come, had been thinking about it a lot lately, but I wasn't truly prepared for it. Mr. Troyer didn't come in for his mealworms this afternoon, February 16, 2000. His widow, if widow she be, is already consorting with another male, the same day Mr. Troyer disappeared. He came to the kitchen window to remind me about his mealworms this morning, and this afternoon he is simply gone, erased, replaced. Such is the nature of songbird bonds, even long-standing ones. Bluebirds can't live forever, after all, and this one, I know, was at least eight years old, and probably closer to nine. A Methuselah among bluebirds.

He wasn't banded, but he had been marked just the same, by the quick talons of a sharp-shinned hawk, on May 19, 1993. It was at that moment that he became more than just another bluebird to me, that our lives were knit together, that I began to know him as an individual.

Bill and I had been gardening all day, and dusk was approaching. My notes from that day: "Willy saved the male bluebird from a sharpie who barreled between the forsythia and garage, picked the male bluebird off the clothesline pole, and carried him, shrilling, for a distance before Willy's yelling scared the hawk into dropping him! Oh! The male sat sleek and terrified on the TV antenna for about 40 seconds before flying to the orchard. He looked OK. His mate just sat on the wire, stunned. If Bill hadn't heard a robin scolding and thought fast, the bluebird just would have been gone in the morning."

This was not the considered action of a well-informed naturalist--though Bill more than qualifies. This was the same primitive response that snatches a toddler off a curb as a taxi sweeps by. Denying a sharp-shinned hawk a well-earned meal is not something we routinely do, or recommend. There was no thought involved, and thus no excuse to be made for his intervention.

The sharpshin dropped the bluebird. I picked him up, his tiny chest heaving, bill wide open, bright beads of blood on his left bicep and breast. Carefully, I spread both wings, stretched his legs, blew apart the feathers on his breast to search for wounds. Finding nothing gashed or broken, I smoothed his feathers and released him. His brood was due to fledge in four days, and he had work to do.

For two days, we didn't see much of him; he sat mopily in the wooded border, left wing drooping. But then his parental instincts won out over his discomfort, and he helped his mate see the brood out of the box. There was a marked difference in his demeanor, though. This once skittish bird seemed to have completely lost his fear of us, and he'd bathe merrily in the birdbath as I weeded barely 10 feet away. Having kept, healed, and grown up watching wild birds, I know that a bird will not bathe if it feels in the least threatened, for wet feathers spell vulnerability. Clearly, he no longer regarded me as a threat. Could he view me as a protector after the hawk incident, and actually feel safer when I was near?

I thought back to other, similar instances I'd experienced. Several years earlier, I'd enjoyed watching a pair of barn swallows raising their brood in my landlord's garage. I'd hung an old umbrella beneath their nest, upside down, to catch the fallout from the nest and spare my landlord's truck. The swallows, perhaps resenting this, always dive-bombed me when I approached the garage, giving shrill kiveet! calls. Then, one hot day, I heard the same calls, with a more hysterical tone, and rushed out to find a five-foot-long black rat snake oozing along a rafter toward the nestful of young swallows. With a rake, I coaxed the snake down and into a burlap bag for detention until the young swallows fledged. The adult swallows sat stone-still in the rafters, watching the procedure, then silently escorted me and the writhing burlap bag from the garage. From that day on, they never dive-bombed me or voiced an alarm call at me again.

A female hairy woodpecker who frequents our peanut and suet feeders has hit our window twice this winter. The second time she was knocked almost cold, and lay sprawled on the lawn, vulnerable to attack from a predator. My heart sinking, I picked her up, checked her for broken bones, and, finding her intact, gently placed her in the crotch of a thick pine tree to recover. I checked on her several times over the next two hours, and was glad to find her preening, then flying back to the feeding station for a snack. Her mate is as shy as ever, as befits a hairy woodpecker, but the female has shown not the slightest fear of me from that day on, feeding calmly as I fill feeders only a few feet away. Still stunned, or just smart? I know it's unfashionable to conjure words like "trust" in a discussion of animal behavior, but as much as my mind circles around this and similar incidents, it keeps running into the same conclusion.

Having forged this bond with the rescued bluebird, I took renewed interest in his doings. After all, he was instantly identifiable, with that drooping left wing. He was to nest with the same mate in the east box for the next three seasons, successfully fledging 18 young. When the male bluebird nesting in our front yard suddenly disappeared on March 16, 1996, I was surprised to see the injured male making forays from his eastern territory into the front yard. Little matter that he had a mate building a nest in the east box. He waved his wings at the widowed female, who, seemingly energized by his presence, began gathering nesting material.

Singing vigorously, he encouraged her to build in the front yard box. The widow had other ideas. She flew around the corner of our house to a box on the west side and began to build in it. Savagely, her new escort attacked her, and drove her back to the front yard box. Again and again she attempted to build in the west box, and each time he drove her back to the front yard. I was mystified at his behavior until I realized that he wanted both his mates in sight at once. From the front yard box he could keep an eye on the east box. Not so the west box. If he was to have a chance of squiring two females and holding two territories at once, he had to keep an eye on both at all times. When the widow finally gave in and took a billful of possum fur to the front yard box, he rewarded her with a soft caterpillar. Not so dumb, this droopy-winged male.

Largely without help from him, the injured male's first mate raised a brood of five. His affections clearly had been won by the widowed front yard female. When, on June 16, 1996, a new male arrived to woo the east box female, the double-timing male had little argument. He settled in with the front yard female, and conceded his first mate to the interloper.

Now that they were an official pair, the droopy-winged male and the widowed female seemed to need a name. I decided on the Troyers, after bluebirder Andy Troyer. He had sent me a nifty slot box and PVC baffle to try out, and it was here that the pair settled. The name Mr. Troyer fit the injured bluebird somehow; like Andy, he was sharp as a tack and had a zest for life. He came to know our schedule, and would appear like magic at breakfast, lunch, and dinnertime, peering into the appropriate windows with a gentle reminder that he'd like to eat, too. In the morning, when I was rising from bed and dressing, he'd perch on a cast-iron bell just outside the window and watch for me to raise the blind. When the two set to their mealworm feast, Mr. Troyer always let his mate eat her fill before feeding himself.

The pair seemed set on making bluebird history. While in 1994 and 1995 Mr. Troyer had managed to raise a total of only 14 young with his first mate, in 1996, with the widow by his side, his production took off. That season alone, 14 young in three broods fledged from the Troyers' box, one of which was an orphan I sneaked into their second brood. In 1997 there were 13 young in three broods, and the 1998 season resulted in 17 fledged from four broods--a first for me in Ohio. There was a downturn in 1999, when all but one of the Troyers' second brood died of bacterial enteritis; still they managed to fledge 9 that year in three broods. Carefully paging through my notes, I found that Mr. Troyer had fathered and fledged no fewer than 67 young in his eight years of nesting in our yard, an awesome output for a droopy-winged bluebird.

I have to take some credit--or blame--for this production, for it was unique among the 15 bluebird boxes on our farm. The Troyers were subsidized, quite heavily, with mealworms that I doled out onto the deck railing. It was easy and fun, and I enjoyed the close companionship it fostered. Spurred by this abundance of food, Mrs. Troyer usually had her first clutch complete by April Fool's Day, even as snow flew around the little slot box. In 1998, the banner year of four broods, I fed the pair as many mealworms as they could eat. And I learned a lesson, at their expense.

By the time their fourth and final brood had fledged at the astonishingly late date of September 14, 1998, the Troyers were clearly done in. Neither had followed a proper bluebird molting schedule, gradually replacing their feathers in late July and August. No, they looked like bad mounts. Mr. Troyer lost his tail all at once and every feather on his head, and Mrs. Troyer didn't look much better. It was a wonder they were able to fly, much less feed their young. I realized that I had overtaxed their systems by offering too much food and encouraging them to raise one too many broods. I'd thrown their metabolisms off, and I clearly hadn't done them any favors. The fact was that they didn't need all those mealworms; the superabundance of food brought on overproduction and exhausted their energy reserves. All that autumn, I watched and worried as cool weather came on and the Troyers still wore their shabby summer feathers. To my great relief, their smooth autumnal plumage finally emerged, and the Troyers looked good by mid-October. I'd never do that to them again!

By spring 1999, I realized that Mr. Troyer was getting old. A house sparrow had cornered him in his box and pecked the back of his head bald. Another identifying mark for a bird who'd become a beloved neighbor to me. We eventually were able to remove the house sparrow threat, and the Troyers carried on with their fourth season together. It wasn't to be their best; an infectious enteritis killed all but one of their young in the second brood. When the Troyers abandoned her, I removed and fed her until she was strong enough to be fostered into another box. Wisely, they switched boxes for their third brood, nesting on the west side of the house. That's the best way to avoid an infectious disease, I thought. I hoped Mrs. Troyer was pleased to finally occupy her first box choice at long last.

Five healthy young fledged from their third brood of 1999, and then construction started on an addition to our house, which effectively eliminated the Troyers' territory, albeit temporarily. Great gaping pits and piles of earth replaced their lush lawn and flower garden habitat. The Troyers wisely quit the premises. They'd appear first thing in the morning, a few fledglings in tow, and sit atop the chimney, surveying what had once been their yard. Then they'd fly off down the orchard to parts unknown. I felt terrible about it, and I promised them that we'd rebuild it better than ever once the addition was completed in the winter. I hoped they wouldn't desert me altogether, though I couldn't have blamed them if they did.

On a fine September day the Troyers returned and asked for mealworms as if nothing had ever happened. Their box was back up in the front yard; they inspected it, and from then on they were regulars, navigating the construction moonscape with aplomb. All winter they stayed around, accepting a mealworm handout at sunup and sundown, and disappearing deep into the woods during the day.

Spring crept on and buds started to swell, and the Troyers' thoughts turned to nesting once again. Mr. Troyer spent increasing periods sitting on and near the box, singing intermittently and waving his wings on fine mornings. What a trouper; what a life he'd had, I thought, and marveled that he was ready to start perhaps his ninth season of nesting, to feed and fledge yet more young. He'd weathered floods and drought and ice storms, construction and excavation, a sharpshin attack and a sparrow drubbing, and who knows what other vicissitudes that I hadn't had the privilege of witnessing. One summer he'd taken ill and developed a sneeze and cough, and he'd become sluggish and stopped feeding his young. I worried him through that, trying to figure out how to administer an antibiotic in his mealworms, but he recovered, and carried on.

We'd intervened so often on his behalf that I suppose it was open to question whether Mr. Troyer was truly a wild bird. He should have been dead in 1993, and would have been, but for Bill. That was 67 young and seven years ago. Through it all, he taught me the ways of a bluebird, the thought processes of which he was capable, the dispassionate hedging of bets that led him to abandon a sickly brood and try again. I was desperately fond of him, his old droopy wing and his bald spot.

The last time I saw him he was perched on the front door awning, peering in the kitchen window at me as I played with baby Liam on the floor. "Mealworms? Aren't you forgetting my mealworms?" he seemed to say. Dutifully, I put them out, and he and Mrs. Troyer feasted. That afternoon he was gone. The smooth, bullet-blue male sharpshin who often strafed the yard might have borne him off without a trace, plucked him in the woods, littering the duff with bright azure feathers as he stoked his own frantic fire. I would never know what happened to Mr. Troyer.

That same afternoon a new male was escorting Mrs. Troyer, a sleek, young thing, traces of juvenal plumage lingering about his throat, snappy of movement and boisterous in song. How quickly her mate was replaced in her life. I should be more like her, I thought, willing to fast-forward to the next act. I suppose if my allotted span were less than a decade, I'd be better at it, but we humans have time to mull and grieve and reflect on a life well lived, no matter how small. I had held him in my hand, helped his young through rain and cold, changed their nests when parasites threatened, fed him in bitter cold and snow, spoken to him nearly every day for eight years.

I thought about human intervention and the debates around bird feeding. I have colleagues who view bird feeding as the equivalent of turning wild birds into backyard pets. I know birders who have never opened a bag of sunflower seed.

Knowledgeable bluebirders maintain that bluebirds don't need a mealworm subsidy to thrive and raise young, and I know that, on the whole, they are right. When a week of cold rain hits in midsummer, soaking the adults and making it impossible for them to find food, these trail operators simply clean the starved nestlings out of the houses so the adults can start again. I, on the other hand, travel box to box with tweezers and mealworms, and feed the young birds through the hardship. It's not easy, and it's going overboard, I know, but I am compelled to do it, and I don't apologize for it. I feel responsible for these birds who have chosen to nest in my boxes.

Then my thoughts jumped to the larger issue: Where would bluebirds, as a species, be without human intervention? When the long-term decline of bluebirds became evident in the 1960s, the nationwide move to provide housing for them was the largest single-species conservation effort ever launched. Thanks to pioneers like Lawrence Zeleny, who worked hard to make their plight known to the thousands of dedicated bluebird trail operators across the nation and to state and national outreach organizations like the North American Bluebird Society, bluebirds are now a reasonably common sight on telephone wires and fencerows across America.

In my experience with Mr. Troyer, I had a microcosm of the larger picture. By waving our arms at one hawk, we'd unwittingly allowed 53 more young bluebirds into the world. I'd had the privilege of chronicling the long and productive life of a single bird. I'd learned a valuable lesson about nearly loving a bird to death with too much provender. My little girl, Phoebe, had known the magic of providing for wild birds who would come to within an arm's length when she called to them. We had intervened, and we were much the richer for it. One bluebird had made the world a more beautiful place for us, and his memory will burn, a small azure flame, in my heart.

Julie Zickefoose is enjoying introducing new baby son Liam to his bluebird neighbors.