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Backyard bluebird acts like its Siberian cousin

A few years back I was in Nome, Alaska, everyone’s favorite vacation destination. No? Well it is if you want to see some of Siberia’s birds that cross over to North America in small numbers to breed.

When I arrived, the sea ice had just broken up, and the resulting thousands of small bergs bobbed just offshore. Musk oxen roamed the outskirts of the town, and flowers were beginning to paint the tundra. I had already seen wheatears, yellow wagtails and bar-tailed godwits, but the bird I really wanted to see was the bluethroat.

The bluethroat is a small thrush related to the nightingale of vocal fame. As its name implies, it has a spectacular blue throat bordered in chestnut and with a chestnut spot in the center. It lives deep in small willow thickets and can be very difficult to locate.

The one time they can be easily seen is when they emerge from the tangle to conduct their courtship flight. They ascend about 100 feet and fly frenetically in large circles 100 yards or more across with uneven flapping flight. It calls to any female that will listen as it flies for four or five circuits before dropping back into the willows for a break.

I was fortunate to view this spectacle on a hill not far out of town. The bird is truly stunning.

Fast forward to the present in my backyard. No. I don’t have a bluethroat, but I do have western bluebirds. Bluebirds are also thrushes. In a family of birds noted for complex and ethereal songs, bluebirds are an embarrassment. Eastern and mountain bluebirds retain very limited and unimpressive songs, but western bluebirds have none. Bright plumage is apparently sufficient to impress females.

One of my simple joys is to sit on my back porch, coffee cup in hand, to await the sunrise. In the dim light I note the juncos, sparrows, titmice and jays refueling at the feeder after a frosty night. I note the first feeble songs of many species as spring approaches.

One morning recently, as the first rays of sunlight illuminated the hills above me, I noted a bluebird take off from the neighbor’s oaks laden with mistletoe and begin to fly in large circles. The flight was enthusiastic and erratic as it turned from side to side in its path. It completed four circuits before returning to the oak to feed. I didn’t think much of the event although it did remind me of my experience in Nome with the bluethroat. A week later I again observed the same behavior. It was now obvious that I was observing courtship flight. In true bluebird fashion the display was conducted in silence.

I have checked the literature. Nowhere does anyone report courtship flights in bluebirds. I can’t be the only person to observe this behavior. However, if I had not observed the bluethroat in Nome, I may not have taken any special note of the bluebird’s behavior.

As a naturalist, I strongly advocate the value of simply sitting and quietly observing. You never know what discoveries you might make even in your backyard.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University, emeritus. He can be reached at janes@sou.com.

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