Alabama Blues

(This column was first published in the May 17, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Our recent trip to Alabama had a bittersweet quality. This would be our last visit to my mother-in-law's home. For thirty years my wife and I have spent a few days each year there but now her mother has moved into a retirement home. In two weeks Doris cleaned out the house and distributed its contents among her family.

    I will remember this country home with its broad lawn, its hay fields, its grove of long-needled pines, its sweetgums and oaks for many things but among the best of those memories will be its remarkable number of blue birds.

    Of course, first among those blue-plumaged birds is the one carrying that name, the eastern bluebird. A half dozen of these most beautiful of birds live in or near this yard and their mournful churring "tru-ly" calls provide a softer background to the strident songs of mockingbirds, thrashers and Carolina wrens.

    There is, I believe, no blue to compare with that of the male bluebird. It is a rich color that seems to glow in the South's bright sunlight. When one flies across the lawn and rises to perch on the phone line near the porch where I sit, I cannot take my eyes off it. Hesitantly it looks around at me, exposing its chestnut throat and breast. No photograph could capture this color.

    What is so remarkable about the presence of these birds is the fact that they are not nesting in bluebird houses. There are many old trees here and these birds make their homes in abandoned woodpecker holes. There is one nesting now in the pine grove.

    But bluebirds are only one of the blue species. Indigo buntings sing their doubled phrases from the poplars across the hay field. Their blue is metallic and in indirect light they often appear dark gray or even black. Common in the South, these birds are abundant on the Niagara Frontier as well but few people notice them. Once you know their song, however, you can locate them feeding in the treetops.

    And those omnipresent blue jays are regularly heard, often seen flying but only occasionally to be noticed quietly skulking in the undergrowth. I think of them together with crows as the delinquents of the forest -- always on the lookout for nests to rob or food to steal.

    Three swallows that dash through the air lanes over the yard show various shades of blue, the tree swallow a greenish blue, the barn swallow a grayer shade and the purple martin a deep violet.

    All those birds we in New York share with Alabama, but one other species seldom occurs this far north. Even in the South I do not see them very often, but this year I again find a pair of blue grosbeaks in Mattie Copeland's yard. They sit quietly in a small bush near a brushpile that awaits burning. One year I heard the male sing a rather attractive purple finch-like, warbling song, but this time he poses silently with his mate.

    The male at first appears all blue but on closer examination I pick out his chestnut wing bars and the black area around that thick bill that identifies it as a grosbeak. The female is a drab brown bird and, seen without its consort, I would probably misidentify it as a female cowbird.

    Doris's brother is buying this property so it will remain in the family. But he will rent his mother's home and build a house for his family next door. We'll still be able to visit this blue bird haven, but it will never be quite the same not staying at the old homestead. -- Gerry Rising