When I was a little girl I remember my mother and father talking about how my maternal grandparents were going to take a trip by car from Chicago to California to visit a relative. This trip was a really big deal because my grandparents never went anywhere outside of northern Illinois besides venturing into southern Wisconsin if invited to a day picnic. My mother was so proud that my
grandmother, especially, would make the trip, taking Route 66 all the way across western states neither she nor my grandfather had ever been to before. This was my grandmother who survived the most tragic boating disaster of the United States: the sinking of the Eastland in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. Of my grandmother’s telephone assembly work pod, she was the only young woman of eight who did not drown, because someone pulled her out of the water and propped her up, soaked and scared and half drowned, on a coil of large rope. Within a couple of hours, 844 passengers and crew members perished in the Chicago River, only 30 feet away from the dock. Almost none of the passengers, who were Western Electric employees and their children out for a company-sponsored lake excursion, knew how to swim, and life jackets were not even available.
What I do recall hearing about the road adventure through the West was that my grandmother loved all the blue birds she saw. This was a lady who tossed her left-over bread onto the snow during the winter, when bird-feeding was not as popular as it is now. Where we lived, in a Chicago west-side suburb, an occasional red cardinal and a jay were big deals, with sparrows, starlings, and robins being the norm.
So what blue birds did my grandmother see? Most likely she saw the Western Bluebird species, which is prevalent in the West. Not all of them are strikingly blue, but get your eyes on a mature male in breeding plumage, especially when it flies away or towards you, and the gorgeous blue color is seen throughout its back and wings. Immatures and females are duller but still with traces of blue. Look for the rust on their bellies.
I have not seen a Mountain Bluebird in northern Arizona yet, but they are around. According to eBird.org., Mountain Bluebirds have been sighted, for example, in Kachina Wetlands, the Flagstaff area, and Mormon Lake over the years. This bird is almost completely a brilliant blue except for a lighter belly. It prefers habitats at higher elevations than the Western Bluebird, up to 10,000 feet. The flock I did see was in Zion National Park.
Another blue bird my grandmother could have easily spotted is the Steller’s Jay. This bird is hard to miss, as it is loud and striking, with dark blackish blue on its entire body and a distinctive crest. This bird comes to backyards for nuts and peanuts and generally stays high in the trees. Western Bluebirds, on the other hand, are often found on the forests’ edges, in grassy yards, golf courses, and meadows, hunting for grubs and other insects.
My grandmother might also have seen a Lazuli Bunting. Sightings have been recorded on eBird.org at Kachina Wetlands and Odell Lake over the years, and one was sighted by a friend of mine in Munds Park recently. The last blue species I will mention is the Blue Grosbeak. From Illinois to California, she could have sighted it during roadside rest stops or feeding in grasslands or grain fields. So keep your eyes out—it is migration season, and anything can happen at this exciting time. As for me, I usually smile when I see any blue bird, as it brings back happy memories of my grandmother and how she inspired me to pay attention to our birds.
by NAAS Member Margaret Dykeman