Rarely spotted in cities, western bluebirds require cavities in which to nest and large, irrigated lawns, like athletic fields, which teem with worms and insects. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Birds are singing. Children are laughing and playing in patches of sunlight. And I am strolling through large fields of grass here at Berkeley’s San Pablo Park, aiming my camera at flocks of finches, sparrows — anything with wings — looking for flashes of sapphire blue.

“Are you here for the bluebirds?” asks a friendly father, lifting his gaze from his daughter’s stroller. Only one pair of bluebirds has moved into this popular neighborhood park, but they are well known and well loved.

“In 20 years, I can think, maybe twice, of when I ran into western bluebirds in a town like Berkeley,” says Rusty Scalf, a tall, red-headed birdwatcher known in city circles as the “Bluebird Guy.” In fact, he is a trip leader for the Audubon Society and an expert at spotting and identifying birds.

Rusty first noticed bluebirds in San Pablo Park in 2008 — a brilliant indigo male that glided overhead as he crossed the park on an errand. Knowing that bluebirds nest in tree cavities, Rusty quickly tracked down the woodpecker hole that had become their nest. It was located in the branch of a sycamore tree — a tree that Rusty would come to visit sometimes twice a day for five years.

This male bluebird was last seen by a dog walker, who witnessed a Cooper’s hawk chasing it over the roofline. His mate, a bluebird widow, galliantly fed their chicks on her own. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Over two springs and summers, Rusty watched, as the bluebird parents carried worms and insects to the tree cavity and fluffy, spotted bluebird chicks periodically emerged. But, in 2010, the dead tree limb bearing the woodpecker hole was cut down. So Rusty approached the City of Berkeley, and together, they worked out a plan to help the bluebirds. Rusty built a nest box; the City posted it on the tree’s scar; and thankfully, bluebirds took to their new home right away.

Rusty had built bluebird nest boxes before, about two hundred of them that he posted up and down Sonoma County. But those were in rural areas, where one expects to find bluebirds flying and foraging. These are urban birds. And big-city pressures make life difficult for little bluebirds.

Young bluebirds will group together for weeks after fledging. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

There’s what Rusty calls, “the background level of cats.” Add to that the Cooper’s hawk, a predator of robins, mourning doves, and other birds that were once rare in urban areas. Now these hawks seem to be proliferating in cities like Berkeley.

Even more lethal, however, is the adorable yet non-native house sparrow. It will kill bluebird chicks then usurp their nest site — a sad phenomenon I discovered one morning when I returned with my camera to San Pablo Park. A male house sparrow was perched on the bluebird nest box, tweeting the loudest birdcall in the park, an advertisement to females.

Probably attacked by a domestic cat, this male bluebird in Albany has only two tail feathers and difficulty with walking and flying. Yet he struggles to feed his young as a higher priority than feeding himself. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Fortunately, western bluebirds are proving to be resilient, and the pair in San Pablo Park quickly started a new family in a nest box nearby. Other western bluebirds seem to be tolerating major construction on Derby Street (near the old Iceland). And, despite the thunder of jackhammers directly under their nest box, hungry chicks can be heard peeping in chorus whenever their mom or dad arrives with food.

“What I’d love to do,” says Rusty, “is retire and just survey the city … just go walking around the neighborhoods, looking for bluebirds.”

He’s not alone. Bluebirds have many a non-feathered friend in Berkeley, from city workers to dog walkers to birdwatchers, who witness their intrigues and hopefully, make their lives a little easier. Indeed, bluebirds — and happiness — are spreading. So keep looking up: there just may be a bluebird on your shoulder.

The birdwatching community keeps tabs on Berkeley’s bluebirds through listservs, blogs, and group emails. Rusty remembers the “old days” when bird lovers used phone trees to spread the avian news. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

View the full gallery of photographs of bluebirds by Elaine Miller Bond by clicking on the photo below:

Bluebirds in Berkeley by Elaine Miller Bond

Elaine Miller Bond is the author/illustrator of Affimals: Affirmations + Animals and the upcoming sequel, Dream Affimals, from Sunstone Press. She is also the photographer for The Utah Prairie Dog (University of Utah Press), projected for publication in 2013.

In Tilden Park’s Jewel Lake: Spotting a rare river otter [04.05.12]
Up close with Berkeley’s wildlife at Tilden Regional Park [03.06.12]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

Elaine Miller Bond is an author and photographer whose work celebrates the natural world. She is the author/photographer of Running Wild and Living Wild, lively children’s board books from Heyday Books...