John James Audubon
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), Study for Havell pl. 113, ca. 1820; 1822
Watercolor, pastel, graphite, charcoal, and black ink with selective glazing on paper, laid on thin board
Purchased for the Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.113
Temporarily at least, Eastern Bluebirds are billed as a success story due to human intervention. Once, in Audubon’s day, they were considerably more numerous, especially in the northern states. The species’ population decline has been attributed to many factors, including the introduction to the U.S. from Europe of the House Sparrow in 1851 and of the Starling in 1890. Each of these birds competes with the much less aggressive bluebird for nesting sites. Chemical spraying of trees has also taken its toll, as has severe weather. But the introduction of bluebird boxes in hospitable locations—a custom practiced even in Audubon’s day (also by Lucy and JJA) before environmental hazards were as extreme—is slowly helping to stabilize the Eastern Bluebird. Although populations declined further in the 1960s and 19760s, they rose thereafter due to the increased popularity of nest box campaigns. Still vulnerable to competition from introduced competitors, it is encouraging that Eastern Bluebirds typically have more than one successful brood each year. The male does a “Nest Demonstrations Display” at the nest cavity to attract the female. He brings nest material to the hole, goes in and out, and waves his wings while perched above it. That dance in several acts is pretty much his contribution to nest building; only the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs.
The song of the Eastern Bluebird is a rich warbling whistle broken into short phrases: Tu-wheet-turdu, although they also emit a dry chatter. Audubon drew the expressive feeding scene at the bottom of this composition around 1820, about the time that he traveled down the Mississippi River writing in his journal: “Many Blue Birds, these were pleasing to me, the poorest note of these is always welcome [sic] to Mine ears.” He added the male bird at the top of this composition in Louisiana in 1822. Affectionately remarking on their charm in his journal, JJA noted: “It adds to the delight imparted by spring, and enlivens the dull days of winter. Full of innocent vivacity, warbling its ever pleasing notes, and familiar as any bird can be in its natural freedom, it is one of the most agreeable of our feathered favorites.”
Excerpted from Roberta J.M. Olson, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”