As lovers of birds and animals, our family encourages the visits of all wildlife. We take in strays and rehabilitate raccoons. We comfort injured birds and subsidize winter visitors at our back door. We feed chickadees, junco, titmice, cardinals, white and red-breasted nuthatches, all manner of sparrows, purple and house finches, goldfinches, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and flocks of transient evening grosbeaks. An overfriendly pine siskin feeds from our hands or impatiently perches on my sunglasses as I fill the feeder. When the squirrels start waddling instead of walking, I try to shoo them away, but they just plant themselves a few feet distant and smile benignly.
We look expectantly to the springtime arrivals, knowing that spring is really here when the first wren begins its lilting warble. We know the very day the Baltimore oriole arrives as we hear its penetrating song long before we spot it in the treetops. If we are lucky, a scarlet tanager will nest nearby, and we will hear the rose-breasted grosbeak even if we don't see it. Eventually the ruby-throated hummingbird, hovering miraculously in midair, will sample our red petunias. The many warblers will confuse us, but if we look carefully we might spot a Blackburnian or a redstart among them.
But always missing from our growing collection of birds is the eastern bluebird. House sparrows and starlings, they say, have taken its nesting places, and the bulldozer has removed many of its beloved orchards. Insecticides and severe winters have taken their toll. Immortalized in poem and song, the state bird of New York and Missouri hardly seems to stand a chance.
I always wanted to see a bluebird - just one would do. I put up bluebird boxes built to proper specifications and they were inhabited by wrens. I put out orange slices and raisins and they were eaten by my children. I planted berry-bearing shrubs and trees and they were eaten by every berry-chomping bird this side of the Mississippi except the one I most wanted to see.
One balmy April morning that promised buds and leaflets and warmth to follow, Brian and I went for a walk in the Pocantico hills, not far from our home. The mud season was over and the trees wore a barely perceptible veil of green. As we entered the woods, we were aware of the wonderful earthy odors - an almost dank scent, mossy and musty - and we continued on past a gurgling brook that meandered in and out around our trail. Our German shepherd, Pete, bounded down to the water's edge, lapping at the still-icy water and managing to go just far enough to feel the gushy spring mud between his toes.
Suddenly the dusky woods gave way to bright sunlight as we entered the meadow where an old orchard lined our path. A perfect setting, I mused: everything that could be desired by the nature lover was here - woodlands, meadows, orchards, ponds, brooks, hills, valleys, wildlife, and pure silence if you stopped long enough to listen. As I considered this, I looked ahead and saw a fluttering movement on the ground about forty feet away. A flock of birds was busily scurrying around the base of an old elm tree. I perceived a hint of blue in the shade of the tree and my feet moved a little faster. Suddenly I declared to no one in particular, ''Bluebirds!''
Twenty-four bluebirds were more than I had bargained for. All I had ever really hoped for was one. Brian and I stood frozen, with Pete quietly seated between us. For one hour we stayed in the meadow, exhilarated by our discovery. Everything we'd ever heard about the blues was true - the males were shockingly blue, and indeed they carried the sky on their backs and the sun on their breasts. They darted from tree to tree and down on the ground again in pursuit of flying insects. Gradually they went deeper into the orchard and our visit ended. We resumed our walk with a special euphoric bounce to our spirits.
We returned to the old orchard many times but never spotted the bluebirds again.
Four years later on a golden October day, we took friends on a Sunday afternoon walk through another meadow in the same area. As we strolled along, I told Carolyn and Larry about the bluebirds we had once seen. They were backyard bird-watchers, too, and had only seen a single bluebird years before on Cape Cod. They, too, had unsuccessfully tried to attract them to their home.
Suddenly Carolyn stopped and held up both hands, motioning for the rest of us to stop chattering.
''Bluebirds!'' she whispered.
Incredibly, two bluebirds cavorted directly over our heads. The four of us stood montionless, watching this spectacular air show of a male and female in undulating flight. They soared upward and then coasted right back down again. We knew instinctively that this was their farewell to summer - and their greeting and farewell to us - they were about to begin their journey southward. How fortunate we were to have once again timed it so perfectly. Once every four years - or once in a lifetime - it was a joy to behold these magnificent creatures adding their azure radiance to an already perfect day. We knew now with certainty that they would return again and again, and we made a vow that when they returned in the spring, bluebird nesting boxes would be awaiting them.