Lewis I. Rice writer
Herbert Randle photographer
Mary Horne walks on the land behind her house on Highland Street in Weston. There stand ten custom-designed nest boxes filled with bowls of mealworms, waiting to attract bluebirds. But while birds like a sparrow and blue jay feast on the seeds in the feeder near the side entrance of the house, the bluebirds stay hidden.
Horne knows, however, that the bluebirds are out there, a confidence based on her own work to revitalize the population in their native habitat. These days, despite their absence on a rainy morning in late fall, bluebirds have returned to Weston in abundance, thanks to the efforts of the local naturalist who remembers when her feathered friends seemed to have flown the coop.
A resident of the same house in Weston since 1954, Horne began to focus on bluebirds when she retired as an elementary school teacher and guidance counselor in 1992. The Eastern bluebird, though native to the area, had decreased in number, primarily because of sparrows that killed them and lack of nesting areas, she says. Horne wanted to see the birds come back to a place they belonged.
“I’ve always been interested in nature and wildlife,” she says. “The idea that I could do something right where I lived to help species was great.”
Technically called sialia sialis, the Eastern bluebird belongs to the thrush family. About seven inches long, the males have a bright blue back while females are a grayer shade of blue. In addition to their soothing song, bluebirds have been long celebrated as symbols of hope and happiness. Thoreau wrote of them: “His soft warble melts the ear, as the snow is melting in the valleys around.” A classic song, “The Bluebird of Happiness” features the line: “Life is sweet, tender and complete, when you find the bluebird of happiness.” Perhaps the most well-known reference is in the Judy Garland song in the movie The Wizard of Oz: “Somewhere over the rainbow/ Bluebirds fly/ Birds fly over the rainbow/ Why then oh why can't I?”
It’s not likely that Horne sings along with the bluebirds or waxes poetic about them. A trim woman with short white hair, she conveys a no-nonsense, determined bearing, giving the impression she’d rather do something than talk about it. When she set out to cultivate the bluebird, Horne read a story about Cambridge artisan Joe Finn, who makes nest boxes (and is particular about selling them – he personally checks the property to ensure it has ample open space before he’ll part with his creation). The 18 acres in back of Horne’s house have proven to be a fertile area for the birds.
Along with the proper space, the nest boxes require consistent monitoring. Horne inspects the boxes, which are placed on metal poles at about eye level, every few days. She replenishes the mealworms, which she keeps in a large container with scraps of lettuce in her greenhouse. Sparrow traps catch the bluebird’s main predator, which Horne removes from the box. She checks the nests for babies, whose protection is key to expanding the bluebird population.
On her kitchen table, Horne keeps large poster boards, on which she records how many bluebirds in town “fledge,” that is, are born and able to fly each year. The numbers range from 70 and 72 in 2000 and 2001, to 49 and 43 in 2004 and 2005. She sends an annual report to the Cornell University ornithology department, which relies on “citizen scientists” around the country to gather data.
In addition to the ten nest boxes where she lives, Horne has been instrumental in placing close to 50 around town, including six of them at Land’s Sake Farm in Weston. In order to collect information and maintain upkeep, she sometimes can be found ambling around residents’ back yards to check on their nest boxes. “They hear about me and ask if they can get a box and what they should do,” she says.
One of those residents, Lyn DesMarais, wanted bluebirds when she moved to a five-acre property in Weston in 1998, inspired by a favorite Patsy Cline song that includes a line about “a bluebird in every tree.” She heard from another resident about Horne and her passion for bluebirds.
With Horne’s encouragement and advice, DesMarais bought six boxes for her property and six for the town. Now her land is filled with bluebirds, and she credits Horne with their local comeback.
“She is part and parcel of the environmental movement,” says DesMarais. “It’s so easy to wipe out a species, but to bring them back and maintain them is incremental, hard work, and if we didn’t have people like Mary, we wouldn’t have bluebirds around. She single-handedly brought all the bluebirds back to Weston.”
And, adds DesMarais, that’s brought some extra happiness to her and to the town.