Over the past few weeks, Pickersgill Retirement Community resident Peter White has made the trek from his third-floor apartment to a grassy, tree-lined area near the independent living community's entrance about three times a day to tend to two Eastern bluebirds he's named Hope and Happy.
After two years of attempting to coax an Eastern bluebird to take up residence near the property, the pair nested in a bluebird house White put up in the spring. Hope and Happy are the first sighting at Pickersgill of what some consider an elusive bird in Towson.
"It's the talk of this whole place," White said of the birds. "They sure make me happy and they make a lot of other people happy."
Once rare, some experts say the Eastern bluebird population is increasing, though it may still be difficult to spot the open-area loving birds in more congested parts of Towson. The birds tend to get beaten out for nesting spots by more aggressive birds.
Attracting the birds to the birdhouse was a triumph in itself, but White said he was doubly excited when he spotted eggs in the nest on Father's Day. He hoped to see fledgelings hatch around July 4.
The thrice-daily walk is one White said he is happy to make if it keeps the bluebirds in Pickersgill — though, on Sunday, White, Pickersgill and the two bluebirds, experienced a setback.
When White checked the birdhouse, he found that no baby bluebirds had emerged and the female bluebird was missing.
"There was no Hope," White said. "There was just Happy. He got something to eat and left."
Worried, he called a retail store that specializes in bird feeding supplies for advice and was told that too much time had passed for the eggs to hatch, he said. He was advised to clear out the nest and start over. Later, when White reached inside the nest, he found shards of small, broken bluebird eggs.
White said he will continue to try to get bluebirds to nest in his birdhouse.
"I'm obviously disappinted but not defeated," White said Monday. "Now I know there's bluebirds in the area so I'll keep on monitoring the box and start over."
'A love affair'
White and his wife, June White, moved to Pickersgill in March 2015 after living in Glen Arm for almost 40 years, where White said his wife — whom he jokingly calls the "Bird Lady"— first started attracting birds to their property.
After spotting a bluebird in the yard one day, June White sent her husband to the bird supply store to ask about getting the bluebirds to stay. An employee suggested he purchase a bluebird house, as bluebirds nest in already established holes, and mealworms, to feed the birds. White purchased both and easily attracted blue birds to his home in Glen Arm.
"That was the beginning of a love affair with the bluebirds that we treasure to this day," White said.
White's bluebird box moved with the couple to Pickersgill in 2015, but try as he might he couldn't get the bluebirds to nest it in, White said. After two spots in an open field visible from his balcony failed to attract a bluebird, White went back to to the bird store for more advice.
He moved the box a third time just before spring on an employee's suggestion and in June, found a male bluebird perched on top of the box and named him Happy. Later that day, a female bluebird arrived.
"I named her Hope in the hope the pair would bring us a brood of bluebirds as we experienced numerous times in Glen Arm," White said.
Bluebirds are no longer rare, explained Maryland Bluebird Society Baltimore coordinator Matthew Storms, who offers advice on bluebirds on behalf of the statewide organization. However the birds are difficult to attract to populated areas, he said.
In the early 1970s, the Eastern bluebird population had decreased dramatically due to an increase in development that eliminated prime nesting areas for the bird, including holes in wooden fence posts and rotting trees, Storms said.
"Their habitat is more open area with sparse trees, something like a meadow where they can hunt for insects," Storms said. "You're more than likely not going to see one in a parking lot."
Additionally, bluebirds faced increasing competition for nestings sites from non-native house sparrows and starlings, introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century.
Bluebirds can now be spotted regularly throughout Baltimore County outside of downtown Towson, Storms said, but aggressive sparrows and house wrens are a problem.
White says he believes a sparrow may have gotten to Hope and her eggs, something Cromwell Valley State Park naturalist and Bluebird Trail coordinator Caitlin Graff says is plausible.
In hopes of increasing the Eastern bluebird population in Maryland, a group of volunteers at the park installed more than 30 bluebird houses along what is now known as the park's Bluebird Trail.
Graff said the park has a problem with sparrows on one of the three trails closest to the parking lot. To repel sparrows, volunteers rub oil on or shake the sparrows eggs to prevent them from hatching. Once a birdhouse becomes a repeatedly unsuccessful hatching spot, the sparrows will move on, she said.
Another way to protect against a sparrow's assault is to put up paired boxes for tree swallows and bluebirds, but there is no foolproof way to keep sparrows away from the boxes, Graff said.
"You see all of [the bluebirds'] efforts go into making their nest and it's sad, but the other birds are birds, too, and are just doing their little bird thing," Graff said. "We just think they're mean."
White and his birds have been the "talk of Pickersgill," neighbor Betty Dempster said, adding that she often sees White carrying his mealworms around to feed Happy and Hope. Residents talk about the birds at dinner and were anxiously awaiting the fledgelings arrival.
The news that they're gone is "disappointing," she said, but the community will go back to waiting for the next pair of bluebirds.
"He'll clean it out and we'll say our little prayers and who knows — I believe in miracles," Dempster said. "We were curious to know if maybe they'd decided to go somewhere else, but there was a good reason for them to leave if their nest was destroyed. Maybe she'll come back. Women are determined; so maybe birds are that way, too."
White said he hopes there could be another pair of bluebirds nesting in the birdhouse before summer's end, but if there isn't, he'll keep trying.
"Once you get a male and female you have hope that you can try again," White said. "We're just in a waiting game now."