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A bird in the hand

In to the Wind

March 27, 2012
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Some bird lovers will go to extraordinary lengths to rescue a wayward flier.

A frantic scratching in the stovepipe alerted me. A bird was once again held hostage in the sheet steel prison which is my heating appliance. Another rescue was in order.

Experience told me this was not just any bird either. Several times I've had to rescue birds from my chimney. Every time the wayward flier was a bluebird.

Article Photos

I've come to appreciate the melodic song of the bluebird. They sit in rows on the top wire of the fence separating the yard from the pasture. It almost looks like they are hunching their shoulders as they sit and conspire. Opportunists, as well as voracious insectivores, they wait and watch for bug activity in the grass and swoop down on unwary prey.

Bluebirds nest in hollow trees and rotten fence posts. Why every spring do they decide my chimney is a perfect place to nest?

I could hear the bird about a third of the way up the stovepipe. The little bird was frantically clawing at the insides of the stovepipe trying to get enough traction to make it back up to safety. It's about 15 feet straight up from where the little bird was imprisoned, to the top of the chimney. I can only imagine he was able to get that far up the pipe because of the creosote encrusting the inside of the lower pipe like some primordial scale. The only perch the little bird could possibly have is the shaft of a thermometer thrust through a small hole in the pipe that allows us to monitor the flue temperature. That perch has to be barely long enough for the desperate creature to clutch in its claws.

It was time to strategize on how to extract the creature from his rank tomb.

I have this hydrostatic dampener on the flue above the wood stove. It is a swinging round door in a tee that has a weight on the back side inside the chimney. When the wind blows strongly across the top of the chimney, the door sucks open a little and allows room air to be sucked into the chimney to keep the fire from blazing out of control. It also allows you to insert a hand into the chimney with relative ease.

I pushed that little door open and could see the bird. But every time I opened it, he'd try to scramble up the chimney. This was repeated several times over the course of an hour or so.

I went back and swung that door open a bit and didn't see anything. I decided to open the door to the wood stove, and there a little bluebird sat, hunching, docile-seemingly awaiting a rescue from a benevolent human. I reached inside and easily took hold of the little bird.

There is just something awe inspiring about holding a beautiful little bird in your hand. I could feel the warmth of his body and his racing heart. The look in his eyes was either one of quiet resignation, or absolute terror. I am not versed enough in the vagaries of bluebird behavior to discern which.

I snapped a picture with the camera I had readied to chronicle the rescue. I took the little bird outside and tossed it into the air. He glided several feet and alighted on that top wire in the company of his friends.

Below that hydrostatic dampener, there is a pancake shaped dampener device used to control the draft in the chimney. As is usual when the wood stove is not in operation, it was closed. The dampener is smaller in diameter than the stovepipe. That is to make sure one doesn't close the flue off completely and kill everyone in the house with carbon monoxide. It is however not THAT much smaller, and I marvel the little bird was able to squeeze by it and down into the stove.

I was back in the house for several minutes before I heard the scratching again. The bird I had rescued was not the one scratching and desperately trying to climb back out. The device has imprisoned two bluebirds this time-probably a nesting pair.

I opened that little door again and out she flew. Around and around the house she flitted, land first on this and then on that. I snapped several pictures, including one as she perched briefly on the top of a wall clock. I had the front door wide open, hoping she would make her escape and fly outside on her own.

Only one of the cats was in the house. Garth was going nuts. The bird landed on a shelf a convenient leap way away for an energetic cat. Garth caught the bird in his mouth and was headed under a skirted chair to examine his prize and no doubt play with it. I cornered Garth, and the bird, and gently removed the feathered creature from his mouth. I snapped another picture, walked outside and tossed the second bird in the air.

As had the first, this one also landed on the top wire of the fence, in the company of the other hunching birds. They seemed to examine their extricated comrade, and concluded, as had I, she was going to be OK.

You might be asking why I don't just put a screen in the chimney to keep those bluebirds from trying to build a nest in the chimney.

I don't want to put any mesh or anything around the spark cap on the chimney. Experience tells me, especially with slow springtime fires, you don't want to have any restriction on your chimney, or you risk getting smoke in the house, or worse, carbon monoxide. I want unrestricted draft in my chimney for safety sake.

Like many things in nature or life, things generally happen in threes. I am waiting for the third bird to require a rescue. Stay tuned.

When I go outside and see those bluebirds on the fence, I wonder if the ones I'm seeing are the ones I recued. I wonder what they think when they see me?

I hope I see these little bluebirds again; just under different circumstances.

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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