Bluebirds, the Rings of Saturn, Buying a Telescope and April Fools Day

Saving the bluebird, Saturn without rings, tips for buying a telescope and the story behind April Fool's Day.


| April/May 1995


The Beautiful Bluebird

We've all heard about "the bluebird of happiness." And the song about April showers urges us to "keep on looking for the bluebird and listening for his song." But for a long time the unhappy story in much of America was of people having to look and listen longer and longer to see or hear these stirringly lovely birds.

Bluebirds were relatively common in the U.S. early in the century, but then their numbers fell drastically, perhaps by as much as 90% in 50 years. The problem was an actual elimination of some of their nesting sites (for instance, by replacement of many wooden fence posts with metal ones) and, much more important, a stealing of their nesting sites by new wildly successful immigrant species—starlings and house sparrows. Fortunately, people responded by building thousands and thousands of special bluebird houses (supposedly a hole of less than one-and-a-half inches in diameter in a bluebird box will keep starlings out, though not all the bluebird's competitors). The result of such concern has been a strong increase in bluebird populations in many places over the past few decades.

In spring, there is little chance of mistaking the male eastern bluebird. No other bird with vivid blue back has a rusty-colored breast and white belly. The female and immature male can be identified by several other typical bluebird features and touches of blue on the wings and elsewhere. The ranges of America's only other two species of bluebird, the western and mountain bluebirds, although they do overlap each other, do not extend into the eastern half of the U.S. and therefore do not overlap the territory of the eastern bluebird. The eastern bluebird is a year-round resident in the Southeast and, in lesser numbers, up the Eastern seaboard to southern New England and up the Ohio Valley to southern Ohio (rarely, the bird winters as far north as the southern shores of the Great Lakes).

The bluebird has been called the most un—thrush-like of thrushes. It certainly looks and acts much different than robins and the various brown thrushes. The note of the eastern bluebird is described as chur-wee or truly. The song is a series of soft gurgles that one bird expert says sometimes sounds like two birds singing together. Often singing in flight, bluebirds frequently perch in a conspicuous place (for example, atop an isolated tree), from which they swoop down to catch insects. They prefer to live in open woodlands, orchards, and farmyards.

Saturn Ringless

The rings of Saturn are chillingly beautiful, sharp, and vivid in a telescope, even most very small telescopes, say astronomy writers. And it is quite true except during spells that occur about 14 to 16 years apart. During those spells, Saturn reaches a place in its orbit at which Earth beholds the mighty rings from a side view"—edgewise."

And, astonishingly, the visible ring-system, over 170,000 miles across, is less than a few hundred yards wide ...and therefore vanishes from view in even the world's largest telescopes when it goes edgewise! Saturn's rings go edgewise for the first time since 1980 on the morning of May 22, 1995. Just to observe the before and after—"Now you see them ...now you don't!"—is exciting in itself. But the full story of what will happen as Saturn's rings go edgewise to the Earth three times and edgewise to the Sun once between now and February 11, 1996, is much more exciting and complex.





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