The Bluebird of Happiness

A story of symbolism, science and birding joys found in our own back yards

by: Virginia Andrews

photography by: Tom Griswold

E.H. Forbush posed that rhetorical question in 1929, the year his tome of bird lore, “Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States,” was published. In Forbush’s day, bluebirds began to arrive in Massachusetts toward the end of February. Nowadays we may have them on Nantucket year-round. Or, sometimes, not at all. They are not consistent from year to year and this, perhaps, is one of their charms.

In 1882, “Godfrey’s Nantucket Guide” included bluebirds, under the category “Ornithology,” as being present on the island. But his comments provide little context, and Griscom and Folger’s 1948 “Birds of Nantucket” lists them as, “uncommon vagrant in spring and fall; no satisfactory breeding evidence.” They were not caught nesting here during “Breeding Bird Atlas 1” in the 1970s.

Yet 25 years later, bluebirds had found nest boxes and raised young successfully.

Birds of open country, areas with few trees and what is called a sparse understory, eastern bluebirds undoubtedly took advantage of land opened up for agriculture by arriving colonists during and after the 17th century. Trees were cut down, fields plowed, orchards planted. Bluebirds co-exist well with livestock and human presence.

But the introduction of European house sparrows in 1858 and 1868 and starlings in 1890 gave them two prolific competitors for scarce nesting space in natural tree cavities.

They are secondary users of cavities made by woodpeckers, but accept nest boxes when there is a lack of those natural insect magnets known as snags. As forest regrew, while suburban development increased, bluebirds declined and people began to miss them.

It took a conscious effort, putting up nest boxes and creating areas of habitat, but they have since benefited from the many bluebird trails and conservation areas created to attract them. They are highly adaptable, and seem to enjoy human-altered landscapes.

Primarily insectivorous, they eat crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, but shift to fruits and berries in winter. This made them welcome additions to traditional farm fields. But now they struggle again with the burgeoning use of insecticide sprays. These, if not poisoning the birds directly, remove or reduce their food supply.

How did bluebirds become associated with happiness? This is one of those deeply-embedded phrases, like “happy as a clam.” Its origin was so obvious that it was not so much forgotten as abandoned as unnecessary, and then obscured by time.

The “Bluebird of Happiness” was introduced in a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian author writing in French, in the early years of the 20th century. “The Bluebird,” which had its premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1908, was the hit of New York in 1910.

Maeterlinck belonged to the Symbolist school, which is perhaps best explained by examining the cast. Characters included two children, a fairy, bread, sugar, luxuries, various wild and domestic animals, assorted tree species and stars, among other things. Set on Christmas Eve, it is a dream quest for the magic bird that will heal the fairy’s ailing child. The children travel through places such as the Palace of Luxury, the Land of Memory and the Palace of Night. Trees argue with the woodcutter’s son. Animals express unfavorable opinions of their keepers.

Sentimentality was troweled thickly over slightly Dickensian underpinnings, but the play was not without comic relief. It ended with the children awakening to find that the Bluebird of Happiness was in their home all along, their pet in its cage. After cheering up, and thus saving the neighbor’s child, it flew off free. This story was obviously ripe for parody, as in Gary Larson’s cartoon of an unkempt fellow visited instead by “the Chicken of Depression.”

So are bluebirds, in fact, happy as clams? The answer of course is that clams are happy at high tide. Bluebirds may have a similarly-qualified definition of happiness: an un-sprayed orchard at the edge of an open field.

But our continuing delight in the bird itself is easily explained by looking at them. Male bluebirds’ wings and backs are not just blue, they are deeply, astoundingly, almost iridescently blue. In the right conditions the color seems to glow, containing or

even out-shining the sky. Like many passerines, males and females have different plumages, with the males being brighter. Females are grayer, less colorful overall, rusty with just a wash of blue. A partial white eye-ring gives them a wide-eyed, doe-like appeal.

Similar to thrushes, the young have spots: in their case, white spots on the back. But juveniles are also different from each other. Their genders can start to be distinguished 13 days after hatching.

But no human sees that intense bluebird-blue the way the bird itself does. If it’s a feast for the eye to us, imagine how much richer it would be if we had their enhanced sensitivity to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. We tend to ignore what exists beyond our direct senses. So, only recently have we come to understand that the color of feathers goes below mere pigment to their composition at the microscopic level.

Feathers are amazing structures, weightless as the air itself, strong and flexible. They enable birds to adjust heating, cooling, wind resistance and rain protection. Hummingbirds have feathers that may or may not reflect a bright color, depending on the angle of the light, like a lenticular picture.

Bluebirds have an even more sophisticated system. A spongy layer of air bubbles and passages between the melanosomes creates a pattern within the inmost structure of the feather. It channels blue light, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it catches the red/orange end of the spectrum, preventing it from being seen. Conversely, the male’s throat, breast and flanks blaze with red/orange over a white belly. But, why? Does this help him get a date for Saturday night?

In “The Evolution of Beauty,” Richard Prum revisits a less-known side of Charles Darwin’s later work, in which natural selection, “survival of the fittest,” is balanced or competes with sexual selection. When organisms reproduce sexually, they must have not only the strength and skill to survive. To reproduce, one must also attract a mate. Much study has focused on song, which is both announcement of availability, and deed to the homestead.

In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin developed a parallel theory of aesthetic evolution, involving female choice: the biological foundation of beauty. In some species such as bowerbirds or, Prum’s specialty, manikins, the extravagant advertisement of display plumes and dances actually pushed the birds’ morphology to the point of physical un-fitness.

Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution, wrapped beauty within the overall concept of fitness, despite the often-high energetic cost of gaudy plumage. Although Wallace himself has passed into obscurity, his interpretation dominated 20th century views of evolution.

Now researchers are taking a more nuanced look at specialized developments such as the bluebird’s blues. Do female bluebirds prefer the bluest of blue singers? Despite being easily available study subjects, much is still unknown about their social interaction. There’s always more to learn. But the quest for knowledge shouldn’t detract from the happiness of looking for bluebirds in our own back yard. ///

Virginia Andrews writes “Island Bird Sightings” for The Inquirer and Mirror. She also leads bird walks for the Maria Mitchell Association.