Michigan Today . . . Fall 1999

One of North America's conservation success stories

Story and photos by John Ivanko

Have you ever seen a bluebird? Most of us haven't, nor even could, at least not until recently. The rebounding bluebird populations have made seeing this popular songbird increasingly likely, especially along rural roadsides or in parks and other open spaces.

One of the three bluebird species–Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird or Western Bluebird–is likely to be seen almost anywhere on the continent where wide open grassy spaces are present, and in several states where their ranges overlap, two species might be seen.

To see a pair of bluebirds is mesmerizing, especially the iridescent blue-colored male Eastern Bluebird when in flight on a bright summer day, busy at work feeding a brood of nestlings. Like a bold brush stroke of blue color, the male dives from a tree to the lawn to snatch an insect on the ground.

 Singing a song
 Nothing but bluebirds
 All day long.

"Blue Skies"
Irving Berlin, 1926.

The bluebirds' color was so remarkable to Henry David Thoreau that he felt compelled o describe this species' coloring as "carrying the sky on its back." An insightful description since the bluebird's blue color does, in fact, come from light waves scattered by the structure of their feathers, not from blue pigment in their feathers-a blue suncatcher, so to speak. That's why a bluebird appears gray on an overcast day.

As a bluebird landlord, one who provides nest boxes for these species to nest in, I'm awestruck by their seeming ability to recognize us. Bluebirds will often return to the same nesting site, year after year.

But there is a lot more to bluebirds than their color and tender demeanor which contributed to their predominant place in American culture, for bluebirds have become a mainstay of Hallmark greeting cards and show up in more songs that any other songbird.

The Eastern Bluebird is the state bird for Missouri and New York; the Mountain Bluebird holds this distinction for Nevada and Idaho. The male Eastern Bluebird's brilliant blue back and rust-colored breast and the more subdued blue of the Mountain Bluebird, with a white, rather than rust-colored, breast, has resulted in their starring role in numerous poems and artwork. The Native Americans have folktales about how bluebirds received their color.

There are two different kinds of bird colors: pigment-based, and structural. White, blue, green, iridescent and ultraviolet birds derive their color from the structure of their feathers, specifically from the protein keratin in their feathers (also the chief constituent of hair, nails, horns and hoofs).

In the case of the bluebirds (and Blue Jay), the keratin reflects and scatters incoming light, reflecting the shortest wavelength (blue). The blue of the sky results from a similar scattering of light in the atmosphere.



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