The bluebird of happiness

  • This male eastern bluebird sat comfortably atop a spruce tree for over 35 minutes on a recent evening. In this photo, his throat feathers are a little distended because he is singing. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

For the Recorder
Published: 6/10/2019 8:36:09 AM

If you’ve been alive for more than 20 years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the expression, “The bluebird of happiness.”  If you’ve been alive for more than 40 years, then you may have even heard the Oscar-winning song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” featuring the line, “Mister Bluebird On My Shoulder.”  

This song, from the movie “Song of the South,” is a celebration of positivity, optimism and, well, happiness. Thus, I don’t find anything at all surprising about the fact that a smiling bluebird with a top hat and cane is singing along.

This may be an abstract notion to anyone who has not had the chance to share space with a bluebird. If, however, you have been lucky enough to spend time in their company you are most likely nodding enthusiastically when I say: Few birds can bring a smile to your face as easily as a bluebird.  

Everything about them is charming and the more you get to know them the more charming they become.

There are three species of bluebirds that can be found in the United States. The eastern bluebird (Sialia sialia) is the species that you and I will find here in New England. The range of this bird extends west to the Dakotas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The western bluebird (S. Mexicana) and the mountain bluebird, currucoides) combine forces to occupy the remainder of the western half of the United States. I may be biased, but I am very confident that the eastern bluebird is the finest member of the genus.

This little bird is all decked out in red-white-and-blue feathers. Blue covers the bird’s head, wings, back and tail. The red, which is really more of a brick red than a fire engine red, covers the throat, breast and flanks, while the white feathers cover the belly. Males have the brightest colors, while females have the same basic color scheme, but the “gray” version of all the colors. This makes it easy to identify who is who when a pair of bluebirds is interacting.

The males sing a delightful song (the best of the three bluebird species) that is impossible to describe with human words. There is a clear whistle at the beginning of some versions, but then there is also, well, chattery burble to the song that makes it impossible to mistake for any other species once you’ve learned it. I will say here, however, that a talented brown thrasher, or mockingbird, will be able to fool you.

Males and females go through a little courtship ritual in the spring that involves the pair going out house hunting. The male will lead his mate to one location after another and they will both go through the “test drive” phase. One bird pops in and out of the hole that has been selected and then the other will give it a try. Then, they almost appear to have a little conversation about the pros and cons of the location before moving to the next location.

When members of a pair see each other they will often “wave” their wings in greeting. This involves the raising and fluttering of only one wing, which anyone will be able to interpret as a wave. Then, when a nest of grasses has been built, the female will lay four or five pale blue eggs and start the process of incubation for about two weeks. All the while, the male will defend the territory and collect food.

Recently, on one of the rare “beautiful” evenings that we’ve had this very rainy spring, I was dining out on my deck and happened to notice a male bluebird perched atop a nearby spruce tree. There he sat, singing and defending his territory, while he also appeared to be contentedly taking a little personal time to stretch, scratch and preen his lovely feathers. He ended up sitting in that very spot for over 35 minutes and everyone at dinner fell under his charm.

If you live in town and have no access to bluebirds, I can only suggest that you grab a friend or loved one, pack a picnic lunch and head out to an area where there may be a large field with nest boxes put out by bluebird fans. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one of these wonderful little birds and you may find yourself humming the tune, “zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” without even realizing it.  

If that happens, I guarantee that you’ll feel happy.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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