Will the real blue bird of happiness please stand up?

Please stand up

Please stand up.

What does it mean when the bluebird of happiness isn’t actually a bluebird.  Well, what if it’s a blue bird, but not a bluebird?  To make things even more complicated, what if the bird isn’t even always all that happy?

Yeah, I know.  It’s a confusing situation!  For me, the moment arrived just the other day at about 6:30am.  There was enough light to see things outside, but it wasn’t yet bright enough to make out lots of colors.  I was getting coffee and getting ready for work and looked out into the backyard where there was a strange little bird sitting on the edge of my azalea bush, which was full of white flowers.  Against the white, the bird looked blue, but I figured that was the morning light and sleepiness tricking me.  So I went to the window and made that morning squinty face to see if I could see it better.  And that’s when I got happy!  It was a blue bird, but it wasn’t an Eastern Bluebird.  It was, in fact, an Indigo Bunting.  Now I’ve seen them before, but not really in my yard.  And here was one just sitting in my bushes.  Crazy.  By the time I could get back with my camera, though, the bird was gone.  It was a couple days later that I saw it, again, outside of my kitchen window and from there you get this picture.

For me, this was my bluebird of happiness.  I was thrilled because they’re such pretty things.  But, as with everything, happiness is a matter of perception.  As a human, I’m pretty happy seeing these birds, but I do wonder if they’re always happy to see each other.  Buntings haven’t been researched to the same extent that sparrows and other birds have.  But there are a few ways that they do pop up in the literature and one of them is that they’re not so loyal to each other.

Apparently, Indigo Buntings can go into the “frisky” category of birds, with as many as 35% of offspring in an area being fathered by someone other than the male at the nest.

Westneat, D.F. 1990.  Genetic parenting in the indigo bunting: a study using DNA fingerprinting.  Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 27:  67-76

And while Buntings don’t hold the record on amount of extra-pair copulations, they’re up there.  Males at their own nest apparently recognize when they’ve been cuckolded, too, and reduce the amount of parental care they provide.

Westneat, D.F.  Male parental care and extra pair copulations in the indigo bunting.  Auk 105:  149-160.  

So when Indigo Buntings see each other, do you think they get that suspicious side-eye.  ‘Hey!  Have you been in my nest?’  Maybe they’re not such happy birds, after all.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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