Bluebird Blues: Debunking the Myth of the Bluebird of Happiness

Not to be outdone by Judy Galand in The Wizard of Oz,  Shirley Temple starred in the 1940 American fantasy The Blue Bird. 

What a cheerful, uplifting title for today’s BigLittleMeals: Bluebirds of Happiness.  It’s hard not to get a bit teary just thinking about these magnificent little sparks of impending spring with their iridescent blue feathers glistening in the sun flitting through the meadows spreading their seemingly boundless capacity for the joy of life.

This gushy appreciation of Bluebirds is nothing new. They were seen as harbingers of happiness in Chinese mythology possibly as far back as 1766 BC.  They also happily reside in early European and Native American folklore.  And, of course, who hasn’t heard Judy Garland famously sing,  “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh, why can’t I?” 

Not that I want to rain on Ann’s bluebird parade, but I do think it only fair to point out that all of this hype about them symbolizing happiness may be misplaced.  My suspicion is that no one has objectively considered the bluebird’s point of view and that with our human-centric, feel-good mythology about these blue-feathered visitors we have neglected to ask if they are happy. My extensive research into this question suggests that they have very little reason to be happy. Let me elaborate.

For starters, according the the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, bluebirds are not really blue. In fact, the “blue” we see is created by light waves interacting with the (not blue) feathers and has something to do with protein molecules called keratin. While I don’t really understand how light waves affect our perception, I do understand why bluebirds might be more than a little annoyed knowing that they have been erroneously named for centuries.

Second, despite the cheery disposition we humans impute to them, the lives of Bluebirds surely must be miserable. I saw one estimate that up to 70% of all bluebirds die before reaching their first birthday. And, those that do survive beyond a year must consume about 12% of their body weight per day to keep going. That would be the equivalent of our dog Oakley daily wolfing down 7 pounds of kibble or of me dining on about 20 pounds of grub each day. At that rate even our blog’s vast archive of wonderful recipes couldn’t sustain me for long.

Finding enough food isn’t the only issue facing these pretty little birds. They must compete with the likes of house sparrows, swallows, and starlings for nesting locations. I was surprised to learn that cute little house sparrows frequently attack bluebirds and their offspring for their nests (author’s note: I came across an online photo of the carnage of a bluebird hatch in the aftermath of a vicious sparrow attack – it was too gruesome to post here).

WELCOME TO A BLUEBIRD NEIGHBORHOOD

If the sparrows and other birds competing for housing weren’t bad enough, there are the predators that would love to sink their teeth (or beaks) into a tasty blue morsel, including cats, raccoons, possums, snakes and hawks, just to name a few. Additionally, pests such as ants, bees, earwigs, and wasps can invade their nests and damage the newborn.

On top of all of this, mating season (and its aftermath) adds yet another layer of anxiety to the lives of our battered blue heroes. Having no access to on-line dating sites like Bumble, males must depend on their songs to attract eligible females. It has been estimated that unpaired male bluebirds on average sing up to 500 songs per hour and they can carry on with the singing all day long! Can you imagine how taxing that would be? And to think that we humans assume that these are the songs of happy, carefree birds ushering in spring when in fact we are hearing desperate attempts to find love in a cruel world.

He’s probably wondering which ones are his. Uncertainty of paternity is a huge issue in the bluebird community

But even if a male successfully hooks up with an eligible female, his relational problems are not over. Although it was commonly believed that bluebird couples are monogamous, the Cornel Lab of Ornithology reports that recent DNA research has revealed that up to 45 percent of bluebird nests contain one or more young that are not the resident male’s offspring. It’s hard for me to imagine that such rampant infidelity in the tight-knit bluebird community contributes much to bluebird levels of happiness.

The forgoing portrayal of a bluebird’s brutal life has convinced me that our continued insistence that bluebirds are “happy” has little to do with any objective reality of bluebird life. Perhaps we project this happiness onto these little creatures because of our own primordial yearning for happiness. A yearning that has undoubtedly intensified during the current pandemic, as indicated by research findings from the Happiness Research Institute (yes, there is such an organization!) that show a worldwide decline in human happiness.

My point in sharing all of this is not to shatter dreams but to provide a little context to better understand these stoic visitors.  The next time we catch a glimpse of that glittering flash of (faux) blue or hear  few, few, f-few f-few, eh-eh, few, f-few, eh-eh, few, eh-eh, few few,  rather than assuming some romanticized and unrealistic notion about frolicking, happy birds, maybe we should feel a sense of awe for these feathered friends and give them their due respect for surviving in a world much scarier and more uncertain than ours.  In short, we should be happy not because they are happy, but happy because they survived.   Perhaps then it would be ok to call them “Bluebirds of Happiness. “

As a parting note, I am including this Frank and Earnest comic panel by Bob Thase. This is a food blog after all.

Recipe not included.

6 Comments

    • theRaggedys says:

      Thanks for the videos. I was hoping that the one with the eastern bluebird calls would have captions; I find the eastern bluebird dialect to be much more difficult than that of western bluebirds. And, we loved the video of Hugh P and Maria singing – such a beautiful background.

      Like

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