If someone asked me to name my favorite bird, I wouldn’t be able to. How could I? There are around 10,500 known avian species worldwide and I have encountered only about 500 of them in my life thus far. When fellow birders say that their favorite bird is the one in front of them at any given time, it’s a sentiment I can relate to. But I would be lying if I denied that some birds’ appearance or actions are more or less appealing. While I might admire the imposing looks and graceful flight of a hawk, I don’t enjoy watching one capture and devour another bird.
For reasons not entirely clear, some birds make my heartstrings vibrate more than others, and Mountain Bluebirds are among those avian creatures who have always tugged strongly on said strings. Maybe it’s their ethereal color (variously described as cerulean, ultramarine, or azure), their sweet facial expressions, or their soft vocalizations (follow this link if you would like to hear them). But whatever the whys and wherefores, I simply have to smile when I find myself in their company, as was the case when I happened upon a group of eight in early March at Quail Lake Park, which I can reach on foot from home in fifteen minutes.
Mountain Bluebirds occur only in western North America. They are short- to medium-distance migrants who might breed as far north as Alaska, and overwinter as far south as central Mexico, though some remain in certain states year-round, as they do in some parts of Colorado. That the Mountain Bluebird was chosen as the state bird of Idaho and Nevada is a testament to its enchanting powers.
As we know, not all members of the same family resemble one another and bluebirds are no exception. Unlike other typical members of the thrush family (Turdidae), such as Hermit or Swainson’s Thrushes, who often live in forested areas, are relatively shy, and spend much time on the ground, bluebirds prefer more open spaces and can often be found at the interface of forests and meadows. They hunt for insects, their preferred food, from perches, but will eat fruit and seeds during the winter. As cavity nesters, they traditionally laid their eggs in tree cavities, but have adapted well to nest boxes provided by humans, which they will defend aggressively from other cavity nesters (so much for the sweet facial expression). According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the oldest recorded Mountain Bluebird” was a female, and at least 9 years old when she was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta in 2005. She had been banded in the same province in 1997.”
Scientific names aren’t always informative or helpful, and I think the Mountain Bluebird is a case in point. Whoever named this species Sialia currucoides, based the genus name on the Greek sialis, a word used by Aristotle to refer to an unidentified bird, and curroides, thereby likening the bird to a European warbler, the Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca). In this manner, he called it “the bird that reminds me of a Lesser Whitethroat.” Blah!
But sometimes translations engender a more fortunate outcome, and my favorite is French, where the bird is known as “Merlebleue azuré,” the blue azure thrush, thus drawing attention to the bird’s wonderful coloring.