A Blue Bird with a Red or Orange Chest?

What’s the blue bird with a red-orange-brown chest? This is a query often posted online. To figure out the possible bird’s identity, this article reviews birds with plumages that include blue with red, orange, or brown chests. These birds’ range, favorite habitat, and behavior are compared to suggests the most likely response to the query.  

Specifically, this article looks at:

Bird enthusiast’s first reaction when spotting a bird is to assess its color pattern. Whether they see the bird for some time or catch a glimpse before it took off, this color assessment is often all they have to either pick up a field guide to attempt identifying it or getting on the internet to see if Google has an answer to their query. 

Pitfalls about assessing bird colors

The plumage of some birds includes colors and patterns that may take years of experience to positively identify. Other birds have simpler combinations composed of one or two colors without markings; these are easier to remember and identify. 

Identifying birds by just their colors is a challenging task and is not recommended. The many hues in a bird’s plumage can be affected by the light, a bird’s posture, and the distance between the bird and the observer. To complicate matters, the color blue, one of the two colors in the query, is one of the most difficult to assess accurately. 

The color blue is not a true color

Blue is not a true color or pigment. Some pigments in birds come from the food they eat. Animals and plants that are blue perform tricks of the light to look blue.  Birds that are blue achieve so by having structures that change the wavelength of light. 

For example, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, blue jays, and bluebirds have feathers that scatter the light by microscopic beads strategically spaced. Every wavelength of light is canceled out except blue. Hence the often dramatic change of the color blue under different light conditions.

Bird that are blue with a red or orange chest

Queries that provided more detail added that the blue birds with a red or orange chest are about a sparrow’s size and are seen on fence poles and utility wires in an open pasture. This is an essential clue in determining the identity of the blue bird with a red/orange chest.

There are not many possibilities partly because the color blue is rare in nature and rare in birds. 

Birds that may fit the description include:

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

Habitat: Around bodies of water. Feeds on fish.
Range: Widespread in North America.
Behavior: Perches on exposed branches over clear water with plenty of fish. Photos: John Critchley.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Habitar: Flies over most habitat types.
Range: Widespread in North America.
Behavior: Seen in the air most of the time where it catches flying insects. Photo: Denis Fournier.

Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Habitat: Mostly in coniferous forests.
Range: Widespread in North America.
Behavior: Clings on trunks in large limbs in acrobatic positions in all directions. Photos: Nicole Beaulac.

Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana)
.

Habitat: Open habitat with low vegetative cover.
Range: Western North America.
Behavior: Perches on elevated branches inspecting the ground for insects. Photo: Becky Matsubara.

Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

Habitat: Open habitat with low vegetative cover.
Range: Eastern North America.
Behavior: Perches on elevated branches inspecting the ground for insects. Photo: Rick from Alabama.

Lazuli bunting (Passerina amoena)

Habitat: Brushy vegetation along forest edges, courses of water, and hedges.
Range: Western North America.
Behavior: Spends most of the time inside thick brushy vegetation where it is seldom visible. Photo: Doug Greenberg.

Range, behavior, and habitat as qualifiers

Range

Species ranges are not of much help. All candidates range over extensive areas and have overlapping ranges.

Habitat and behavior

Red-breasted nuthatch and lazuli bunting forage inside forests and thick vegetation. These birds are not easily seen and are unlikely to come out of their habitats to sit on exposed perches in open habitats.

Barn swallows spend most of their time in the air. They may perch on fence poles, but the blue hue of their backs looks dark from a distance, and it is unlikely to be reported as blue. The inclusion of the barn swallow in this comparison might have been a stretch.

Belted kingfishers have blue and red-orange-rufous chests but are much larger than a sparrow and almost always are around water bodies.

By habitat, an behavior, the more likely species are western and eastern bluebirds.

The value of habitat as an identification tool

Habitat is an excellent clue to identify birds. Birds have wings and can move to regions and continents. But the habitat type they favor is remarkably consistent. 

Among the possibilities discussed above only, the western and eastern bluebirds use open-country habitats with sparse ground cover. Western and eastern bluebirds use clearings such as roadways, park-like habitats, and perch on fence poles and barb wire fences. 

Western or eastern bluebird?

The most likely answer to the query is either western or eastern bluebirds, but which one is it?

Western bluebird

Eastern bluebird

range-map-western-bluebird-eastern-bluebird
Distribution ranges of western and eastern bluebirds. Bluebirds have largely non-overlapping ranges.

The answer is not difficult. Western and eastern bluebirds have mostly non-overlapping ranges. The olive-green area on the map shows the area of possible overlap between these two bluebirds. Both bluebirds are more likely to be found together in parts of Texas and Arizona during migration. In Mexico, both eastern and western bluebirds have larger overlap areas but segregate themselves by altitude and habitat types.

In conclusion, it depends on where you are. If you are in the west half of North America, the blue bird with a red/orange chest is most likely a western bluebird. Likewise, if you are in the eastern half of North America, that bird is most likely an eastern bluebird.

Final thoughts:

I hope you found this comparative analysis interesting and useful. The blue bird with a red or orange chest you see perched on utility wires, fence poles, and other perches in open areas is most likely a bluebird. There are three species of bluebirds, but only two have a red or orange chest. 

Determining which species of bluebirds depends on where you are. Western and eastern bluebirds occur in non-overlapping ranges. Except for small areas during the months when bluebirds are moving, the choice on whether you see and western or eastern bluebird should be straightforward. 


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