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Recently I sat on my porch and watched a painted bunting frolic in our bird bath. He dipped his head under the water and did a reverse dolphin kinda thing so that the water flowed over his shoulders and down his back.  He flapped his wings to get the water under them. Taking a break from the water, he flew to a nearby bush and preened his feathers, cleaned his beak, fluffed up the hairdo. Then back to the water for another round of splashing and dipping.


The male painted bunting is an awesomely beautiful bird. The red is rich, the blue true, the green and yellow vibrant. When they arrive here in the middle of April, those feathers are brand new and bright as can be. Such beauty is a privilege to see just ten feet away from where I sit. 

If you are interested in how birds generate those colors, here is a good article.     

Birds seem to do beauty really well, especially in spring when the female (who in the bird world is usually the one choosing) decides on a mate.

How does she choose? Natural Selection supposes that she chooses her mate based on traits that, when passed on to their offspring, will increase the offspring's chance of survival. A male performing an aerial dance to prove he is an acrobatic flyer, or beating out a loud drumming signal to indicate a strong beak.

And yet some male birds seem to invest in beauty as they approach breeding season.

Look at these pictures of birds in their breeding glory, with brightly colored feathers, extra beautiful plumage, brilliantly red or yellow eyes, and orange and green lores (the area just back of the beak).

Earred Grebe

Eared Grebe

Look at that red eye!

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Precise and interesting coloration

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

This guy can't hide either

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret


If the males invest in these displays of beauty, the females must be looking for them. But I cannot imagine how some of these traits connect to offspring survival.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Buntings 

Notice the differential coloration - female well camouflaged, male brilliant blue

Great Egret

Great Egret

Green lores and incredible plumage (those beautiful feathers)

Scarlet Ibis

Scarlet Ibis

Brilliant red won't let him hide in the trees

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

Intricate coloration, while the "drab" female hides in the background


Common Loon

This may be the most handsome bird I have ever seen

In fact, some hinder survival. Hunters in the 19th and 20th centuries depleted bird populations for their plumage feathers, which were used to adorn ladies' hats. And bright colors often make the birds stand out to the predators.

So why are the females selecting for these traits?

Perhaps they simply see the beauty and are attracted to it.

Charles Darwin wrote about two forces in evolution. He is most remembered for Natural Selection, which we think of as survival of the fittest. But he also wrote about Sexual Selection, that mate selection is sometimes based simply on what is beautiful. Richard O. Prum writes about sexual selection and the powers of aesthetics in mate choice in his book The Evolution of Beauty. When I watch birds in the spring, this makes sense to me.


Blue-footed Booby

Well, there is no accounting for some bird's idea of beauty.....

Well, however it is explained, however it works, I love that beauty matters in nature.

Witnessing nature's beauty brings joy into my life and heals my heart. Sitting on my porch watching the painted bunting bathe is a respite from a worrying world.

Thank you, birds, for choosing beauty. 

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