FAIRY-BLUEBIRDS Irenidae The Fairy-Bluebirds are a small group of arboreal passerines found throughout tropical Asia. There are but two species in the genus Irena. The widespread bird ranging from eastern India through SE Asia to Java and Palawan in the Philippines is the Asian Fairy-Bluebird (left and below right in fine shots from the Andaman Islands by Ron Saldino). The only other member of the family is the Philippine Fairy-Bluebird Irena cyanogaster, endemic to the major Philippine islands.

Traditionally considered related to the bulbuls (Pycnonotidae) but having some characters of drongos (Dicruridae) or cuckoo-shrikes (Campepahagidae; Austin & Singer 1961), biochemical studies suggested closer relationships to bushshrikes, helmetshrikes and vangas within Sibley & Alquist's (1990) great expanded corvine assemblage. Sibley & Monroe (1990) placed then next to cuckoo-shrikes but also included the six species of leafbirds (genus Chloropsis ) in the family Irenidae (which name then takes precedence over Chloropseidae) and that approach was followed by Clements (1991). Taxonomic relationships of these Asian families remain uncertain and controversial but the Handbook of the Birds of the World project apparently will treat both the Irenidae and Chloropseidae as separate families. I've simply followed suit. Whatever their taxonomic level it is clear that Fairy-Bluebirds are closely related to leafbirds.

The Fairy-Bluebirds are moderately large, arboreal denizens of lowland rainforests. They eat mostly fruit, especially figs, and all the photos on this page are of birds in fruiting trees. A technical description notes they have strong & slightly decurved beak and the maxillary tomium has a subterminal notch, they have operculate nostrils, and possess short thick tarsi and short toes. They are sexually dimorphic with males having a brilliant blue crown & back; females are duller and more greenish-blue. The feathers are loosely attached, especially on the rump (leafbirds also have loosely attached plumage).

Fairy-Bluebirds are essentially resident in the lowland rainforest but in some areas are subject to seasonal movements as might be expected from a fig-eating specialist (they do also glean some insects from time to time). The usually occur in pairs or small flocks. Nests are rough platforms of long twigs topped by a layer of green moss and lining of rootlets placed in the fork of a dense tree. Only the female builds the nest but both sexes feed the young.


 
 
 
 
 

My experiences are not extensive although I've seen both species. In the Panbari Forest of Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, they sat high in the canopy of fruiting trees giving mellow liquid notes but never stayed in any spot for very long. My efforts at photography yielded only a silhouette of a chunky short-tailed individual up in that canopy. Despite this lack of experience I do see similarities in their shape, size, diet and behaviors with the pihas and fruiteaters in the Cotinga family of South American tropics.
 

Photo: The top two shots of Asian Fairy-Bluebird Irena puella were photographed by Ron Saldino on Mt. Harriet, South Andaman Island, India, on 9 Mar 2001; they are © 2001 Ron Saldino (used with permission). The silhouetted bird was in Panbari Forest, Assam, India, on 4 Apr 2001; that photo © 2001 D. Roberson.

Bibliographic note

There is no family book as yet nor much written about this group at all. The Handbook of the Birds of the World project has not yet reached this group.

Other literature cited:

Austin, O. L., and A. Singer. 1961. Birds of the World. Edited by H. S. Zim. Golden Press, New York.

Clements, J. 1991. Birds of the World: A Checklist. 4th ed. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Alquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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