Sheffield — These last couple of weeks, no bird has made itself known to me more than the indigo bunting, a sparrow-sized songbird that, true to its name, is vivid indigo in color. Well, at least the males; the females are a warm beige, with perhaps a tinge of blue on their tails during summer. I live amid the cornfields and woods of Sheffield, and lately the buntings seem to be singing all the time, at any hour of the day.
Part of it may be that other birds are singing less now that we’ve hit August, so the squeaky, repeated phrases of the bunting stand out. But the buntings are definitely singing a lot. In fact, I can hear them right now as I write on my front porch. Cornell Lab’s page on them says that they “often sing for hours on end.”
To listen to their song, click here. Also, watch video below:
Theirs is not a song I grew up hearing. I didn’t really see indigo buntings as a child. There were too many woods where I lived. Buntings need open areas interspersed with trees — orchards, brushy meadows, a clump of trees at the edge of a farm field. But later, on field trips with a bird club, I was dazzled by my first bright blue bunting.
It was one of those birds that, in the bird book, almost seemed unreal, just like the other two species of bunting common in the U.S. — the lazuli bunting (the Western species), and the painted bunting (the Southern species). The painted bunting — a gaudy purple, red, and lime green—was even more of a shock when I saw them in Big Bend National Park in Texas, a whole little flock of them in a grassy, shaded area by the Rio Grande.
Folks in the bird club also taught me how to recognize the song: the notes come in twos, a series of paired notes that often drop down slightly in pitch with each pair. It’s a thin, lazy song that doesn’t seem to have much variation, though Cornell Lab says that “buntings a few hundred yards apart generally sing different songs, while those in the same ‘song neighborhood’ share nearly identical songs. A local song may persist up to twenty years, gradually changing as new singers add novel variations.”
Later, I found indigo buntings closer to home. Walking in the rural development behind my house, I’d leave the streets and venture down the railroad track, into the powerline cut and beyond, into the floodplain forests along the creek. Near the powerlines was a hidden field, otherwise surrounded by woods, a perfect open patch that, in conjunction with the powerline swath, was enough to attract birds that need clearings: indigo buntings, field sparrows, prairie warblers, blue-winged warblers. Slowly the field is turning back into forest, shooting up with shrubs and trees, but still I marvel at the seemingly unnoticed pocket of habitat that clings there, and the birds it calls in.
Now, surrounded by rural roads and fields, I see the buntings all the time. They sing from their prominent perches on trees along the road, then fly off into the corn, sometimes alighting to sing right at the top of a bending cornstalk.
Indigo buntings are easier to see than many birds, because, in addition to living in open habitats, they like to find the highest perch and stay there, singing, unlike more flighty songbirds that dart around in the shadows of trees and never stop moving. Once you hear one, it is usually easy to locate high at the tip of a branch.
The bright indigo color is not as obvious as it might seem, though. Unless they’re in good light, they often appear not blue, but simply dark, silhouetted on their perches. To again quote Cornell Lab: “Like all other blue birds, Indigo Buntings lack blue pigment. Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.”
Indigo buntings are fairly abundant and widespread, ranging throughout the East and Central U.S. They arrive in mid-May from wintering grounds in Central America, where they are apparently sometimes threatened with hunting and capture for their value as cage birds. They might come to backyard feeders, especially for thistle or nyjer seed, but you are better off looking for them along sunny country roads, scanning the outer tips of trees, following a squeaky, lazy song to this tranquil, bright songster.