A male indigo bunting, after a late spring arrival, has taken to signing most persistently from the tops of some of the tallest trees in my yard and at the edges of some of the surrounding fields.
When I refer to the indigo bunting singing, I am being generous. The bird’s song is a jumble of one-syllable chip notes delivered in machine-gun fashion, over and over, usually from elevated perches. It’s not musical, but it is certainly recognizable and admirable in the sheer persistence of the male’s delivery.
One of my earliest memories of a songbird involves sightings of these electric blue birds on hot summer afternoons in my childhood. I didn’t know the identity of the bird at that time, but the image of that feathered beauty has stuck with me.
The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina that is wedged into the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds.
The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.
It’s the blue grosbeak that has always interested me, although I see them infrequently. I’ve had blue grosbeaks only visit my home feeders on a couple of occasions in the 30 years I’ve been watching birds and keeping records of my sightings.
Birds sporting entirely blue plumages are decidedly rare. In fact, the indigo bunting and blue grosbeak are the only contenders in the region. I don’t count blue jay, Eastern bluebirds or belted kingfishers because all of these species have white or other colors featured prominently among their blue feathers.
A couple of warblers — cerulean warbler and black-throated blue warblers — feature significant amounts of blue feathers, but it’s not a uniform blue.
A glimpse of a blue blur as an indigo bunting or blue grosbeaks flies across a field, pasture or meadow will reward the onlooker with a look at one of these pretty birds.
The website All About Birds reports that blue grosbeaks have been expanding their range northward for the past century. The website also describes this bird as widespread but uncommon, which in my experience also applies to the status of the blue grosbeak in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia.
The blue grosbeak is picky about choosing a habitat. These birds prefer old fields choked with vine tangles and some shrubs, but they can also get comfortable in such habitats as mesquite savannas, salt cedar forests, and southern pine forests. Most evidence, according to All About Birds, points to a slight increase in the overall numbers of this bird in the past few decades.
Both indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, which is probably the most reliable way to attract these birds. Black oil sunflower or other small seeds, such as millet or thistle, are suitable for both species.
Beth Payne sent me an email about hummingbirds, or the lack thereof, at her home in central Alabama.
Beth noted that she used to see many hummingbirds but now sees only one at her feeders. As an avid hummingbird fan, this decline has dismayed her.
She also shared that she knew the late Bob Sargent. With his wife, Martha, With his wife, Martha, Sargent was the co-founder of the The Hummer/Bird Study Group. This non-profit organization founded by the Sargents was based in their hometown of Clay, Alabama. They dedicated the group to the study and preservation of hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants.
When I responded, I told Beth how happy I was that she had known Bob Sargent. I was also pleased to meet another hummingbird fan.
Although I can’t speak specifically to Alabama, I have noticed that I’m not hosting many hummingbirds this spring at my now home. That being said, I am not sure there’s any rhyme or reason to explain the numbers of hummingbirds that will decide to call a certain yard or garden their summer home.
I did offer some suggestions. Hummingbirds, even those that come to feeders, appreciate a nice perch for resting. I asked Beth if she has any shrubs or trees near her feeders.
If feasible, I advised she plant some flowers that would be attractive to hummingbirds. I recommended that she check with a nursery or garden center for ideas on blooming plants that grow best in her area.
Many of the birds that people would see early in Alabama are going to be pushing to get farther north to Tennessee and even far beyond to New England and even Canada.
One thing that almost invariably happens is that by June and early July, hummingbird numbers usually pick back up. Of course, that will to a degree depend on how many hummingbirds stay in the surrounding area for the nesting season.
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