Category Archives: bluebirds

Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increase the variety of bright and colorful birds in eastern North America from spring until fall each year.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

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Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”indigo-bunting-john-james-audubon

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male painted bunting is one of North America’s most colorful birds.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.

North America’s bluebirds never fail to impress with their winning ways

A famous song declares that “somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,” so you’ll have to excuse me if I have been looking for those elusive rainbows during the unseasonably warm weather the region’s enjoyed in recent weeks.

Also, like the song promises, “dreams really do come true,” which was fulfilled by the arrival of this year’s first pair of Eastern bluebirds at my home on Friday, Feb. 23. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

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The Eastern bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesters include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels.

Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting real estate.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Eastern bluebirds perches on fenceposts.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North America. The Western bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as in part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana. The Mountain bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Other than these three species, North America offers few others birds with mostly “blue” plumages. Some examples include indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and blue jay, as well as birds like great blue heron and belted kingfisher.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

If your home doesn’t provide suitable open, spacious bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern bluebird is present in the region in all seasons and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know they joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already started looking for a nesting site. Many of these birds may nest two or even three times in a single season. March has only just arrived, so there’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Territorial nature of house wrens brings these tiny but feisty birds into conflict with their neighbors

 

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon famously painted a family of house wrens utilizing an old hat as a nesting location.

Birds don’t waste much time getting down to the business of nesting each spring. I’ve observed baby robins and bluebirds that are already out of the nest. At home, I have nest boxes occupied by Carolina chickadees, Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, nesting attempts don’t always end successfully.

Kathy Shearer, who lives in Emory, Virginia, wrote me last month about a problem affecting her nesting bluebirds.

“I had an active bluebird nest with five eggs until yesterday, when I discovered the shell remnants on the ground beneath the pole,” she wrote. “One was clearly drilled through.” Kathy sent along a photo showing the damage.

“I suspect house wrens, which have followed the bluebird nests for several years, building their own nests in the same box. However, they always let the bluebirds raise two clutches before moving in, until now,” Kathy wrote. “Is there any way to combat these wrens?”

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke House wrens make dutiful parents, often tending a brood of as many as eight young.

Kathy’s question presents a definite quandary. With invasive birds, like house sparrows and Eurasian starlings, many bird experts recommend tearing out their nests. Some even suggest disposing of eggs and young. It sounds cruel, but native birds like Eastern bluebirds are at a disadvantage when it comes to competition with these non-native invaders. House sparrows and starlings were never meant to be part of the fauna of North America. Human actions introduced these birds into an environment unprepared for the consequences of the intrusion.

That’s what makes the problem with house wrens a difficult one to solve. The house wren is a native bird that is as much a legitimate part of the environment as bluebirds, tree swallows or other cavity-nesting birds.

Anyone who has ever observed tree swallows and bluebirds competing for a nest box knows that these birds are fierce in their struggles for a nesting location. The house wren, however, uses another approach. These small wrens are stealthy and somewhat ruthless, although both of these terms are something humans have applied as labels to this bird’s natural behavior.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                              A house wren checks out a nesting box. Males will often build “dummy nests” to provide females with a choice of nesting locations.

Known by the scientific name of Troglodytes aedon. In Greek myth, Aedon is a woman changed by Zeus into a nightingale, a bird famed for its song. A troglodyte is a cave-dwelling individual. So, roughly translated. the house wren’s scientific name is “cave-dwelling nightingale,” which emphasizes the penchant of the house wren for producing a bubbly, persistent song all out of proportion to the bird’s tiny size. The “cave-dwelling” description comes from the habit of house wrens, as well as other members of the wren family, to skulk near the ground for exploration of nooks, crannies and crevices in search of food.

The house wren arrives in the region just in time for the start of the spring nesting season. Although it is a native bird, this wren often fails to win favor because of its habit of damaging the nests of other cavity-nesting birds such as Eastern bluebirds and Carolina chickadees.

“To a house wren, almost any other nesting bird in its territory threatens competition,” wrote John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Forest, Yard and Thicket.” Eastman, a wildlife biologist and naturalist, emphasized in his chapter on the house wren the territorial nature of the bird. Not only will house wrens puncture the eggs of other birds, they will also kill young birds that are still confined to the nest. Once a pair of house wrens adopts a nesting site, they may remain loyal to it for many years. According to Eastman, these tiny birds display a powerful fidelity to nesting locations from previous seasons.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      The two-toned Carolina wren is, for the most part, a kinder and gentler neighbor to other birds in comparison to the related house wren.

I did offer some advice to Kathy, although I cautioned that wrens can be tough to deter since they are extremely territorial. However, they don’t like open spaces as much as bluebirds. I suggested that she make sure her nest boxes are not located near buildings or trees, which could encourage house wrens. House wrens feel most confident when there are thickets, hedges or other thick cover available.

Alternatively, she could provide more nest boxes. House wren males will build multiple “dummy” nests in his attempt to attract a mate. These nests must be approved by the female. Once she makes her selection, she will line the nest with softer materials and then lay her six to eight eggs. If Kathy provides enough boxes, the wrens in her yard might leave the bluebirds alone. I realize that is a big “might.”

Kathy responded with another email after I offered my suggestions. She noted that she lives in a wooded area, so finding open space is difficult. “This bird box is in the middle of the garden, the only open space we have, and has been successful for many years,” she wrote.

Kathy plans to move the box and to put up a second one in the woods that might satisfy the wrens. She also did some of her own research and came across the suggestion of building a guard over the entrance that blocks it from view. “Might give that a try,” she wrote.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                                A Carolina wren creeps along a fence. Other wrens in North America include Bewick’s wren, marsh wren, sedge wren, cactus wren, winter wren and rock wren.

As much as I hate it when these conflicts arise, house wrens are a native species of bird. That sets them apart from birds like house sparrows and starlings, which are not native. These wrens are small birds, so their aggressive nature is probably a survival adaptation that has served them well as they must contend with larger birds for limited resources.

House wrens are not as photogenic as bluebirds, but they have a lot of traits that make them worth observing. First and foremost, this wren produces an enthusiastic and energetic song. The parents will also rid yards and gardens of a great many insect pests as they work to keep six to eight hungry babies fed. Every wild creature has its place, so I try to offer equal respect to them all.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.