A male indigo bunting, after a late spring arrival, began to sing most persistently from the tops of some of the tallest trees in my yard and around some of the surrounding fields.
When I talk about the song of the indigo bunting, I’m being generous. The bird’s song is a hodgepodge of one-syllable bullet notes delivered like a machine gun over and over again, usually from elevated perches. It’s not musical, but it’s certainly recognizable and admirable in the sheer persistence of male delivery.
One of my earliest memories of a songbird is of sightings of these electric bluebirds on hot summer afternoons when I was a child. I did not know the identity of the bird at that time, but the image of this feathered beauty stuck with me.
The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina which is stuck in the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like the northern cardinal and rose-breasted cardinal. They are often lumped into a group known as the North American sparrows, although they are not closely related to birds such as the snow bunting and lark sparrow. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird of Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds.
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Other members of the genus Passerina include the Lazuli Sparrow, Variegated Sparrow, Painted Sparrow, Rose-bellied Sparrow, Orange-breasted Sparrow, and Blue Grosbeak.
It’s the blue cardinal that has always interested me, even though I rarely see them. Blue cardinals have only visited my home feeders a few times in the 30 years that I have watched the birds and kept records of my sightings.
Birds sporting all-blue plumages are decidedly rare. In fact, the indigo bunting and the blue grosbeak are the only contenders in the area. I’m not counting the blue jay, eastern bluebird, or belted kingfisher because all of these species have white or other colors that feature prominently among their blue feathers.
A few warblers – the Cerulean Warbler and the Black-throated Blue Warbler – show significant amounts of blue feathers, but it’s not a uniform blue.
A glimpse of a blue blur as an indigo bunting or blue grosbeak flies across a field, pasture, or meadow will reward the viewer for watching one of these lovely birds.
The All About Birds website reports that blue cardinals have expanded their range northward over 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 cardinal in northeastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and the southwestern of Virginia.
The blue cardinal is picky about choosing a habitat. These birds prefer old fields cluttered with tangles of vines and a few shrubbery, but they can also be comfortable in habitats such as mesquite savannahs, salt cedar forests, and southern pine forests. Most evidence, according to All About Birds, points to a slight increase in the total number of this bird in recent decades.
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 emailed me about hummingbirds, or lack thereof, at her house in central Alabama.
Beth noted that she used to see many hummingbirds, but now only sees one at her feeders. As an avid hummingbird fan, this decline has appalled her.
She also shared that she knew the late Bob Sargent. Along with his wife, Martha, Sargent was the co-founder of 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 answered, I told Beth how glad I was that she knew Bob Sargent. I was also delighted to meet another hummingbird fan.
Although I can’t speak specifically to Alabama, I’ve noticed that I’m not hosting many hummingbirds this spring at home. That being said, I’m not sure there’s a rhyme or reason to explain how many hummingbirds will decide to call a certain yard or garden their summer home.
I offered some suggestions. Hummingbirds, even those that come to feeders, appreciate a nice perch to rest on. I asked Beth if she had any shrubs or trees near her feeders.
If possible, I advised her to plant flowers that would be attractive to hummingbirds. I recommended that she check with a nursery or garden center for ideas on which flowering plants grow best in her area.
Many of the birds that people would see early in Alabama will push to go farther north into Tennessee and even far beyond New England and even Canada.
One thing that almost invariably happens is that in June and early July hummingbird numbers usually pick up. Of course, this will depend to some extent on how many hummingbirds stay around during nesting season.
To share an observation, ask a question, or make a comment, email me at [email protected]