Blane Klemek column: Indigo bunting is Minnesota's most striking blue bird
While visiting a friend's rural home in the Alida area recently, I was treated to the sight of the only two seasonal "blue" songbirds that I can readily think of occurring in Minnesota. Indeed, one of the blue-colored birds is a species that I routinely observe throughout the countryside, including around my own home.
As we sat together on his porch enjoying the beautiful Sunday afternoon and talking, I noticed four birds on top of his pickup camper parked across the backyard. Three of the birds were noisy and were begging for food while the other bird, which was the same size as the three beggars, hastily fed the three. I knew instantly that an adult bird of some species was taking care of fledged offspring.
A few moments later I had my friend's binoculars in my hands and was stalking the youngsters in order to get closer for a better look. As I examined the birds through the optics, I began going through a mental checklist: "Bluish gray . . . thrush-like appearance . . . thin bill . . . a faint eye-ring? . . . partially spotted breast . . . check, check, check, check and check . . . eastern bluebird!" Mystery juvenile bird solved.
But the other blue bird wasn't so easy. In fact, when my friend described the song of the singing, territorial male, he described a song that rarely ceased, a song that went on all day long, even now, mid-summer, in the open next to his garden on two specific trees - a big bur oak and an equally large sugar maple about 50 yards apart from one another.
The two of us approached the pair of trees and listened. No singing bird - at least from the two trees he said the bird always sings from - save for the pervasive songs of red-eyed vireos singing heartily from the adjacent forest. My friend was bewildered that his favorite bird was nowhere to be found or heard from.
Scarcely five minutes had passed while we talked and foraged on raspberries from his garden patch. I heard the bird he spoke of. Knowing immediately I had never heard the song before, I stopped talking and asked, "Is that your bird?" A few seconds later, the bird, not yet observed, sang its warbled song of paired phrases, "sweet-sweet, cheer-cheer, seeit-seeit".
"That's him!" my friend exclaimed.
I quickly found the blue songster with the binoculars. He was above our heads on a thin bare branch. He would've been hard to miss, even without optics and despite my red-green color blindness. For there he was, singing just as enthusiastically as his nearby vireo neighbors, in all his splendor and vivid blue plumage - an indigo bunting.
The two of us watched the bunting sing for a couple of minutes until he at last flew to his other favorite perch-tree and commenced singing his lovely song once again, "sweet-sweet, cheer-cheer, seeit-seeit!" over and over and over again. For sure, the song and visual observation were delightful to say the least.
I have only encountered the indigo bunting a handful of times in my life. Some people I know observe them frequently, but I haven't been so lucky. Evidently the species has not found my backyard and adjoining woodland to their liking, although I have observed lone males from time to time during past spring migrations.
As it turns out, indigo buntings are often confused with eastern bluebirds and blue grosbeaks. The all-blue males, sometimes sporting blackish wings, are understandably very striking birds. Their conical beaks are perfect for feeding on insects and seeds alike. At just five and a half inches long, if it wasn't for the male indigo bunting's song and stunning blue color, the species would probably go relatively unnoticed.
Found throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada during the breeding season, indigo buntings migrate as far south as northern South America for the winter months, but some birds will occasionally spend the entire year in southern Florida. Most, however, migrate to the Northland every spring to breed, nest and raise their young.
Preferred indigo bunting habitat is remarkably similar to the kind of habitat that surrounds my home: dense thickets, tall nearby trees near forest edges, open brushy fields, farm country, wooded roadways and forest openings. Why I don't see more of these wonderful blue birds is interesting to me given this information, so there must be something missing (or perhaps present) that indigo buntings don't necessarily like.
But alas, another "fact:" the brilliant blue feathers of the indigo bunting that we see are not really blue after all! My eyes, I thought, did not deceive me, did they? It seems that the indigo bunting is actually black; for it's the light, or rather the diffraction of light through an indigo bunting's feathers, that makes them appear blue!
As such, the indigo bunting is as gorgeous a bird as they come here in northern Minnesota. And while other birds are blue too -eastern bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, blue grosbeaks and others - no other blue-colored bird sings as persistently and as exquisitely, nor are there any other birds-of-blue as stunning a blue, as the indigo bunting is . . . as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org