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Home & Garden: Birds like the rainbow

Larry Collins
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
Bullock's Oriole.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

“What was that?!”

I am not used to seeing brightly colored birds in our valley, and when I recently looked out my window I luckily saw one. If you are one of those special few who have, it may be a Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, or maybe a Bullocks Oriole. All three are common in the area during this time of year.

Unfortunately, the buntings are just migrating through and will probably be here for only a couple of weeks. The oriole on the other hand will be here through most of the summer.



A beautifully colored bird, the Lazuli Bunting is common in shrubby areas throughout the American West. Their head is a deep blue with a reddish upper chest. The lower chest, belly, and under tail is white. They have one large and one narrow white wingbar, black in front of their eyes, with dark wing feathers edged in blue.

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 20 years, gradually changing as new singers add novel variations.

You will usually see them at your bird feeders. They prefer seeds, fruits, and insects.



Male Lazuli Buntings two years of age and older sing only one song, which is composed of a series of different syllables, and unique to that individual bird. Yearling males generally arrive on the breeding grounds without a song of their own. Shortly after arriving, a young male develops its own song, which can be a novel rearrangement of syllables, combinations of song fragments of several males, or a copy of the song of one particular older male.

The male Indigo Bunting is all blue (almost an iridescent color), sings with cheerful gusto, and looks like a scrap of sky with wings. Sometimes nicknamed “blue canaries,” these brilliantly colored yet common and widespread birds whistle their bouncy songs through the late spring and summer all over eastern North America. Look for Indigo Buntings in weedy fields and shrubby areas near trees, singing from dawn to dusk atop the tallest perch in sight or foraging for seeds and insects in low vegetation.

This species eats insects, seeds, and berries, and can be attracted to backyards with thistle or nyjer seed. While perching, they often swish their tails from side to side. Fairly solitary during breeding season, Indigo Buntings form large flocks during migration and on their wintering grounds.

Indigo Buntings also migrate at night, using the stars for guidance. The birds possess an internal clock that enables them to continually adjust their angle of orientation to a star, even as that star moves through the night sky.

Indigo Buntings learn their songs as youngsters, from nearby males but not from their fathers. 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 20 years, gradually changing as new singers add novel variations.

Like all other blue birds, Indigo and Lazuli 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.

A lot of people realize they have orioles when they see a large orange, black, and white bird trying to drink the nectar from their hummingbird feeders. Orioles are insect and fruit eaters. They usually stay hidden in the trees, eating and singing their beautiful whistling notes. They can be drawn down from their perches with foods like orange slices, grape jelly, mealworms and nectar feeders. When not feeding on nectar, orioles seek out caterpillars, fruits, insects, and spiders. Bullock’s Orioles may feed almost entirely on grasshoppers when they are plentiful. While in their tropical winter habitats, Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles feed on nectar from numerous flowering trees, which explain their attraction to nectar feeders upon their spring-time return to North America. They are also big fans of grape jelly and oranges.

While in their tropical winter habitat, the Baltimore and Bullock’s Oriole play an important role in pollinating several tree species as they transfer pollen from tree to tree while eating nectar from their flowers.

The oriole nest is an engineering masterpiece. They weave a hanging-basket nest with plant fibers, grasses, vine and tree bark and sometimes string or yarn placed out on the small twigs of a branch six to 45 feet in the air. This keeps them safe from most predators. It takes as many as 12 days for an oriole to weave its nest. The female Bullock’s Oriole is the primary nest weaver, but she may get some help from her mate in both the weaving and collection of nest material. Only the female incubates and broods, while both feed the young.

Most Bullock’s Orioles spend their winters in central and southern Mexico, with a few staying along the coast of southern California. Both the Bullock’s and Baltimore Orioles start their southerly migration as early as July, with August being the prime migration month. Bullock’s and Baltimore Orioles migrate at night and are known to be victims of collisions with buildings and communication towers.

Thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the information used in part of this article.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to lcollins1@bresnan.net.


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