Songbird Journeys

For those of us who appreciate songbirds, September is the saddest month. That’s when most of them start their long journeys south. Gone are the songs of spring and early summer, the raising of youngsters, even, in some cases, their bright spring colors.

A yellow-rumped warbler in winter plumage photographed at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, South Florida, Feb. 7, 2016

A yellow-rumped warbler in winter plumage photographed at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, South Florida, Feb. 7, 2016 (Photo by Don Burkett on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A few songbirds, such as eastern towhees and yellow-rumped warblers, migrate no farther than the southern United States. Others head for Mexico and Central America. Still others spend their winters in the Amazon basin—Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador—of South America.

Despite a century or more of migration studies by ornithologists and citizen scientists, using bird-banding, radar images, and even small airplanes, as well as on the ground field work both here and on the wintering grounds, much more research needs to be done, especially here late in the summer, when most songbirds moult, during their fall migration, and on their wintering grounds.

Recently, Bridget Stutchbury and her team at the Hemlock Hill Biological Research Area in northwest Crawford County have pioneered the use of geolocators to track long-distant songbird migrations of purple martins and wood thrushes.

A Kirtland’s warbler with a geolocator mounted on its rump

A Kirtland’s warbler with a geolocator mounted on its rump (Photo by Dan Elbert/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Weighing a mere 1.5 grams—that of a dime—a geolocator is carried on a bird like a backpack and is looped around the bird’s legs. Because a geolocator can detect light levels, it is able to show the cycles of sunrise and sunset so that during good weather, a bird’s geographical location can be calculated by the timing of sunrise and sunset in that area.

Working with the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s main colony in Edinboro, Pennsylvania in the summer of 2007, Stutchbury and her associates spent two mornings attaching geolocators to the birds. The martins seemed undisturbed by their “backpacks” and continued feeding and raising their offspring.

On August 31 one of the female martins flew south on the way to her Brazilian wintering grounds. In five days she made it across the Gulf of Mexico to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula—1,440 miles. By the 13th of October, she had arrived at Manaus, Brazil and spent the winter in the Amazonian rainforest. She left Brazil on April 12 and was back in Edinboro at her breeding colony on 25th of April flying 4,200 miles in 13 days.

A purple martin taken at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin, June 28, 2009

A purple martin taken at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin, June 28, 2009 (Photo by Dori in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Five days later Emily Pifer of the Purple Martin Conservation Association found that female with her geolocator still attached and, as Stutchbury wrote in her book The Bird Detective, “Emily was looking at the first migratory songbird, anywhere in the world, for whom we would know its arrival time on the wintering grounds, where it had spent the winter, and how quickly it had come home.”

Later a second female martin arrived with her geolocator and the following year three more were recovered. All indicated the same fast flight over the Gulf of Mexico from northwest Pennsylvania and similar arrival times in Brazil, in which they took more than a month migrating through Central and northern South America.

But all five of their martins averaged 23 days from Brazil to Pennsylvania in the spring, flying about 180 miles a day, thus proving that spring migration is faster than fall’s, most likely because the birds are eager to claim breeding territories and mates.

A wood thrush on its breeding ground in Chester County, PA, June 20, 2010

A wood thrush on its breeding ground in Chester County, PA, June 20, 2010 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Stutchbury also put geolocators on 47 adult wood thrushes in 2007 and 2008 because their numbers are declining probably due to deforestation both on their breeding and wintering grounds. In two years, they retrieved 14 wood thrushes with geolocators. They learned from them that wood thrush fall migration, mostly to Honduras and Nicaragua, is relatively slow and the arrival time varied from mid-October to early December. They too mostly crossed the Gulf of Mexico, especially in the spring when they flew on average 2,160 miles in two weeks.

However, one female did not cross the Gulf, and instead she flew an extra 600 miles overland, arriving much later on her nesting grounds. Why she did this is anyone’s guess, although Stutchbury wondered if she had left her wintering territory in poor condition and hadn’t the strength to cross the Gulf.

Stutchbury further questioned if wood thrushes that double-brooded and thus moulted their feathers late in the summer, would postpone their migration and subsequently arrive too late to acquire territory on their wintering grounds. But she learned through her geolocator-wearing wood thrushes that even though the late moulting birds crossed later into the tropics, they did not arrive later on their winter territories, contrary to the expectations of Stutchbury and her associates.

In a paper they wrote for the Proceedings of the Royal Society B they concluded, “We suggest the possibility that some individuals prepare to migrate more rapidly than others by investing more heavily in fat storage during the early stages of moult.”

A veery photographed in Chester County, PA, on June 2, 2011

A veery photographed in Chester County, PA, on June 2, 2011 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Other researchers have taken up the challenges and rewards of geolocators including Christopher M. Heckscher and associates of Delaware State University who attached geolocators on 24 veeries in White Clay Creek State Park in Delaware near the southeastern Pennsylvania border. Like the purple martins, veeries also migrate to the tropical forests of South America.

While they wanted to find out whether each veery spent its winter in two different areas in southern Brazil as another ornithologist had proposed, they also wished to discover veeries’ migration routes and timing. Furthermore, in a paper in The Auk, they wrote, “Building on the work of Stutchbury et al…” they wanted “to determine whether geolocator technology can successfully track a terrestrial forest-dwelling songbird from its North American breeding site through dense tropical forests of equatorial South America where day length and night length are equal.”

They proved that point by tracking the veeries to multiple wintering sites first south of the Amazon River in Brazil at five separate locations from November 2 to December 2 and then to second wintering sites as far north as Venezuela and as far south as east-central Bolivia with the other three in widely separated areas in Brazil. They suspect that the “predictable seasonal flooding of lowland forests in Amazonia may be the ultimate factor that prompted the Veeries to relocate.”

From those five birds they “documented three different migratory routes between South and North America and three different routes from the Gulf Coast to Delaware.” And like Stutchbury’s purple martins and wood thrushes, veeries took their time going south but left their wintering grounds in mid-April and returned to Delaware in 17 days.

A gray catbird in Washington, D.C.

A gray catbird in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Steve in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another geolocator study, this one of gray catbirds, was by Thomas B. Ryder et al. of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institution’s Migratory Bird Center. They pointed out that although geolocators can estimate longitude fairly accurately, latitudinal error can be large—108 miles for purple martins and between 132 and 192 miles for wood thrushes. For this reason, they used both geolocators and bird-banding records “to estimate the migratory connectivity of breeding and nonbreeding populations of Gray Catbirds,” according to their paper in The Auk.

In July of 2009 they put 22 geolocators on gray catbirds in two forest parks near Washington, D.C. These birds left their breeding territory in late August and early September and arrived on wintering grounds in south Florida or Cuba in mid-October. They left those grounds in April and arrived back in the D.C. area in early to mid-May.

Looking at recovered bird-banding data that showed Midwestern gray catbirds overwintered exclusively in Central America and our birds from the mid-Atlantic overwintered in Florida and the Caribbean and combining it with their geolocator studies, they concluded that their research “underscores the importance of geolocators, as well as other tools, to advance our understanding of migratory connectivity.”

A common cuckoo

A common cuckoo (Photo by Ron Knight in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

With all this research and much more both here and in Europe using geolocators, bird migration is proving to be more complex and varied than we could have imagined. A recent study of the European common cuckoo using geolocators found them 600 miles away from their usual departure area in northern Europe. Then each cuckoo flew by itself back to its normal route and on to its wintering grounds in central Africa.

In an interview with a National Wildlife reporter, researcher Mikkel Willemoes said that, “They [cuckoos] evaluate their own conditions and adjust their reactions to it, displaying a complicated behavior that we were able to document for the first time in migratory birds.”

He concluded that, “This tells us that bird migration in general is far more complex than previously assumed”—a point we can ponder as we watch our songbirds head south, knowing that only an estimated half of them will survive their migratory journeys and return to us next spring.

Watch a video of Dr. Bridget Stutchbury and associates at the Purple Martin Conservation Association attaching geolocators to purple martins before they set out on their fall migration from Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania.

Migrating Palm Warblers

It’s the middle of October and every day songbird migrants dwindle. Still, between rainstorms one morning the trees fill with warblers, especially yellow-rumps, which haven’t all that far to go. But I spot the pumping tail of a palm warbler too.

A yellow palm warbler in fall plumage

A yellow palm warbler in fall plumage, taken on October 15, 2013, in Chester County (Image by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The following day three palm warblers sit and bob their tails in the one American elm beside our driveway. The day after that, our First Field plants shake with sparrows—song, field, chipping and at least two white-crowned sparrows.

In the midst of brown sparrow bodies, I pish in a yellow palm warbler, its yellow breast and belly making it the yellow palm warbler subspecies Setophaga palmarum hypochrysea, which nests in coniferous boreal forests east of Ottawa, Canada, and winters mostly along the Gulf Coast. The western palm warbler, S. p. palmarum, nests west of Ottawa and winters primarily along the southeastern coast of the United States and in the West Indies.

Their wintering grounds may account for their common name, but this is a species that nests on the ground or in short shrubs or trees in a black spruce bog environment from Newfoundland and southern Labrador to northeastern British Columbia in Canada, although occasional nests have been reported from northeastern Minnesota across to the northern New England states.

Still, according to the Boreal Songbird Initiative that is “committed to protecting the Canadian Boreal Forest—the largest intact forest on Earth—on behalf of the billions of migrating birds that rely on it,” according to their website, an estimated 98% of palm warblers breed in Canada’s boreal forest. This is the highest number of any warbler species and is followed by Tennessee warblers (97%), Connecticut warblers (91%), blackpoll warblers (82%) and Cape May warblers (83%).

Both subspecies of palm warblers have chestnut caps, giving them the nickname “redpoll warblers” and pump their tails more than any other warbler species so they are also called “tip-up” or “wag-tail” warblers. They also have yellow beneath their tails, but many have subdued colors in fall so it isn’t always possible for the casual observer to separate the subspecies.

A western palm warbler in fall plumage

A western palm warbler in fall plumage, taken on October 6, 2013, in Pymatuning State Park (Image by David Inman on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

However, the western subspecies has a whitish throat and belly and a grayish brown back and wings in contrast with the yellow throat and belly and yellow-green back and wings of the yellow subspecies.

Mostly the western palm warbler migrates west of the Appalachians in the spring, beginning later than the yellow palm warbler and southeastward to the Atlantic coast in the fall earlier than the yellow palm warbler, while the yellow palm warbler migrates earlier northeast along the Appalachian Mountains in spring and follows the Appalachians south later in fall.

In Pennsylvania it is possible to see either subspecies. According to bird banding records from the Powdermill Nature Reserve in western Pennsylvania from 1961 to 2000, westerns outnumbered yellow significantly during migration, but especially in autumn when their nets recorded 1,265 westerns versus 35 yellows. In spring they netted 24 westerns and 13 yellows.

W. Herbert Wilson, Jr., author of the definitive palm warbler account in Birds of North America, hypothesizes that “the earlier spring migration of yellows may reflect a more advanced phenology [blooming of plants] along their typical migration route, the Coastal Plain, compared to western, inland routes of western palm warblers…[and] maybe an earlier breeding season.”

During migration in southeastern Pennsylvania, for example, palm warblers feed on the ground in early spring but switch to feeding in trees as soon as they bud and flower and attract the insects palm warblers prefer.

A yellow palm warbler in spring plumage with a caterpillar in its bill

A yellow palm warbler in spring plumage with a caterpillar in its bill (Image by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Recent studies in 2013 by Frank LaSorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and colleagues, discovered that many small, insectivorous North American bird species fly looping, clockwise migration routes. Those eastern species use strong southerly tailwinds in spring over the Gulf of Mexico and less severe headwinds in the fall. But they also seem to be following the flush of green vegetation in the spring in search of insects, which may help to explain the difference in migration rates between western and yellow palm warbler species.

Even though scientists have been studying bird migration for many decades and have found so far that they orient using magnetic fields, stars that rotate around the North Star, patterns of polarized light near sunset, as well as learning their route through experience, they are not certain if the birds can easily switch from one navigation process to another during a night when, for instance, it is overcast.

Palm warblers are, like many songbirds, night time migrants. In spring they travel with other early migrants—ruby-crowned kinglets, hermit thrushes, and their closest relative—yellow-rumped warblers. On migration either way they also mingle with other early migrants—pine warblers, chipping sparrows, and eastern bluebirds.

In the fall, they are among the last warblers, along with yellow-rumps, to migrate through Pennsylvania. Then they are usually seen in or near the ground in woodland edges, thickets, brushy areas or on the grassy sand dunes in Presque Isle State Park, according to The Birds of Pennsylvania.

Palm warblers don’t sing much on migration or even on their nesting ground, uttering five buzzy notes per second and reminding one observer of a debilitated chipping sparrow.

Even though much has been learned about migrating palm warblers, only one observer, D. A. Welsh, back in 1971, has studied palm warblers (in a Nova Scotia spruce bog) over their entire breeding period, although earlier observers in Maine, southern Quebec, and New Brunswick described nests they found.

Nest of a Yellow Palm Warbler in Maine

Nest of a Yellow Palm Warbler in Maine, from Ora Knight, Birds of Maine, 1908 (In the public domain)

Maine ornithologist, Ora Willis Knight, in 1904, discovered a yellow palm warbler nesting in a bog consisting “of large open expanses thickly carpeted with sphagnum mosses and dotted with numerous small trees and shrubs” including black spruce, tamarack, Labrador tea, swamp laurel and sedges.

Knight wrote that it is difficult to find nests because the incubating bird won’t flush until you practically step on it and he was not willing to do the alternative—“visit the bog and spend day after day during the nesting season, fighting the voracious mosquitoes.” I know about those mosquitoes. We lived in rural Maine from 1966 until 1971, and even though we were raised in New Jersey, we could not believe the clouds of mosquitoes in our woods.

Apparently, D.A. Welsh was made of sterner stuff. He reported that the average territory in Nova Scotia was between 2.61 and 6.61 acres and included trees around the margin of a bog.

Males established territory around the ten nests he studied by singing from high song posts and chasing interlopers, including American redstarts, dark-eyed juncos, magnolia warblers and common yellowthroats in addition to other palm warblers.

Nest-building occurred between May 26 and June 7 and was constructed in the sphagnum of a peat bog at the base of a small conifer. Even Welsh, though, never saw nest building and so it isn’t known which sex chooses the nest site, if the male assists the female in constructing the nest, what time of day it is built or how long it takes.

He and other researchers discovered that the nest is cup-shaped and hidden well in sphagnum and includes weed stalks, grass and sedges, and woody stems of Labrador tea. It is often lined with feathers including those of spruce and ruffed grouse, American bitterns, barred owls, blue jays, and American robins.

Females brood four to five eggs 11 days and are fed by the males. Both parents feed the nestlings for the 12 days they are in the nest, but Welsh found that the females did most of the feeding, with the males watching closely while the females fed and vice versa. Possible nest predators were gray jays, short-tailed weasels, and garter snakes.

Western palm warbler juvenile

Western palm warbler juvenile (Image by Jeff Bryant on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Once the young fledged, they stayed with their parents at least eight additional days. Presumably, after those eight days, the young are on their own, but no researcher has verified this.

From 1966 to 1994, Breeding Bird Surveys reported increasing numbers of palm warblers. Christmas Bird Counts from 1995 to 2010 found a modest increase in Florida’s wintering palm warblers. However, at Manomet Banding Station in eastern Massachusetts, they recorded a 76% decline in western palm warblers from 1970 to 2001 and a 26% increase in yellow palm warblers during the spring.

While migrating, palm warblers are often killed in collisions with tall, lighted structures. Increased mining in peatland also may impact palm warblers because they need undisturbed vegetation for nesting, and once disturbed by mining, the peat takes many decades for even a partial recovery.

Still, unlike many songbird migrants, palm warblers are not threatened or endangered. As long as their nesting and wintering ground remain reasonably secure, and they can find plenty of food wherever they travel and live, we can look forward to seeing these birds during migration.

Amazing Hooded Warblers

Hooded warbler singing by JanetandPhil

Hooded warbler singing (photo by JanetandPhil – CC licence)

It’s a hot, humid day in mid-July, and a hooded warbler sings his clear, whistled “ta-wit, ta-wit, ta-wit, tee-yo” song. Because hooded warblers have one of the loudest and clearest of warbler songs, it can be heard a long distance, which may be why I can hear it despite a slight hearing loss as I age.

But hooded warbler song is tricky. Individual males have their own version of songs, especially the first several syllables. I’ve learned to listen for the last “tee-yo,” which I hear as “wee-zu” to identify them. This works most times unless a male decides to sing another version that rises in pitch at the end and, to my ear, sounds totally different from his usual songs.

At least hooded warbler song is distinctive, unlike the “buzzy” songs of some warblers. Hooded warblers also have a distinctive look that they keep throughout the year. The black hood, for which they are named, encircles their bright yellow head like a monk’s cowl.

Even the females have a trace of that hood or, at the very least, a black spot between their bill and their eyes. Those eyes are unusually large and dark, larger than 32 other warbler species.

Their breasts and bellies are also bright yellow and their backs and tails yellow-olive. They frequently flick those tails showing white outer tail feathers, which is still another identifying characteristic.

Best of all, when many fall migrating warblers have exchanged their flashy spring and summer feathers for dull fall and winter ones, hooded warblers remain their black-cowled, yellow-bodied selves.

Hooded warbler female by Joby Joseph

Hooded warbler female (Joby Joseph – CC licence)

Seeing these warblers, though, is not easy because they are understory skulkers, often feeding on or near the ground. They also nest close to the ground in shrubs and saplings.

Called “forest dependent gap specialists” by Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, who has studied hooded warblers extensively at her Hemlock Hill Research Station in northwestern Pennsylvania, Stutchbury writes in The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania that singing hooded warblers are most abundant in deciduous forests and breed in tree-fall gaps where sunshine encourages thick undergrowth.

Unfortunately, hooded warblers are also attracted by logged fragmented forests, and so are brown-headed cowbirds. In one study, by Stutchbury’s student, Margaret Eng, over half the hooded warbler nests in fragmented forests had cowbird eggs, and, as Stutchbury writes in her excellent book, The Bird Detective, “nesting success was so low that their fatal attraction to partially logged areas was actually driving the population numbers down…”

Despite this, though, hooded warbler numbers in Pennsylvania have increased an amazing 71% between the first and second atlasing projects. This is partly due to the expansion of their core range in western Pennsylvania, especially the northwest, as well as in Pennsylvania’s Ridge and Valley Province.

Like several other bird species, such as Carolina wrens and northern cardinals, hooded warbles are a southern species moving steadily north into New York state and Ontario. Scientists are not certain why, but Stutchbury says that “maturation of forest, combined with a possible response to climate change, may be important factors.”

Hooded warbler nest by Richard Bonnett

Hooded warbler nest (Richard Bonnett – CC licence)

Certainly, here on our mountaintop Ridge and Valley Province home, I hear and see more hooded warblers than I used to. Last summer I heard them along Laurel Ridge Trail, beside the Far Field Road, and along Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails, all forest areas with a shrubby understory.

Hooded warblers return to our mountain from the last week in April to the first in May, and we count as many as seven during our participation in the Pennsylvania Migratory Bird Day count the second Saturday in May. The males arrive first and occupy the same territory they had the previous year by chasing off intruders.

Females settle on a territory and mate shortly after arrival, favoring males that sing four to seven songs per minute. Possibly this signals to a female that such males will be strong enough to feed their young the average thousand times they deliver food during the raising of one clutch of young hooded warblers. According to Stutchbury, hooded warblers that sing less are more likely to have unfaithful mates. In fact, one-third of female hooded warblers have offspring fathered by a neighboring male.

The females choose nest sites in shrubs or saplings seven to 63 inches from the ground, although 25 inches is the average. It takes females two to six days to choose a site and build an open cup nest woven of soft inner bark, grasses, and plant-down with an outer wrapping of dead leaves, some of which hang down and camouflage the nest.

In Pennsylvania, blackberry, beech, black cherry, and prickly gooseberry are favorite nesting plants, but maple leaf viburnum, white ash, black and blue cohoshes, sugar maple, wild rose, yellow birch, hawthorn and hemlock are also used. All are native trees and shrubs. However, the only hooded warbler nest I ever found was in a thicket of nonnative Japanese barberry off Greenbrier Trail.

Here in Pennsylvania, first nesting attempts range from May 10 to June 11, and the second nesting from June 21 to July 19. Last summer on July 20, a hooded warbler distraction-displayed as I passed a thick understory of barberry, multiflora rose and blackberry, and I assumed a second nest was hidden within those prickly shrubs.

Hooded warbler on nest by USFWS

Hooded warbler on nest (USFWS – public domain)

The females incubate an average of four white eggs spotted with brown that look very much like those of brown-headed cowbirds. In northwestern Pennsylvania 62% of hooded warblers nests were parasitized by cowbirds, Stutchbury reported, possibly because cowbirds are attracted by chipping calls female hooded warblers make as they construct their nests. Usually cowbirds lay one or two eggs in a nest and remove one or more hooded warbler eggs at dawn before female hooded warblers arrive to lay their egg for the day.

After 12 days, the young hatch, and both parents feed them spiders and insects, the usual fare of hooded warblers, although only the females brood them.

At eight to nine days of age, the young fledge and can fly two to three days later. The parents divide up the fledglings and continue feeding them until they are five to six weeks old. But usually males take over the entire brood of fledglings if the females start second broods.

The males sing from the time they arrive until they leave for their wintering grounds in Central America. I’ve heard a male singing here as late as September 24, although peak migration time in Pennsylvania is from the fourth week in August to the second week in September.

Hooded warblers defend territories on their wintering grounds, but males prefer mature forests and females scrub, secondary forests and disturbed habitat, which is the first documented example of habitat segregation.

Male and Female hooded warbler by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917

Hooded Warbler by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917

Our son, Mark, who has lived off and on in Honduras over the years, has seen many wintering hooded warblers in shrubby areas and says they are always with Wilson’s warblers, a boreal breeding species that resembles a female hooded warbler except for the black cap of the male Wilson’s warbler.

Back in spring of 2010, Stutchbury attached tiny geolocator tags on the backs of five male hooded warblers to find out where they spend their winters. These tags record light levels and location information every two minutes and are now being used to track numerous songbird species.

A year later two of the five tagged hooded warblers returned to their territories in northwestern Pennsylvania, and Stutchbury and her team caught them in mist nets and analyzed the data. One male had flown south to the Florida panhandle, across the Gulf of Mexico and spent the winter in Nicaragua. In spring, he flew up to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi River Valley back to his exact same territory—altogether a 4,200 mile round trip.

When males return to their same 1.2 to 1.8 acre-territories, they use their long-term memory to identify nearby territories by the distinctive songs of the neighboring males. This minimizes the struggle for territory as they countersing with their neighbors and await the arrival of the females.

In the words of Samuel F. Rathbun, who studied the hooded warbler in west-central New York state early in the last century, “it is essentially a carefree song, musical, and often spiced with a little jauntiness, which in many ways perfectly reflects the actions of the bird.”

Hooded warbler by Paul Hurtado

Hooded warbler (Paul Hurtado – CC licence)

Blue Canaries

indigo bunting by Matt Stratmoen

indigo bunting — photo by Matt Stratmoen (CC licence)

On an early May morning, I step outside and hear a warble of clear, bright, musical notes. The indigo buntings have returned. Also known as “blue canaries” because of their color and song, I’ve never been able to describe indigo bunting song to others except to say that I know it when I hear it.

Other folks have had more success or perhaps a better ear. Arthur A. Allen, a prominent Cornell University ornithologist back in the 1930s, described it as “sweet, sweet, where, where, here, here, see it, see it,” and when I listen to its variable song on the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s website (the Lab was the brainchild of Allen’s), his description seems apt. But the Lab website cuts Allen’s description down to eight words instead of ten—“what, what, where, where, see it, see it.”

indigo bunting resting on an outdoor table

indigo bunting resting on an outdoor table — photo by Dave Bonta

In fact, both descriptions are correct. That’s because a male indigo bunting has one complex song that combines 6 to 8 kinds of notes in different sequences. Furthermore, that choice of notes in his song is unique to what ornithologists call a “neighborhood” of indigo buntings, i.e. anywhere from 3 to 4 up to 22 males in adjacent territories that average 3 acres. And males living approximately a mile and a half apart have different songs which they develop from a repertoire of about 100 notes.

Unlike many songbirds, indigo buntings do not learn their songs from their fathers during their natal year. Instead, as first year males 80% of them match the song of neighboring males while 20% appear to learn their song somewhere else before settling on their own territory. Once they establish themselves, indigo bunting males sing 200 songs an hour at dawn, one song per minute the rest of the day, and they sing well into August.

The brilliant Prussian blue males with wings edged in black are often described as a piece of the sky come down to earth and like the sky, which only appears to be blue, their feathers merely refract and reflect blue light. The only pigment their feathers have is melanin. This gives them a brown-black color that is obvious if you hold a feather so that the light comes from behind instead of toward it as we usually see the bird. For this reason, male indigo buntings look more black than blue in poor light.

The females, who do most of the work of raising young ones, are mostly brown with lightly streaked breasts and are often mistaken for sparrows. Like the males, they have silver-gray conical bills, but while the males perch on the highest point in the shrubby, overgrown fields they favor, belting out their songs, the females stay hidden, sitting on open cup nests they have woven in shrubs or saplings.

Courtship is short, and females settle on a male’s territory a day or two after arriving. She chooses the nest site in fields or the edges of woods, railways or roadsides, in shrubs, such as blackberries, gray dogwoods, multiflora roses, and staghorn sumacs, in goldenrods and nettles, or in sapling trees such as black locust, aspen, elm, black birch or maple. Usually she builds the nest 1.5 to 3 feet above the ground but sometimes as much as 10 feet later in the season. Nest materials of soft leaves, grasses, stems and strips of bark are held together by weaving and by wrapping the nest in spider webs, and grasses and sometimes deer hair line the nest.

indigo bunting nest by Richard Bonnett

indigo bunting nest — photo by Richard Bonnett (licence)

Then she lays 1 to 4 white eggs on subsequent days and begins incubating them after the last egg is laid. It takes from 11 to 14 days, depending on the weather, for her eggs to hatch. Once her chicks arrive, she broods and feeds them small insects, spiders, and berries, as much as 54 times a day with breaks averaging 16 minutes for very young nestlings. The only time she gets a rest is after the young fledge as early as 8 days old if they are disturbed but up to 14 days in cool weather, although on average they fledge at 9 to 12 days of age. The male then pitches in to help feed the fledglings and completely takes over after a few days. In the meantime, she is busy constructing a new nest, laying and incubating the second batch of eggs.

Our overgrown, brushy, 37-acre First Field and smaller Far Field appear to be ideal indigo bunting habitats, and occasionally I discover a nest. Last July 7, while walking around the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I startled a brown female that scolded and skittered off into the grass. I couldn’t persuade her to reappear, but almost immediately I discovered a nest containing three white eggs in a small black locust sapling.

Five days later I again took the Pennyroyal Trail and found the indigo bunting nest intact but empty as if some creature had tipped it slightly and removed the eggs. I suspected a raccoon to be the culprit especially after I learned that one was observed by researchers removing eggs from a nest without disturbing it, but other possible nest predators include red foxes, opossums, feral cats, blue jays and snakes.

Then, early in August, while picking blackberries in a patch in First Field, I heard what sounded like a rapid “tick-tick.” It turned out to be indigo bunting fledglings begging for food. I had an excellent look at one perched in the deepest part of the patch, well-protected from predators. Once I glimpsed the female trying to fly in to feed them, but she veered off when she saw me, not wanting to give away the location of her fledglings. The fledgling I saw did flutter off to another part of the patch so it was able to fly a short distance. Last January I found their intact nest 3 feet from the ground in a black birch sapling at the edge of the blackberry patch.

indigo bunting female by Henry T. McLin

indigo bunting female — photo by Henry T. McLin (licence)

Here in Pennsylvania indigo buntings breed from May 6 until September 11 and they have nests with eggs from May 24 until July 9. But sometimes they have clutches as late as August 3, so the nest I found at the Far Field was a late, unsuccessful clutch. Early in the season, indigo bunting nests can be heavily parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, however, in a Michigan study, 69% of nests were successful.

Because they are generalists that adapt to a wide variety of habitats, especially interspersed woodlands and farmlands, they are one of Pennsylvania’s most common songbirds with the highest numbers in our Ridge and Valley Province. They were abundant during both atlasing projects, and male numbers are estimated at 1.5 million. Still, the Breeding Bird Survey recorded a modest 15% decrease, perhaps because of conditions on their wintering grounds.

They begin leaving Pennsylvania late in August, but peak migration occurs during the last two weeks in September. During the second and third weeks in October, 50 or more birds have been observed in overgrown, brushy fields. They spend their winters in southern Florida, Mexico, Central America, and on Caribbean islands.

indigo bunting in the rain

indigo bunting in the rain — photo by Dave Bonta

But how do they find their way? It turns out that as young birds they are stargazers. And it was Cornell Lab ornithologist Stephen T. Emlen who proved this. Using what later was called an “Emlen funnel,” he put an indigo bunting experiencing migratory restlessness or zugenruhe into a funnel-shaped cage that he had line with paper, and supplied with an ink pad perch at its bottom. The bird repeatedly leaped from the ink pad to the funnel’s side, leaving its footprints on the papered wall. In that way, the bird left a record of its migratory direction and depending on its hormonal condition, oriented north or south. Emlen followed this by proving that those songbirds that travel at night use the stars as a guide, specifically the North Star, Polaris, which stays in the same position all night and the Big Dipper and other nearby stars which rotate around Polaris in a counterclockwise direction. In addition, Emlen found that they learned their way as young birds watching the sky at night. Since his work, other discoveries about bird migration continue to be made and they appear to use magnetic fields to orient themselves too.

Indigo buntings breed from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic seaboard and from southern Canada to the southern United States. Then they head to their winter homes. Many indigo buntings return to the same site both in their wintering grounds and their breeding grounds, according to a variety of studies, although the males seem to be more faithful to their home grounds than females are. It’s intriguing to realize that those males I see every year sitting on the same singing perches may be as wedded to our habitat as I am.