If the woman of the house had decided, the American goldfinch would have been bird of the week – a worthy choice, especially because there “were thousands” of these bright, beautiful, yellow birds scattered across the lawn.
But only 100 or so of them were moving. The rest were dandelions, rooted to the ground.
Plus, the goldfinch has been “bird of the week” before, less than a year ago, when the decider in this case suggested it could be called “a bird for all seasons.”
Goldfinches are among the most common – and conspicuous – birds at our place west of Gilby, N.D., throughout the year.
Not so the indigo bunting. An indigo bunting is something special. Besides, it’s never been bird of the week before.
And it solves a riddle.
Question: When is a blue bird not a bluebird?
Answer: When it’s an indigo bunting.
The indigo bunting is blue, and it is a bird, but it is not a bluebird. The absence of the space makes the term a family name. The indigo bunting is a finch, not a bluebird. It is more closely related to sparrows than to thrushes, of which the American robin is the archetype in the New World.
The word bunting has several definitions, one of which is “a seed-eating songbird related to the finches.” Another is “festive decorations in the color of the national flag,” exactly the type displayed to honor veterans on Memorial Day.
But that’s only a convenient coincidence, not the reason the indigo bunting became bird of the week.
Last week brought a rash of excited and enthusiastic reports about these “blue birds.” The indigo bunting thus represents the dozens of species that showed up in unexpected numbers during last week’s extraordinary “fall” of migrating birds.
Indigo buntings do nest in our area, but they are not common. For that reason, a male bunting in spring plumage is always a thrill. Females are duller – as they must be, since they do all of the “nest work” and dare not attract unnecessary attention — unlike the males, which are spirited songsters as well as brightly colored birds whose only real work is to draw attention to themselves.
Indigo buntings are denizens of open areas that provide convenient cover. The Red River Greenway in Grand Forks is such an area, and I’ve seen them there.
Indigo buntings might be mistaken for mountain bluebirds, which occur in our area as fairly regular early spring migrants and occasional very localized nesters. Icelandic State Park west of Cavalier, N.D., has been a dependable spot for mountain bluebirds. There also are records of mountain bluebirds from northwestern Minnesota.
But as the name implies, the mountain bluebird is a more western species. It is fairly common in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands.
Eastern bluebirds, also occasional nesters in our area, are blue only on the topside; like the robin, they have reddish undersides, while both the bunting and the mountain bluebird are blue top and bottom.
Often, bird guides show some brown or reddish on the wings of indigo buntings and this is a dependable field mark – if you happen to see it. More likely, you’ll be distracted by the brilliant blue color.
The word “bunting” is applied to a number of other finch species, including the lark bunting, state bird of Colorado, which is sometimes abundant in western North Dakota; lazuli bunting, another “blue bird” that occurs in western North Dakota; and the snow bunting.
Unlike the snow bunting, an Arctic bird that spends winters here, the indigo bunting divides its year differently. It occurs in the eastern United States and southern Canada (as far west as southern Manitoba) in summer months and spends the winter in Central America, the West Indies and northern South America.
This means the indigo bunting must cross the Gulf of Mexico in order to reach our area. Many exhausted birds, including indigo buntings, are seen along the Gulf Coast after spring storms.
Herein lies another reason to name the indigo bunting as bird of the week. The buntings that reach our area are survivors. The perils of a journey across the Gulf have impressed birders for decades; folklore even insisted that small birds, such as hummingbirds, must migrate on the backs of larger, stronger birds, such as geese and swans.
Not so. Each individual bird makes the trip on its own.
Suezette was disappointed by the truth – which is still more gruesome. Researchers at Mississippi State University found remains of birds – mostly undigestible feathers – in the guts of tiger sharks. Brown thrashers – the “state bird” of our backyard – were included, and so were other local nesters such as barn swallows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.