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Northland Nature: Indigo buntings sing throughout July

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

A male indigo bunting has bright turquoise feathers and sits on a branch
A male indigo bunting as seen and heard in late July. Female is more sparrow-like.
Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas
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A regular happening with songbirds in spring is that they will live up to their names and sing when arriving back from migration. Most of these migrants that nest in the Northland come back from wintering sites in May. Once settled into a proclaimed territory, the males will produce unique sounds that we call singing.

It is often very easy to identify the singer just by listening to his notes; most are diagnostic and species specific. His reasons for producing these vocals is twofold. He is getting the attention of available females. (Many songbirds have already mated by the time they have arrived back north.) Once the couple moves into a home territory, he continues to sing, letting others of his kind know that this place is taken.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Within this chosen site, the songbirds go on to the next phase of their lives together: nest building, laying eggs and incubating them. While May was the month of migration, June is nesting and incubation time. In the midst of this, the local male continues his singing — a daily reminder to others that this home is not to trespassed on. These proclamations each day, usually starting in the early dawn when it is quiet and calm and continue throughout the day and month.

When the hatched young are fed by the adults, such singing is not stopped. June is nestling time blended with bird songs. Any walk at this time is one of hearing our local avians in song. And then the young birds grow up.

While June is nestlings, July is fledglings. Too big for the nest, they leave, often staying fed by the adults and moving around with them. But things have changed. With the family raised, the vocal proclamations of territory are no longer needed. As we proceed through July, bird songs become less and less. By now, late in the month, only a few are still singing.

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During a recent walk, I noted four kinds of birds that had persisted with songs at this late date. Near the yard, I heard a song sparrow. At the swamp, a yellowthroat sang. And the most persistent of all, the red-eyed vireos were singing from high branches. The fourth bird nests at the woods edge and has a brilliant blue plumage: the indigo bunting.

The bird was spotted in Carlton County, more than 1,000 miles out of range.

Indigo buntings, birds of about 5 inches long, get this name from the nearly all-blue body feathers of the male. A close look may reveal wings are nearly black, but it is the blue that is so obvious as the bird sings from shrubs and small trees. Not only does the male have a color that is noticeable, so is his song.

The repeated phrases of “sweet-sweet chew-chew sweet-sweet," lasting two to four seconds, is easy to hear. He sings it regularly from the time of arrival in spring, many times of the day. (I expect to see and hear indigo buntings by about June 1.) And he continues to sing this memorable song well into July, maybe in August.

In a great example of sexual dimorphism, while he is blue, she is brown and sparrow-like. Indigo buntings are in the same family as cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks, also showing sexual dimorphism of male and female colors. (Of note, snow buntings, are in a different family.)

When we think that bird songs of earlier weeks are gone during late July, we can still hear songs of indigo bunting along with a few others, even though we may not know why they sing.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber
MORE BY LARRY WEBER
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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