HOMER, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Early May is the peak of spring migration in Louisiana for songbirds. Billions of birds migrate day and night from Central and South America around or over the Gulf of Mexico.
There are so many birds in motion that you can watch migratory bird movements on the NEXRAD weather radar. One of the most abundant of these species, totaling around 78 million individuals according to the American Bird Conservancy, is the “blue canary” known as the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea).
Scientists estimate there are around 78 million Indigo Buntings left, and it is my opinion that we don’t deserve a single one of them.
One of the most striking blues in nature
This time of year Indigo Buntings, or simply “Indigos,” as birders call them, can carpet the ground around your bird feeders. It’s not uncommon at all to have a dozen or more this time of year at your feeders, and if the weather stalls them, you can even have 200 or so. It looks like someone spilled a bucket of bright blue paint.
If you celebrate Cinco de Mayo too exuberantly, you might look outside and think the buntings are a Smurf invasion.
It is my expert opinion that the Eastern Bluebirds we have here are certainly beautiful, and I would never say otherwise. But until you’ve seen adult male Indigo Buntings you really haven’t experienced nature’s full interest in making the color blue.
The adult males are entirely electric blue except for their eyes, bill, and feet. And they’re spectacular, as you can see in the photos provided by Louisiana bird photographer Rickey Aizen.
To match such a stunning sight, these guys are endowed with an equally beautiful song. They seem to love to sing, doubling or sometimes tripling each note in a series of notes that run all over the scale.
These birds are musically inclined and straight-up cool.
Like if Lenny Kravitz designed a bird, it would be the Indigo Bunting. That cool.
And when they’re not singing or just being beautiful, they commonly give their call note, a buzzy “zeeet!” you’ll hear from thick, grassy fields or woodland edges.
Abundant as they are, Indigo Buntings seem to be declining. In fact, according to the latest population trend data from Cornell’s eBird.org, there isn’t a single place in their entire breeding range in North America where Indigo Buntings are increasing in number; nearly the entire population is shrinking. During spring and summer breeding season, Indigos cover all the US east of the Rockies, and in smaller numbers they stretch across Southern New Mexico and Arizona and into Southern Nevada and Southeastern California.
The worst declines are from 30-40% of local populations.
These migrating birds travel long distances to reach us, too. Indigo Buntings travel around 1,200 miles to reach their breeding grounds in Louisiana. They usually migrate directly north and south, so buntings in the northeast will head southeast. Those in the south-central will fly directly to South America.
It’s instinctual for them.
Why is this electric-blue population shrinking everywhere?
When we hear “habitat loss,” we often think of clearcutting forests. But in the case of Indigo Buntings, habitat loss may not be what you think. Indigos prefer low, brushy, grassy vegetation for breeding and foraging. So, this is one species that actually prefers cutover fields instead of forests. In other words, if you clearcut forest and let vegetation grow back, Indigos will populate the regenerative areas.
But urban sprawl, huge tracts of agricultural land, and herbicidal spraying along highways don’t constitute regenerative growth. According to Dr. Robert B Payne’s species account in Cornell’s Birds of the World, “…they decrease with intensive agriculture, frequent mowing of herbs along roadsides and farms, reversion of old fields to forests, and increasing urbanization.”
Sadly, Indigo Buntings have another problem. They are one of the most popular caged bird species in Mexico, Cuba, and even Europe, where they’re imported from Central America. Attracted by the vibrant blue plumage and beautiful singing, many folks keep these wild birds as pets.
And while it may feel easy to blame the ignorance of another culture for caging these birds and their songs in the process, our own culture likely does far worse damage by destroying their habitat with spraying, cutting, and building.
So like I said early on, I’m not so sure we deserve this little blue bird. They sing all day, they migrate hundreds of miles at a time, and they’re just cool. I’m pretty sure if they could talk, they’d sound like Michael Caine.
That’s how cool they are.
And if you want future generations of this bird to sing to your grandchildren, leave some grassy, brushy habitat if you have the land to spare.
If you don’t have land to spare, support your local National Wildlife Refuge (Audubon chapter) or a local birding organization like the Shreveport Bird Studygroup or Louisiana Ornithological Society.
After all, you’d be pretty upset if you flew several countries away on a direct flight, after countless generations of your family had flown the same route and stayed in the same seasonal second home since before written history even began, and you got there to have some random guy at the front desk tell you that bluebirds aren’t welcome anymore.
John Dillon, the former President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, teacher, and the Nature Club founder at Minden High School, is a guest contributor for KTALNews.com. Once a month, he shares his extensive knowledge of how to recognize the birds of our region.