Another Harbinger Of Happiness

Photo by Susan Crossett

Like its cousin, the female of this species is quite undistinguished. “Drab,” Sibley calls her.

He’s right. Even sparrows have more markings to distinguish them than do these little girls. The size is the same: common, average: call it five and a quarter inches. Hear Peterson: “plain brown, breast paler, with indistinct streaks; a small brown finch devoid of obvious stripes, wing bars or other marks.”

Ah, yes! As plain and drab as any bird could possibly be — and mated to one of the most eye-catching: our Indigo Bunting. The male is a deep rich blue all over, looking as if he’d been dipped in a bucket of paint. But that’s true only through the breeding season. Then, by fall, he turns more like the female with mere hints of blue in his wings and tail.

It was a grungy Sunday morning in early June: cold, rainy and dark. Decidedly dark.

If the bird hadn’t been so active I might never have seen the small blob on the ground beneath the feeders. Although seldom seen by me, I had no problem recognizing it at once. The Indigo Bunting!

“Common,” says the book,“Birds of North America,” by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer who even put it on their cover. Nor around here. At least certainly not for me.

Let them continue: “Common in hedgerows and wood margins; perches on wires during nesting season. Male resembles Blue Grosbeak but is much smaller, more brilliant, almost iridescent blue, and darker on the crown, with a sparrow-like beak and no wing bars. The plain brown female and immature have a tinge of blue on the tail and shoulder. The unstreaked back separates them from all sparrows. Note the very fine blurred streaking on sides. Young have faint wing bars. Seen in flocks during migration. The song, especially conspicuous at midday, is long and varied, with most phrases paired, 5-9/min.”

My Life List (embarrassingly blank since I’m basically only interested in the locals) records my first sighting back in Warren: May 18, 1984.

Now in Cassadaga, I feel extremely blessed to have been able to mark with identification this special bird on five occasions. A pair came to check me out in 1999. After that, probably because of the lack of markings on the female, I noted only males. Strangely, he first appeared on May 8 not only in ’99 but in ’02 and ’03 as well. The visit was delayed by an entire week in 2005. Then none were seen until June of 2017 when I was finally able to get close sharp shots. I sense their returns are becoming later.

From “Birds of America”: “The male has a peculiar color: no bird outside of the tropics has such a peculiar blue as the male Indigo Bird. It isn’t an indigo color but rather a deep ultramarine blue. Just as you have made up your mind that that is the right name of the color, you get the bird in a different light and behold he is grayish blue, or azure-blue, or maybe olive-blue. At least there is no confusing him with any other bluish bird.”

Charley Harper, a different bird artist of note, tells us that the “Indigo Bunting is a proud papa.

As soon as the nest is built — a compact cup of grass and leaves, attached and standing in the upright crotch of a shrub — he starts proclaiming the blessed event from the treetops. He has even been known to take a turn on the eggs. His mate — what did he ever see in her? Dull and anonymous, she’d never be noticed in a crowd of sparrows. But he is faithful to the end … of the summer.”

Any able to view my photographs will see that my birds don’t exactly fit the pictures in the book. My bunting has wings I’d call black. An anomaly? I don’t know for the fuzzy picture I made in 1999 shows the same darker wing and a pretty mottled underside.

Taking more careful looks now in all my reference books, I definitely see the blacker marks on the wings and a big black eye. The Audubon Guide goes further and explains that Indigo Buntings have no blue pigment. Turns out they are actually black but “the diffraction of light through the structure of the feathers makes them appear blue.”

Whether dipped in blue or looking a bit as if he hasn’t quite finished dressing for the season, the Indigo Bunting is around now and a joy to behold.

It’s time to start watching!

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Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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