Spring Songbirds

May and June herald the arrival of a trio of supremely beautiful tropical migrants: indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

June 14, 2019 | | Notes from the Wild

On May mornings I wake to exuberant birdsong in my greening yard. I listen to the familiar warble of the robins, the chatter of wrens and the coo, coo, coo of mourning doves. But I wait, fingers crossed, for different melodies and different notes that herald the arrival of a trio of supremely beautiful tropical migrants: indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Offerings of sunflower seed and sugar water usually lure them in. Baltimore orioles announce their arrival with whistled notes of sparkling clarity. The males are pumpkin orange, trimmed with black. With brush-tipped tongues they slurp sugar water, a suitable stand-in for nectar supped from tropical flowers on their winter ranges.

indigo bunting one oriole three Rose-breasted grosbeaks1 indigo bunting two oriole two Rose-breasted grosbeak5
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Indigo buntings are a striking azure blue – despite a complete lack of blue pigment. Photo by Don Scallen.

Famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson described the rose-breasted grosbeak’s song as like a robin’s but “mellower, given with more feeling, as if a robin has taken voice lessons.” Hearing this refined “robin” voice in my yard quickens my step, for the singer is a truly glorious sight. A male rose-breasted grosbeak is a dapper black and white bird with a striking red “bib.”

Another tropical visitor to my yard in the spring is the indigo bunting. Like the rose-breasted grosbeak, this thick-billed finch cracks sunflower seeds with gusto.

And like the grosbeaks and the orioles, buntings are arresting creatures. In sunlight the males are a striking azure blue – despite a complete lack of blue pigment. The brilliance stems from an interplay between sunlight and the structure of the buntings’ feathers.

In their tropical haunts, these beautiful migrants share habitat with many other spectacular birds. Most are homebodies, content to remain in Guatemala, Panama or other neotropical locales. They sport exotic names like elegant trogon, emerald toucanet, yellow-throated euphonia, blue-crowned motmot and white-collared manikin.

None of these lovely birds will ever grace my backyard feeders. But the tropical colour of grosbeaks, orioles and buntings is compensation enough.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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