For the Birds: Fourth of July -- The Red White and Blue Bird

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Lazuli Bunting singing in Redmond, WA during N. migration
 Photo by Kazuto Shibata

By Christine Southwick

Which bird in Washington wears the colors of our flag? The dazzling Lazuli Bunting (even the name sounds patriotic) holds that honor.

Each second-year male Lazuli Bunting, upon returning from his first migration, independently creates his individual song, made of Lazuli syllables and song fragments. He uses this one song for rest of his life. Because his song is influenced by those he heard growing up, his song has what is called the “neighborhood effect” much like our regional accents.

Male with bug had been eating blackberries
Photo by Winston "Rocky" Rockwell

If this distinctness isn’t enough, all Lazuli Buntings have an unusual molting and migration pattern. They start their yearly feather replacement (called molting) before leaving their usually dry-country, shrubby-hillside breeding grounds. But then they stop their molt, fly down to one of two Lazuli Bunting molting hotspots located in the southwestern US, where they finish renewing their feathers. Covered with a full set of new feathers they continue their migration to their wintering grounds in western Mexico.

Lazuli Buntings are food-adaptable; gleaning insects from trees and shrubs, hopping on the ground to harvest seeds, or even perching on stems to remove seeds and fruits with their thick beaks.

Lazuli Bunting portrait
Photo by William Fletcher

When it comes to sensational colors, the Lazuli female prefers to blend into the vegetation with her grayish-brown head and blue-tinted feathers. Even when fly-catching, she launches from low sheltered perches, preferring to let her loudly long-singing mate fly-catch and claim territory from prominent tree-top and shrub-top perches.

These birds are monogamous. The female selects the site, 2-4 foot from the ground, and builds her cup-shaped nest for 3-4 eggs, wrapping the outside of the nest with tent caterpillar silk. She incubates and broods the young (hence the duller coloring) while the male brings the meals of invertebrates and insects. The nestlings leave the nest 9-11 days after hatching, but stay close by in thick undergrowth. They are fed by both parents for at least two weeks. If the female starts a second brood, the male takes over feeding the fledglings; a common occurrence in our local birds — Spotted Towhee and Oregon Junco fathers are often seen feeding their fledglings while the female is nesting again.

Male eating seeds on ground, note bi-colored bill
Photo by Mike Denny

These dramatic birds will come to bird feeders, but only if you are in the dryer parts of the western United States. Look and listen for them in eastern Washington in riparian canopies to sage-type brush.


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