A bonus for Lyons backyard birdwatchers during the spring season is that many different bird species make Lyons their temporary stopping off place during migration. Sometimes it is just a pit stop, but they may end up staying in place for nesting and raising chicks.
For the last few years here in town and again this spring, we have been blessed with two breathtaking birds from the passerine or “perching bird” family: the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) and the Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). Both species are plentiful during breeding season from the eastern edge of Colorado all the way to California and Pacific Northwest. Both are migratory, ending up during summer as far north as the Canadian Northwest Territories, and in winter as far south as Central America.
There are two distinctly identifiable features of these birds. The first attribute to look for is the color of their heads. The male Western Tanager has a bright, deep orange-red head with a yellow body and coal-black wings. It gets its flaming head color from the pigment rhodoxanthin, the source likely the insects it consumes.
The smaller male Lazuli Bunting sports a deep lapis blue head that shines brightly in the full sun and a rusty orange breast. Interestingly, many Buntings’ feathers lack a blue pigment. Their intense blue color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light.
The second useful identifying feature is each bird’s songs and calls. The Tanager song can be compared to a Robin’s musical ‘cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up’ song, but in shorter duration and with a more raspy quality. It also makes a repeated “chucking” or a rattling-type repeated alert call.
The Lazuli Bunting song has a delicate singsong quality. It has squeaks, whistles, and almost feels like a jumble of notes. Its alert call is a sharp and short ‘pik pik.’
Here in Lyons, both birds frequent hillsides with dense thicket-like trees and shrubs, but they love to inhabit any garden with feeders and water. While the Lazuli Bunting prefers a seed feeder, Tanagers love suet and halved oranges, sometimes spending the entire day feeding off both of these offerings. Both birds love to bathe in a fresh water dish near the feeders.
With so many Buntings holding court in my yard this month, I did extra research on these lovely finch-sized birds. I learned that the younger males create a “song neighborhood,” where songs from their specific area sound similar, even though each bird creates its own song by rearranging the order of the notes and phrasings of older male Buntings. Each song created is the song the bird will use for its lifetime.
During breeding season, the male Western Tanager becomes somewhat of a gymnast, showing off to the female tanager by tumbling past her while flashing his bright yellow plumage.
Western Tanagers choose a single mate, often during winter or migration. They will primarily nest in high-mountain conifer forests above 5,000 feet in elevation, such as the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The monogamous Lazuli Bunting prefers to set up the nest in area shrubs or low trees. She builds a cupped and open nest made from grass and leaves, and lines the inside with finer grass and small roots.
Take time this week to sit outdoors to just listen to the plentiful variety of birdsong. Observe the squabbles and pecking order amongst these beautifully colored birds. Breathe in deep with the realization that nature shares its perfect order with us all in the simplest of places, including your yard and garden–you only have to welcome the opportunity.
Sally Van Meter is a Grammy-Award-winning musician who has lived in Lyons for over twenty years. She also makes short films and practices photography in her spare time. Photo: Jeremy Rosenshine.