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Male indigo bunting. Photo: <a href="">Kristi</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Male indigo bunting. Photo: Kristi, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Well-dressed birds of the North Country

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While the North Country is not exactly the tropics, we do have our share of exotically-colored birds. Blue creatures, for example, are rare in nature but we have the bluebird, the blue jay and the indigo bunting.

Then there are the goldfinches and the cardinals, the ruby-throated hummingbird and the oriole. Martha Foley and Curt Stager celebrate a little of the local color in colder climes.

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Martha Foley: So you want to talk about colorful birds in our region, which is not the tropics. Let’s be clear; we are not in the tropical bird zone here in northern New York. We have some colorful birds, though.

Curt Stager: Yeah, you would think the stereotype—if you want to see the colorful peacock-like birds, you go to the tropics. And yet we often take for granted the colorful nature of a lot of the birds that are here, just because we’re used to them.

MF: Well blue jays are beautiful colorful birds.

CS: We often let the fact that maybe there’s some other birds we’d rather have at our feeder that are smaller, and the blue jays come in--we let that blind us to how beautiful they are. There aren’t a lot of blue-colored birds anywhere.

MF: Well, we have three of them. Not in the winter, but we have bluebirds and we have indigo buntings and we have blue jays all co-existing (in our summertime anyways).

CS: It was amazing; recently I saw my first indigo bunting in the Adirondacks at the bird feeder.

MF: It’s a shocker, isn’t it?

CS: It’s spectacular! It was actually kind of neat too—they look like a gem, but it’s not really like a blue dye color. If you could hold one of their feathers up and look with light shining through it you’d see that they’re actually brown or black-colored. It’s a really unique kind of a color. You put that next to a bunch of male goldfinches in the summer. And it’s like canaries and sapphires and everything, too.

MF: Well don’t forget orioles, which could hardly be a more brilliant color, blackburnian warblers, which you don’t see a lot, but they have a really nice orange. Scarlet tanagers are an amazing red and black combination.

CS: Ruby throated hummingbirds… So then the next question would be why would some birds be colorful and others not? If you look at the closest relatives of those bright-colored goldfinches, they’re the drab siskins. And red bulls [red-headed bullfinches] which are kind of in-between with a little bit of red on them.

So, what’s going on there? The first thing you might want to say is “Oh, some of them are tropical migrants, right?” Some of the warblers that come up with their bright colors like the yellowthroats, it looks like a canary with a black bandit mask on.

MF: Or yellow warblers, which are almost all yellow, and they’re pretty bright yellow and are in the scrub woods in my yard.

CS: So of course you could flip that and say, well they spend half the time in the tropics and half the time up here, so maybe you could just say they’re actually North Country birds that go down to the tropics.

MF: Well, we think of the tropics and see the documentaries on TV and all these fantastic looking birds with foliage and everything and I think we just maybe are somehow ignoring the colorful birds we do have here.

But I want to ask a question about the color—I mean cardinals are really red, they’ve kind of moved north. They are as red in the winter as they are in the summer. Blue Jays are as blue in the winter as they are in the summer. Bluebirds and buntings and some of the warblers, they come in the summer and they’re all colored up, they’re beautiful. But those canaries, they turn a dull color. They’re a dull olive drab in the winter and then you can watch them as their plumage changes and it becomes that brilliant lemony-yellow. Why do they change?

CS: Yeah, that’s a great question.

MF: Why don’t the others change?

CS: Yeah, why don’t the others change? So the simple answer is that it’s a trade-off between finding a mate and being eaten by a predator. So you put on your bright plumage in the summer during the breeding season, then you take it off and you blend in during the winter. So that would sort of make sense for a lot of them, like the goldfinches, like you’re talking about. But then the great mystery is why are blue jays so colorful year round; it’s a great question. What are they blending in with or what is going on there? It’s just one of nature’s unanswered questions.

MF: You’re not going to tell me the answer?

CS: Oh, if I told you I’d have to kill you.

MF: So someday we’ll have the answer and we’ll come back and do the follow-up on why blue jays stay so blue in the winter.

CS: Or maybe it will be a perpetual mystery to intrigue us far into the future.

MF: And that wouldn’t be bad either.

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