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Lazuli Bunting – Jewel from Central America

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Lazuli Bunting – Jewel from Central America

 


By Lisa Hug

“One can hardly believe his eyes as this jewel flashes from a thicket, crosses a space of common air, and disappears again all in a trice. Either there has been some optical illusion, or nature has grown unco careless to fling her turquoise about in such fashion.”  William Dawson, The Birds of California - 1923

One of the most beautiful birds that visits our area in Spring and lingers into summer is the Lazuli Bunting with its striking “patriotic” red, white and blue coloring. This visitor from Central America has a sparkling blue head which gradually softens to a sky blue back. He has a ruby red chest contrasting with a snow white belly. He also has white wingbars which accentuate his brilliant blue body. I say “he” because the female is a soft sepia color with amber wingbars, mimicking the pattern of her mate, but in muted colors.

The Lazuli Bunting is a seed-eater, but is too shy to come to feeders in this area. Instead, we need to seek it out. It is about the size as a House Finch – five and a half inches from head to tail. Often, it is possible to find one of these special birds by taking a leisurely walk in one of the county or state parks in Sonoma County. As striking as this bird is, we usually find it by hearing its alluring song before we see its dazzling colors.

Only the male Lazuli Bunting sings. The female needs to be secretive so she can hide in the underbrush to incubate the eggs and raise the nestlings. The male sings to attract the female to his territory and to defend his established territory against competing males. He takes his singing very seriously. It takes him over a year to establish his own, unique song. He learns his song from nearby older males. The young bird listens to their songs and then experiments softly, under his breath, with different syllables of different songs and arranges them in different orders. After months of practice, he finally decides on the length and order of syllables that sounds right for him – and this becomes the song that he will proudly sing every nesting season thereafter. In this way, each male develops a distinct song, but always similar to the nearby males. This similarity of songs then develops into neighborhood dialects. And yes, the males do recognize the songs of his individual neighbors.   

After the nesting season comes to a close in late summer, our visiting Lazuli Buntings leave quietly and return to their wintering grounds in Central America. But, along the way, they stop in Arizona, New Mexico or northern Mexico to molt – or change their feathers. Feathers don’t last forever, and they need to be replaced at least once a year. This area has a rich food supply and there is plenty of brushy grassland in which they can hide from predators, while renewing their feather coats. It is amazing to think of such a small birds having such an adventurous lives!

If you want to try and see a Lazuli Bunting, they generally like to be in areas of brushy grassland, with a few large trees interspersed for song perches. Some places that you might find them are Taylor Mountain Regional Park, Crane Creek Regional Park, Sugarloaf State Park, and Sonoma Valley Regional Park.