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Lazuli Buntings: Deep-Blue Jewels Of Montana's Skies

Lazuli bunting, Oakland, CA
Doug Greenberg (CC-BY-NC-2.0)
Lazuli bunting, Oakland, CA

There are poems on the wing upon the mountainsides – fraught with beauty and peril.  A female bunting with grass in her mouth is one such poem. In May, lazuli buntings return to the mountains and valleys of Montana.  Lazuli – stone of azure, jewel of the sky.  As spring ripens into summer, the males with their blue hoods and russet breast bands sing from atop shrubs and trees, and begin the rite of passion.

Bird passion. Soon after mating, the female bunting embarks upon her poem, searching for strands of last year’s dried grasses, peeling strips of ninebark, which she weaves and tucks together into a cup to hold her eggs.  She’ll pick a patch of ninebark, chokecherry, serviceberry, snowberry or even wildrose in which to build her nest.  To find it you’ll have to bend low, searching with your “nest eye” about two feet off the ground.  She’ll line the nest inside with something soft, perhaps leaves, spider silk or animal hair.  

That poem finished, the female bunting lays up to four eggs – pale blue, the color of sky on the horizon.  But a significant threat to her eggs arises from invading cowbirds.  Cowbird females parasitize other species’ nests while laying up to 40 eggs of their own during the breeding season.  The cowbird may damage host eggs when laying hers, or poke a hole in them or even remove the eggs altogether.  The female bunting may abandon a parasitized nest, but unlike some host species she does not attempt to remove the cowbird egg or re-nest on top of it with a new layer of weaving.

With human-caused forest fragmentation and widespread introduced cattle, cowbirds have spread across the continental United States from their original habitat associated with prairie bison.

A bunting with a caterpillar in its mouth is another poem of summer.  Both the male and female lazuli feed their young from the burgeoning of insects on the land, and about a week after the eggs are laid the bunting chicks hatch – blind and orangish-pink with fuzzy gray down.  Within days, their eyes open and feather sheaths develop.

Here lies tenderest bunting life, the distillation of caterpillar and grasshopper, of Montana summers and Mexican winters, the culling by crow and fox.  About ten days after hatching, the chicks fledge, making a short foray from the nest.  The mother lazuli continues to feed them, bringing mouthfuls to her young perched in the cover of a bush.

Between the time lazuli buntings nest and the chicks fledge, the nesting site lies vulnerable to predators.  Hawks and owls patrol the skies.  Racoons and foxes make nocturnal rounds.

Human observation may take its toll as well, for even eyes touch lives.  If you are out this summer watching nesting birds, bear in mind the responsibility of such enjoyment.  The disturbance of your discovery may cause the female to abandon a newly built nest.  And some predators, like the magpie, take keen notice of our activity.  Any scent we leave behind may attract other animals.  If visiting a nest site, take a circuitous path rather than straight in and out.  And take care not to damage vegetation, which may cue predators to the presence of a nest.  

This summer, listen for the song of the lazuli bunting atop a serviceberry – lazuli, jewel of the sky.  The males’ harmonics and trills, buzzes and beeps, announce another season of hope and bounty as the buntings weave their poems from the land.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes,"  5/19/20 and 5/22/20. Listen weekly on the radio Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)

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