Indigo Bunting Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

In contrast to the species dossiers I have shared recently, this one has relatively little in it. Indigo buntings, though one of our common breeding birds, are gone to Central America for much of the year, and like brushy areas, so more than a casual observation study would be needed to know much about them.

Bunting, Indigo

Male indigo bunting

Frequently observed along railroad tracks (brushy/weedy) near home in Culver, in childhood. Observed in brushy areas, usually with a few high bushes. Also in forest edges and clearings.

Seems to prefer older old fields with plenty of brush, some tall. Occurs with chat, field sparrow, catbird, cardinal. Song, in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, quite variable, but generally 2 up-slurring notes and usually followed by 2 down-slurring notes, then a variable jumble of notes. Sometimes only 5-6 notes altogether. Males sing from exposed perches. In 1985, 2-3 males sang in 43-acre Willowbrook Forest Preserve. A male moves very little when singing, tilting his head up and vibrating his mouth with the song. He changes perches at 2-5-minute intervals. Alarm call alternated cardinal-like high notes with low chips.

24MY86. A male at Maple Grove Forest Preserve sang in the savannah area. A close look showed many brown feathers on his breast. A female fed in the same area, deliberately moving among oak leaves on a large branch 20 feet up.

16MY87. First of year singing at a park in Geneva.

Indigo bunting singing, Mayslake

13MY88. First of year singing, Willowbrook Back 40.

3MY99. First bunting of year at Willowbrook.

22JL99. A late indigo bunting singing at Willowbrook. Still singing 12AU.

17SE99. Last one of year noted at Willowbrook.

11JE00. Alarm note strong and forceful. Species fairly common south of Langlade, WI.

24SE00. Several female-plumaged birds in hedgelike borders of Prairie Path at West Chicago Prairie just east of Industrial Drive.

3JE06. Pair mating mid-morning, female perched on a side branch of a 12-foot-tall, 2-inch DBH tree at edge of woods. Male on her only about 1 second, mating accompanied by a forceful buzzing call. About 20 minutes later we heard the call again from them, same area.

23AU10. Indigo bunting and field sparrow heard singing today.

Honeysuckle Signpost

by Carl Strang

Last week I was walking through the south savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve when my eye was drawn to this old signpost.

The post once held a sign warning people to stay away from the friary, which was demolished last year.

What struck me was how the post was partly surrounded by a honeysuckle bush.

This vase-like, fanning array of stems is typical of honeysuckles.

No one would have forced their way into the bush to place the sign, so it seems likely that the bush grew up after the sign was in the ground. Furthermore, the sign may be responsible for the bush being there. Honeysuckles disperse with the aid of birds, which eat their berries.

Fruits of amur honeysuckle.

I am guessing that a robin, a catbird or one of the other species that eat these berries, facing south while perched on the sign, ejected the seed which had passed through its digestive tract, planting the bush which ultimately embraced the north side of the signpost.

Mayslake Migrants Late April

by Carl Strang

The migrant songbirds, and other birds that wintered in the tropics, really begin to flow into northeastern Illinois in the last week of April, and will peak in May. April 24 brought Mayslake’s first chimney swifts, brown thrasher, yellow warblers, and pine warblers including this one.


By the 27th the preserve was hosting newly arrived solitary and spotted sandpipers, green herons, northern waterthrushes, a black-throated green warbler, a blue-winged warbler, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and this Baltimore oriole,


as well as a northern parula.


The parula was singing its alternate song, for the most part, the rhythm of which reminds me of the William Tell overture and therefore, inevitably for a member of my generation, the Lone Ranger.

New arrivals on April 28 were warbling vireo, white-crowned and vesper sparrows. The 29th brought house wren, ovenbird, catbird, Tennessee warbler, common yellowthroat, and this red-headed woodpecker.


I am hoping that Mayslake’s savanna will be of interest to this relatively rare woodpecker as a nesting area. The last day of April brought a single new species but a good one, a golden-winged warbler.

Starling Mimicry

by Carl Strang



20 black killdeers up in a tree.

All of them call, “killdee, killdee.”





This is the time of year when we find starlings gathering in treetops or other perches and producing an amazing variety of vocalizations.




They have their own noises, which are a diverse array of rattles, whistles and gurgles. But in addition they mimic the voices of other birds and also non-bird sounds. Their mimicries are mixed in with starling sounds, usually, so they don’t confuse. But I enjoy collecting observations of the various mimicries I’ve heard from them. Here is my list so far. Bird species represented include killdeer, eastern meadowlark, spotted sandpiper, eastern wood-pewee, purple martin, and common nighthawk. Non-bird imitations include the sound of a squirrel chewing on a nut, and the peculiar static produced by utility workers’ radios when these are switched on and off.


One hypothesis for why some birds include such mimicries is sexual selection, that variety or fidelity in a male’s mimicry is taken by females as a clue that he is a better choice as a mate. Our starlings are a transplanted European species with many Old World relatives including mynahs, which also are renowned mimics.  Our own native mimics include the catbird, whose heavily accented imitations I enjoy trying to decode, and blue jays, whose copycat repertoires are more limited and seem more like calls than songs. Attending such things is a harmless, low grade sort of inquiry that polishes one’s awareness and, who knows, might lead to more interesting questions or hypotheses.

Species Dossiers

By Carl Strang


Some years ago it occurred to me to wonder, what do I know about wildlife from my own experience rather than from my reading, from TV, or other sources? I began creating dossiers on vertebrate species that included only my own experience-based knowledge. I was appalled at how little there was, even for familiar common species. It prompted me to pay more attention, expanding the dossiers as my observations allowed. These dossiers will be a significant source for future postings. I encourage people generally to make a distinction between what they know from their own experience and what they know second hand.


Gray catbird

Gray catbird




For now I will provide an example, for the gray catbird. Looking at its dossier I see that I have failed to note some things I have observed in recent years. For instance, catbirds are in the Mimidae, a family of birds famous for their imitations of other birds’ songs. One of them, the mockingbird, has very good fidelity in its mimicries. Catbirds, with interesting rare exceptions, perform their mimicries with such a strong catbird accent that identifying the model can be a challenge. I have had a number of enjoyable occasions of trying to identify the songs of other birds in catbirds’ performances. I want to make a list of species I have heard catbirds imitating. Robin, cardinal, goldfinch and yellow-throated vireo come to mind from memory.


OK, so here’s the dossier:


Catbird, Gray

A familiar species on Winfield Street in Culver in childhood. Nested in dense bushes, 4-6 feet up. Also frequently encountered in old field areas in PA and DuPage Co. Tends to stay within thick vegetation and on ground except when singing. Slinky, sneaky movement through brush. Generally 2-4 pairs on Willowbrook Forest Preserve’s [then] 43 acres.

Song consists of a variety of multisyllabic phrases, evenly spaced, with squeaky harmonics in tonal quality. Occasional “meow” notes, very catlike, thrown in. “Meow” sometimes used by itself, I suspect as an alarm. Another alarm, “bwert” with slight “bwoit” tendency.

9JE86. A catbird ran/hopped and paused, robin-like, down sidewalk at Willowbrook before grabbing an invertebrate at the edge.

Still present on territory and rarely singing at Herrick Lake in mid-September 1986. Cat calls heard most frequently, used as a contact call as well as for mobbing/warning. The “bwert” call also used.

Present, singing by 4MY87.

Migrants heard or seen in 1987, Willowbrook: September 10, 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 28.

13MY88. Catbird using “meow” call as a contact call. The one near me replies, and answers as it forages in shrub. The distant one is out of my sight, almost certainly too far away to be responding directly to my presence.

2SE88. A few still around, Willowbrook. A couple on 13SE, 27SE, 3OC.

30JE90. “Put, put” alarm call resembles Swainson’s Thrush’s in tonal quality.

23JL90. A catbird hopped while on open ground.

3MY99. First of season noted at Willowbrook.  

15SE99. Catbird has a loud, blackbird-like, abrupt sputtering call, “sp-tack!” I’ve been hearing it through the migration season.

12OC99. Last catbird of the season at Willowbrook.

5MY00. First catbirds arrived at Willowbrook yesterday. Today one was eating smooth sumac berries.

17JE00. Arboretum, Joy Path. A catbird sang all morning, or at least every time I was nearby from about 8am to 12 noon, and except for the last part of that period was on the same perch on an exposed dead branch high in a cottonwood, overlooking an area with a lot of ornamental shrubs.

24SE00. Migrating catbirds still abundant.

17SE01. A catbird sang briefly, at Willowbrook.

14SE02. A catbird eating black cherries at Elsen’s Hill.

12OC02. A late bird calling, Fermilab.

22SE08. An unusual group of 11 catbirds together in a low wooded area at Fullersburg.

Unusual catbird conclave, Fullersburg, 22 September 2008

Unusual catbird conclave, Fullersburg, 22 September 2008



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