Klemek Column: The colorful scarlet tanager was almost our state bird
Two more species of brilliantly plumaged neotropical migrant songbirds have returned to the northland once again — the scarlet tanager and the indigo bunting.
Sights that are certain to delight, these birds are one of a kind. In fact, in 1951 the state legislature debated on designating the scarlet tanager as Minnesota's state bird. Ten years later, 1961, the common loon was adopted as the official state bird instead.
I don't believe it would've been a bad decision to have chosen the scarlet tanager as our state bird because the bird is certainly worthy of the honor. If the scarlet tanager had been selected, it would have had the distinction of being the only species of tanager selected as an official state bird of any state in the nation.
Just last week I caught a glimpse of my first tanager of the season. I heard the bird before I saw it. Indeed, often seen before heard because of dense woodland foliage, the songs of scarlet tanagers are generally characterized as consisting of at least five distinct phrases and patterns, including sounding somewhat similar to the American robin.
With notes more slurred and phrases hoarser than the songs of robins, the songs of scarlet tanagers are nonetheless very pleasant to the ear. Easy to remember, a common tanager call-note is the "Chick-Burr" call that is unique.
Right now scarlet tanagers are nesting throughout Minnesota's abundant forests and woodlands. As John J. Audubon once so eloquently wrote about the species' nesting habits:
"The construction of the nest of this richly clad species is nearly the same in all parts of the Union in which it breeds. It is frequently fixed on a branch crossing a road, or an opening of some description, or, if in the woods, in some partially cleared space. It is usually placed low on a horizontal branch. It is composed externally of dried stalks of weeds, and is finished within with fine grass, arranged in a slovenly manner. It is so insecurely fastened to the branch that it may be shaken off by striking the latter smartly."
Female scarlet tanagers, while not as brightly plumaged as their male counterparts, are nevertheless striking birds in their own right. Sporting bright green coloration from crown to rump, along with a rich yellow throat, and black scapulars and wings, female scarlet tanagers could easily be misidentified as a different species altogether.
The other species of songbird that showed up about the same time as scarlet tanagers did, the Indigo bunting, is often confused with eastern bluebirds. The blue colored males, sometimes sporting blackish wings, are very striking looking birds. Their conical beaks are perfect for feeding on insects and seeds alike. At just five and a half inches long, if it wasn't for the male indigo bunting's song and stunning blue color, the species would probably go relatively unnoticed.
Found throughout the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada during the breeding season, indigo buntings migrate as far south as northern South America for the winter months, but some birds will occasionally spend the entire year in southern Florida.
Most, however, migrate to the northland every spring to breed, nest and raise their young.
Preferred indigo bunting nesting habitat is remarkably similar to the kind of habitat that surrounds many people's rural Minnesota homes: dense thickets, tall nearby trees near forest edges, open brushy fields, farm country, wooded roadways, and forest openings.
According to the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, "...the National Forest Bird Monitoring Program in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota found indigo buntings to be most abundant in open, dry habitats, such as young upland clear-cuts, followed by sedge wetlands and small towns. Oak forests were the dominant habitat associated with indigo buntings on MNBBA point counts."
Springtime in Minnesota is upon us at last. And while migrant songbirds have been steadily streaming into our state for the past several weeks now, few birds are so brightly colored, rare a sight, and welcomed as tanagers and buntings are, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.