For the Birds Radio Program: Indigo Bunting

Original Air Date: Aug. 25, 1997

This program is about the Indigo Bunting that helped Laura find her way home. 4:08

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By August, most male birds have quieted down for the season. The testosterone that surged through their blood in May and June has ebbed to a trickle, and now their thoughts are completely centered on finishing up raising their babies and pigging out on all the food they can find to put on fat deposits to fuel their upcoming migration. Late summer seems like a lazy time to us humans, and as fledgling birds become more and more independent, this is also the time they and their parents can be their laziest, thinking about little else than eating and enjoying the nice weather while it lasts. But a few species continue to sing even during these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. One of the coolest of all is the Indigo Bunting. This tiny, solid blue finch not only sings in late summer, but it sings through the heat of the day, perched conspicuously on a telephone wire or an exposed dead branch. From below, it can look dull black, but if the sun hits it just right, it gleams a vivid blue.

Indigo Buntings have been a favorite bird of mine ever since the summer that one of them helped me find my way home. It was 1976, the year my husband and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. We lived in Eagle Heights, the university’s married student housing, where the scores of identical apartment buildings formed a huge and bewildering maze. Being geographically and directionally impaired, I couldn’t find my way around at all, so Russ took me on a couple of practice walks to and from the bus stop. Because of the arrangement of the apartments, the route home followed many twists and turns, most of them marked by signs with building numbers and arrows. For some reason, one critical turn had no sign at all. When Russ walked me home the first night, with me trying to follow the signs, this was the one place where I missed a turn. He showed me my mistake, but I was paying less attention to him than I was to an Indigo Bunting singing away in a dead tree, right on the correct side of the fork in the path.

The next day I had to find my way home without Russ. Day after day, through June and July and then into August, the Indigo Bunting was there when I needed him. This was 1976, the year of an enormous drought in Wisconsin, and it never once rained on a weekday, so even the weather was conspiring to keep my helpful little bunting where I needed him. But then, sometime in the second or third week of August, when all Indigo Buntings start to get restless, one day he wasn’t there. I missed my turn, and wandered aimlessly through the maze of cul-de-sacs, unable to find my apartment at all. Russ got worried and, as I recall, after 45 minutes of waiting went to the bus stop to wait for the next bus to come by, This is a loop bus route, and the driver told him I had been on the earlier bus. So he headed back to the apartment, and on the way, he somehow ran into me, still confused and lost in married housing. If he hadn’t come by, I might be wandering there yet.

Some people find it odd for an ornithologist to get lost, considering how well birds orient and navigate. But perhaps what made me an ornithologist in the first place was my discovery that unlike this geographically impaired human bumbling about through life, birds can find their way around wherever they happen to find themselves. The world is a huge place when you feel lost and alone. Just as I love birds for their ability to take off and fly to far away lands, like airborne dreams, I love them for their ability to always find their way home again.