Bird Watching: Indigo Bunting

The indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) is not a bird that frequently visits my garden; however, whenever one does appear, I stop everything to watch this beautiful and unusually-colored sparrow-sized bird. I am sure anyone seeing the indigo bunting for the first time will have a similar reaction and will want to encourage it to return.

According to the National Audubon Society “Indigo Buntings have no blue pigment; they are actually black, but the diffraction of light through the structure of the feathers makes them appear blue.” [Bull and Farrand, p. 696] Photographs show these birds with brownish markings on their wings and tails. The indigo buntings I have seen at my feeders, however, have not displayed such markings. (Perhaps it was the angle from which the sunlight was hitting them, which made them appear to be completely blue.) Nevertheless, the bright turquoise-blue of the male indigo bunting is quite distinctive and eye-catching. The females do not have the unmistakable blue plumage, though. They are, instead, a brown color.

Indigo buntings are about 5½ inches in size. They have a high-pitched warble, with notes and phrases usually repeated twice. They can be found from southeastern Saskatchewan in Canada east to New Brunswick. They are found throughout the United States east of the Mississippi River, except for the southern part of Florida where they only winter. West of the Mississippi River, indigo buntings can be found along the Gulf Coast and in central Texas, as well as the southern to central parts of Arizona. They frequent woodland edges, agricultural areas, weedy and abandoned areas, thickets, and hedges. You might also find them in briar patches and in clearings made for utility poles.

The female indigo bunting will build a nest a few feet from the ground in briar patches, thickets, weed stems, canebreaks, and saplings. She will lay 2-6 white eggs during the breeding season. The eggs are incubated for 12-13 days. After hatching, the fledglings will leave the nest within 8-10 days.

Indigo buntings eat lots of insects, such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, cicadas, beetles, weevils, flies, cankerworms, and mosquitoes. This also makes them birds that are well-loved by farmers. In addition, they eat weed seeds, which helps farmers, as well. If you want to try to lure indigo buntings to your garden, you can fill your feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and safflower seeds. Indigo buntings are unusually beautiful birds. Their consumption of harmful insects and weed seeds also makes them even more welcome to any garden.

References:

Bull, John and Farrand, Jr., John. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Edition. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, p. 696.

Alsop III, Fred J. All About Tennessee Birds. Birmingham, AL: Sweetwater Press, 1997, pp. 160-1.

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