I have only encountered the indigo bunting a handful of times in my life, including one lone male this past spring at my home near Becida. Some people I know observe them frequently, but I’ve never been so lucky. Evidently the species has not found my backyard and adjoining woodland to their liking. Oh well.
Indigo buntings are often confused with eastern bluebirds and blue grosbeaks. The all-blue males, sometimes sporting blackish wings, are understandably very striking birds. Their conical beaks are perfect for feeding on insects and seeds alike. A sparrow-sized bird at just five or so 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 habitat is remarkably similar to the kind of habitat that surrounds my home: dense thickets, tall nearby trees near forest edges, open brushy fields, farm country, wooded roadways, and forest openings. Why I don’t see more of these wonderful blue birds is interesting to me given this information, so there must be something missing (or perhaps present) that indigo buntings don’t necessarily like.
And here’s another indigo bunting factoid: the brilliant blue feathers of the species that we see are not really blue after all! It seems that the indigo bunting is actually black; for it’s the light, or rather the diffraction of light through an indigo bunting’s feathers, that makes them appear blue! The plumage coloration of the blue jay is similarly perceived by our eyes.
The song of the male indigo bunting is beautiful series of sharp, high-pitched and very clear whistles. Their song is oft written as “what! what! where? where? see it! see it!”, which is an easy mnemonic to use in identifying the delightful song when afield. And at the height of the breeding season when male birds are busy establishing and defending breeding territories, you can rest assured that one song will be followed by another song again and again.
Male indigo buntings are tireless songsters. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website writes that as many as “. . . 200 songs per hour at dawn and keeping pace of about one per minute for the rest of the day” is typical of singing males. Few other birds sing as much, although two that come to mind that likely surpass this singing rate of indigo buntings are the red-eyed vireo and house wren.
Following brief courtships and mating, and while male indigo buntings remain busy singing and defending their breeding territories, female indigos commence to nest building and laying eggs. She alone chooses a nest site, which is normally within shrub thickets along field edges, adjacent to woodlands, and even rights-of-ways of roads and railroads.
Nests are constructed in a little more than a week—again by only the female—with materials that include grasses, leaves, bark, and plant stems. Built scarcely three feet from the ground in the crotch of branches, the small, cup-like nest is usually wrapped with spider webs. The female bunting also carefully lines the inside of the nest with fine grasses and other plant material, thistle down, and even thin hair from animals. Up to four eggs are laid with an incubation period of about two weeks. Both parents care for the young, which fledge quickly—usually in less than two weeks.
Indigo buntings can be attracted to your backyard feeding station with a variety of small seeds, especially thistle or nyjer seed. And like eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings are also insect eaters, so providing live mealworms can work to attract indigo buntings to your property, too.
Indeed, the indigo bunting is as gorgeous a bird as they come here in northern Minnesota. And while other birds are blue too—eastern bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, blue grosbeaks and others—no other blue-colored bird sings as persistently and as beautifully nor are there any other birds-of-blue as stunning a blue, as the indigo bunting is as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at email@example.com.