A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: No songbird more visible in greening landscape of spring than Indigo Bunting

In the greening landscape of spring, no bird is more visible than the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea).

The vibrant, cerulean blue plumage of the male seems almost out of place, as if it belongs on some resident of a tropical rain forest.

In fact, this diminutive insect and seed-eating bird in the Cardinal family, Cardinalidae, may mingle with exotic, colorful birds during its annual southward migration across the Gulf of Mexico.

Size and Description

Like many bird species there are differences in coloration and markings between the male and female. During the summer, the male Indigo Bunting sports black-tipped wings, bright blue feathers and a slightly darker head.

An adult Indigo Bunting weighs less than an ounce, and is about five inches tall (the size of a small sparrow), with a seven to nine-inch wingspan.

Like many bird species there are differences in coloration and markings (sexual dimorphism) between the male and female.

The male sports black-tipped wings, bright blue feathers and a slight darker head during the summer, but his feathers turn brown during the winter months. The female is brown year-round.

An immature bird resembles the female in coloration, although a male may have hints of blue on its tail and shoulders, and have dark streaks on its breast.

Its beak is short and conical. In the adult female, the beak is light brown, tinged with blue. The upper half of the adult male’s beak is brownish-black, while the lower is light blue.

Their feet and legs are black or gray.

Range and Distribution

The Indigo Bunting is most common in the eastern U.S., breeding from southern Maine, south to northern Florida, west to east Texas, and north to northern Minnesota.

Since about 1940s, its breeding range has moved westward, to include parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, western Oklahoma, western Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

An adult Indigo Bunting weighs less than an ounce, and is about five inches tall (the size of a small sparrow), with a seven to nine-inch wingspan.

Migration northward takes place in April and May and then back southward in September and October.

Wintering grounds are from southern Florida, Mexico, through Central America, into northern South America.

The Indigo Bunting often migrates at night, navigating by the stars, flying for hundreds of miles.

Abundant, and found throughout Kentucky this time of year, the habitat of the Indigo Bunting is varied, but always includes dense herbaceous cover. They are much less numerous, or absent, from suburban parks and yards, and other intensively manicured (mowed) lands.

In the Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, author Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., wrote that frequently used habitat include “brushy forest edge, the weedy margins of agricultural fields, roadway and utility corridors, overgrown ditches, fencerows, old fields and reclaimed strip mines.”

Food Habits

The diet of the Indigo Bunting consists primarily of insects and berries during the summer months, seeds and buds during the winter. They forage at all levels, from the ground up into shrubs and trees.

During the breeding season they eat insects, including spiders, caterpillars, grasshoppers, aphids, cicadas, and beetles such as canker worms, click beetles, and weevils.

Common seeds eaten include: grass, thistles, dandelions, goldenrods, and grains such as oats. They also like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, serviceberries, and elderberries.

The Indigo Bunting does not drink water frequently, generally obtaining moisture from its diet.

In summer, they feed alone, but feed in flocks on their wintering grounds.

Song and Calls

The vocalizations of the Indigo Bunting are varied.

A sharp chip! call is used by both sexes as an alarm if a nest or chick is threatened.

A high-pitched, buzzed zeeep is a contact call while in flight.

The song of the male bird is a high-pitched buzzed sweet-sweet chew-chew sweet-sweet, lasting two to four seconds, often used to mark territory against intruders, or to attract females.

Males often sing while perched on posts, utility wires, and fences along roadways.

Nesting

In Kentucky, early nesting typically peaks in mid-May to early June. A later peak in clutch completion occurs in early July, and continues through August.

In Kentucky, early nesting typically peaks in mid-May to early June. A later peak in clutch completion occurs in early July, and continues through August. Nest-building and incubation are done solely by the female Indigo Bunting.

Nest-building and incubation are done solely by the female.

A male may have more than one mate at a time living in his territory.

Nest sites are usually fairly low to the ground, in a dense shrub or low tree. Late in season, nests may be made in large, stout weeds.

The female builds an open cup of grass, leaves, weeds, bark strips, lined with finer materials. She lays two to four white to bluish-white eggs, sometimes with brown or purple spots.

Incubation is typically 12 to 13 days. The young are mostly fed by their mother. In some nests, the male helps feed young when they are nearly old enough to fly.

Young birds leave the nest nine to 12 days after hatching. The male takes over the feeding of fledged young if the female begins a second nesting attempt.

The Indigo Bunting is a beautiful little bird with a melodic song that graces us each spring with its presence, after having migrated so far in the dead of night, through starry, moonlit skies, across miles and miles of open water.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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