Go for Indigo
With a little landscape planning and their favorite seed at your feeder, you can enjoy this bunting’s brilliant beauty.
The size of a sparrow but more finchlike in appearance, an indigo bunting is truly dazzling. But its flashy hue is not really indigo at all. In fact, no bird has a true blue pigment in its feathers. “The color occurs as an interaction of light within a complex feather structure,” says nature columnist, birder and author Gary Clark.
It takes a male bunting two years to reach its full iridescent splendor (which he loses every winter as he molts into brownish feathers). In the meantime, younger males sport splotches of brown and other off-color shades, while the females are tan with a whitish throat.
Indigo buntings are common across the eastern half of the U.S., where they produce two broods as they are nestled in dense shrubs or low-growing trees during breeding season. They head to the southernmost tip of Florida, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to winter. Come spring, they migrate up to 1,200 miles from wintering spots to breeding grounds through areas including Texas and southern Louisiana.
It’s that first breeding season when young buntings learn to sing. “Males acquire their song by listening to other males in the neighborhood and slightly modifying it for their own song version,” Gary says. “It’s not a different song they develop, just a variation, as in human melodies where a singer slightly alters the rhythm and harmony of a tune.”
Attracting an indigo bunting to your backyard feeder may be challenging even for folks who live within their range and see them most often. According to Gary, buntings visit feeders most often during migration but seldom in breeding season.
“Their breeding habitat includes grass and weed fields in woodland areas, where they eat a variety of insects, spiders, fruits and seeds,” he says. “Sunflower seeds would be fine for those that show up in backyards during migration, although in my experience, they eat seed that’s fallen on the ground more than at actual feeders.”
If you want to tempt them with feeders, though, most backyard birders will have the best luck with black oil and hulled sunflower seeds, thistle, Nyjer and white proso millet. Try setting out a tube feeder or a tray feeder with perches designed for smaller birds.
Perhaps the best way to entice indigo buntings to your backyard is to model it after their ideal habitat. Bushes, hedges, berry-producing shrubs and flowers provide plenty of shelter and natural food sources like buds, berries and seeds. These plants also attract many insects— beetles, grasshoppers, aphids and cicadas—that indigo buntings like to feast on the most.