Go for Indigo

With a lit­tle land­scape plan­ning and their fa­vorite seed at your feeder, you can en­joy this bunting’s bril­liant beauty.

Birds & Blooms - - Feeder Talk - BY RACHAEL LISKA

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.

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