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Indigo Bunting

(Passerine cyanea)
Banded June 1999 - Newport, Indiana

General Information

The Indigo Bunting, a member of the finch family, is a familiar summer visitor to Eastern North America. This beautiful little songster prefers brushy pastures and edge habitat where brushy fields meet the forest. Its winter range extends from extreme SE Texas and Florida through Central America and the West Indies. Males vigorously defend their territory by singing and displaying from a utility wire or other open perch. The similar but larger Blue Grosbeak, often confused with the Indigo Bunting, has wing bars, a much heavier bill and a noticeable rusty tan shoulder patch.


The adult male molts into a spectacular solid blue plumage during the breeding season. This blue may appear black when viewed against the sky. Wintering birds show much brown in their plumage (see photo in Bahama Banding topic). These birds are about 5.25 to 5.75 inches long with a wingspan of 8 to 9 inches. Weights range from 1/2 to 2/3 of an ounce.

Breeding Male Indigo Bunting
Figure 1 - Breeding Male Indigo Bunting


Adult Breeding Female Indigo Bunting
Figure 2 - Adult Breeding Female Indigo Bunting


The adult female is mostly brown, but shows some blue plumage in the wings and rump. In both sexes, the upper mandible is dark contrasting with a whitish lower mandible.


The male does not attain its full solid blue plumage until its second breeding season. This breeding male was fledged last year, and still shows brown in its body and flight feathers.


Adult Male in First Breeding Season
Figure 3 - Adult Male in First Breeding Season


 Adult Male Upper Wing
Figure 4 - Adult Male Upper Wing


The adult male in full breeding plumage shows bright blue plumage in the wing coverts. A younger male will show some brown edging on some coverts.

In this photo, the well developed brood patch of the breeding female is readily seen. Females shed the belly feathers and fluid builds up under the layer of skin. This allows the female to more effectively transfer heat from her body to the developing eggs. After the breeding season, the fluid disappears and new feathers grow in on the belly.

Brood Patch - Breeding Female
Figure 5 - Brood Patch - Breeding Female


Adult Male Tail Feathers
Figure 6 - Adult Male Tail Feathers


The shape of the outer tail feathers can be useful to distinguish hatch year birds from adults. Hatch year birds will have tapered tail feathers. Adults will have tail feathers with more rounded tips.

Nesting Behavior

Indigo Buntings prefer to breed in scrubby habitats, in hedgerows, open woods and along forest edges. The nest, built by the female, is a well made cup of dry grasses and weeds and a piece of snake skin woven into the structure. It is usually located in a low bush, small tree or in tall weeds. Three to four eggs, incubated by the female, hatch in just under two weeks. Young are cared for by the female, but the male may assist while the female re-nests. Two to three broods may be raised in one season.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1997, a total of 124,153 Indigo Buntings were banded. Of these, 312 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 0.25%. Banding studies show that Indigo buntings are short to medium distance migrants, and can live up to 8 years in the wild.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the
Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Conservation Status

Indigo Bunting populations are declining. Many fatalities occur when buntings, which migrate at night, collide with tall buildings, radio towers and other structures. Loss of suitable breeding and wintering habitat is also a factor. Where suitable habitat occurs, however, Indigo Buntings can readily be found.

Indigo Buntings perform a valuable service as they consume grasshoppers,
beetles, cankerworms, flies, mosquitoes, cicadas, weevils and aphids. Diet
also consists of seeds of raspberries, grasses, thistle, goldenrod, dandelions and other weed seeds. It is well worth the effort to provide suitable brushy habitat and shrubby forest edges to assure a healthy population of these attractive little songsters.

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