Indigo Bunting

Passerina cyanea

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Photo of a male indigo bunting perched on a branch, side view.
One of the most colorful birds in Missouri, the indigo bunting is frequently seen flying up from gravel roads.
Jim Rathert
Family

Cardinalidae (cardinals) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The indigo bunting is a sparrowlike bird with a conical bill. Adult male upperparts are turquoise blue when seen in sunlight; otherwise they appear dark blue or blackish. The wings and bill are gray. Underparts are blue. First-spring males are blotched with blue and brown. Female is pale brown with faint wing bars and streaking on breast; the bill is gray. Young are more heavily streaked below. Song is a series of whistled couplets, with each couplet usually slightly lower in pitch: sweet-sweet, tew-tew, chew-chew. Call is a sharp spit.

Similar species: The closely related blue grosbeak looks similar and can also appear black in some lighting, but it is much larger and has a very large bill; in good light, it also has two brown wing bars. The blue grosbeak is rare to uncommon in many parts of Missouri, while the indigo bunting is abundant and easily seen statewide. The eastern bluebird (Missouri’s state bird) is a type of thrush; it’s larger, with a much thinner bill; both sexes have an orangish breast and white belly. Another close relative, the lazuli bunting, is very rarely seen in western Missouri, usually in spring. Male lazuli buntings have an orangish breast and white belly, similar to the eastern bluebird.

Key Identifiers

 

  • Sparrow-sized.
  • Short, conical bill.
  • Males bright blue, but in low light can look gray or blackish.
  • Females pale brown, with faint wing bars and faintly streaked breast.
  • Very common along country roads, along fence lines, along edges of woods, and in open or brushy areas.
Size

Length: 5½ inches.

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Photo of a female indigo bunting perched on a twig.
Indigo Bunting Female
Female indigo buntings are pale brown with faint wing bars and streaking on the breast; the bill is gray.

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Photo of a male indigo bunting eating birdseed at a feeding station.
Indigo Bunting Male
Adult male indigo buntings turquoise blue when seen in sunlight; otherwise they appear dark blue or blackish. The wings and bill are gray.

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Photo of male indigo bunting and male eastern bluebird perched near each other.
Indigo Bunting and Eastern Bluebird
Missouri's two most common blue birds are the indigo bunting and eastern bluebird. Male eastern bluebirds have an orangish belly.

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Photo of a male indigo bunting with head back, singing.
Indigo Bunting Singing
The indigo bunting's song is a series of whistled couplets, with each couplet usually slightly lower in pitch: "sweet-sweet, tew-tew, chew-chew."

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Photo of a male indigo bunting perched on a bloooming American feverfew plant.
Indigo Bunting Perched on American Feverfew
Look for indigo buntings and American feverfew in the same kinds of relatively open habitats.

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Photo of a female indigo bunting perched on a small branch.
Indigo Bunting Female
The female indigo bunting builds her cup nest in low shrubs, typically in open areas or edges of woodlands.

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Photo of an indigo bunting nest, with young snuggled within.
Indigo Bunting Nest and Young
The cup nests of indigo buntings are built of leaves, grasses, and other materials, bound together with spider webs.

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Photo of an indigo bunting nest with young.
Indigo Bunting Nest with Young
After hatching, indigo bunting young stay in the nest for about 2 weeks. If all goes well, they will fly to Central America in the fall.

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Photo of a male indigo bunting at a feeding station.
Indigo Bunting Male
Farming practices and roadside mowing that eliminate shrubby, weedy habitat also eliminate habitat for indigo buntings.

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Photo of a perched male indigo bunting, stretching wings outward, breast feathers puffed.
Indigo Bunting Male
An indigo bunting can live for at least 13 years — that's 13 trips flown to and from Central America!
Habitat and conservation

Indigo buntings perch and sing in brushy fields, forest openings, woodland edges, yards, parks, and hedgerows. They are frequently seen flying up from gravel roads. This is one of the most abundant and easily seen and heard birds in the state. Find some trees in a park or a clearing in the woods, or bike or walk on the Katy Trail, and you will see them as they fly up from the ground or sit on a fence. Learning to recognize their songs will help you identify them. In late spring, you may find one at your bird feeder.

Foods

Forages for insects, seeds, and berries. Plants in the aster family, such as thistles, goldenrods, and dandelions, provide many of the small seeds indigo buntings prefer. Elderberries, serviceberries, and blackberries are among the many fleshy fruits they eat. In summer, when insects are most plentiful and when extra protein is needed by the growing young, these buntings hunt grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, and a large variety of caterpillars.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common summer resident statewide; as winter visitor, casual in southern Missouri.

Life cycle

Females build cup nests of leaves, grasses, and other materials, binding them together with spider webs, and positioning them in low shrubs, typically in open areas or edges of woodlands. A clutch comprises 3–4 eggs, which are incubated for 11–14 days. After hatching, the young stay in the nest for about 2 weeks. There can be 1–3 broods per year. Indigo buntings can live for at least 13 years. Indigo buntings arrive in Missouri in April and are gone by the beginning of November. They overwinter in Central America, from southern Mexico and the Caribbean south to the northern part of South America. They migrate at night, navigating by the stars.

Human connections

Many human activities are harmful to indigo buntings. Because buntings live and nest in open areas, including roadsides, many are killed by cars. Farming practices and roadside mowing that eliminate shrubby, weedy habitat also eliminate habitat for buntings. In some parts of Mexico, indigo buntings are captured and sold illegally as cage birds. There’s some indication that indigo buntings might be expanding their range northward, which scientists believe could be a response to a warming climate.

Ecosystem connections

In many species of birds and other animals, the male is brightly colored while the female “wears camouflage.” In most cases, generations of females preferred males with genes for bright colors, allowing those males to pass their genes on to the next generation. Meanwhile, the habitat (because of the lower success of would-be predators) has favored females with genes for camouflage colors, giving them a reproductive edge over females that are more conspicuous.