Imagine being a red-green color blind birder. Indeed, that yours truly has difficulty distinguishing colors and shades of colors, especially red and variations of red.
It’s one of the reasons why blue became one of my favorite colors a long time ago (and also why coloring wasn’t one of my favorite activities in elementary school). For me, the colors blue and yellow really stand out.
So recently, when I was walking near the bird feeding station in my backyard, the lone male indigo bunting perched on the feeder made me stop in my tracks and stare. Such a beautiful species of wild bird – the indigo bunting – few would disagree. They are truly a sight to behold.
Sometimes confused with eastern bluebirds and blue cardinals, the all-blue males, sometimes sporting blackish wings, are naturally very striking birds. Their conical beaks are perfect for feeding on insects and seeds.
A sparrow-sized bird a mere five inches long, but for the male indigo bunting’s song and gorgeous blue color, the species would likely go relatively unnoticed.
Interestingly, the shiny blue feathers of the species we see aren’t blue after all. It seems that the indigo bunting is actually black in color; for it is the light, or rather the diffraction of light through the feathers of an indigo bunting, which makes them appear blue. The coloration of the blue jay’s plumage is also perceived by our eyes.
Found in the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada during the breeding season, indigo buntings migrate as far south as northern South America during the winter months, but some birds occasionally pass year round in South Florida. Most, however, migrate to Northland each spring to breed, nest and raise their young.
The indigo bunting’s preferred habitat is dense thickets, tall trees near forest edges, open brushy fields, farmland, wooded roads, and clearings.
The male indigo bunting’s song is a beautiful series of high-pitched, high-pitched, very clear whistles. Their song is often written as “what! What! Where? Where? see it! see it!” which is an easy-to-use mnemonic to identify the delightful song when you’re abroad.
And at the height of the breeding season, when male birds are busy establishing and defending breeding territories, you can be assured that one song will be followed by another song again and again.
Male indigo buntings are tireless singers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website writes that up to 200 songs per hour at sunrise and about one song per minute for the rest of the day are typical for singing males. Few other birds sing so much.
After brief courtship displays and matings, and while the male indigo buntings remain busy singing and defending their breeding territories, the female indigos begin to build nests and lay eggs.
She chooses a nesting site on her own, which is normally in thickets of shrubs along the edges of fields, next to woodlots and even road and railroad rights-of-way.
Nests are built in just over a week – again by the female alone – with materials including grasses, leaves, bark and plant stems. Built barely three feet off the ground in the crotch of branches, the small, cup-shaped nest is usually shrouded in cobwebs.
The female sparrow also carefully lines the inside of the nest with fine grasses and other plant matter, thistle, and even fine animal hair. Up to four eggs are laid with an incubation period of about two weeks. Both parents care for the young, which fledge quickly – usually within two weeks.
Indigo buntings can be attracted to your garden’s feeding station with a variety of small seeds, especially thistle or nyjer seeds. And like eastern bluebirds, indigo buntings are also insect eaters, so providing live mealworms can also attract indigo buntings to your property.
The magnificent indigo bunting is such a striking bird as it comes here in northwestern Minnesota. And while other birds are also blue – eastern bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, blue grosbeaks and the like – no other blue-colored bird sings so persistently and of beauty.
Nor are there other bluebirds as breathtaking as the indigo bunting, as we get outside and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR Wildlife Manager. He can be reached at