Photos by Ray and Margaret Harden
THE INDIGO BUNTING - “A Blue Canary”
By: Ray Harden
I was surprised to see an indigo bunting at my bird feeder this spring. I had not seen the little blue bird at my feeder for the past two years. The derecho windstorm in 2020 destroyed a lot the trees and shrubs on my property that the bird needs for cover.
The sparrow size male has a brilliant cobalt blue color; this makes it one of Iowa’s most conspicuous songbirds. He is not to be confused with the eastern bluebird which is larger and has an orange breast.
The male indigo bunting is easy to spot because of his bright coloration. The females are harder to see and identify. She is a brownish tan color with only a hint of blue showing on the wings and tail feathers. Also, the female stays low to the ground and in thick shrubbery as she feeds making her difficult to see.
She does most of the work of building a nest, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. Her small cup shaped nest is built a few feet off the ground in the fork of a shrub. It has a diameter of three inches and is one and a half inches deep to hold her four bluish-white eggs. The nest is usually lined with a soft material such as thistledown or animal hair.
The young hatch in two weeks and fledge two weeks later. The chicks are fed by both parents and develop quickly on a diet of insects that is rich in protein. Frequently a mated pair of indigo buntings will raise a second brood. In most cases males are monogamous but sometimes he mates with two or more females in his territory.
These little birds are summer residents of Iowa and they are found across the state and most of the time the birds return to the same area where they were born. Their preferred habitat is woodland edge, hedgerows, suburbs, and small towns. They are seldom seen in urban areas, deep woods, or in cultivated fields.
The indigo buntings arrive in early May and most leave Iowa by mid September. They have a nearly two thousand mile journey to their wintering areas in Central America and the northern parts of South America. They fly during the night and use stars to navigate their course.
The indigo bunting’s range is east of the Rocky Mountains, covering two thirds of the United States and parts of southern Canada. Ornithologists report that they are expanding their range and they are increasing in numbers in some areas, but populations are declining in places with intense agriculture.
Several studies have shown that the female brown-headed cowbird frequently lays its eggs in the indigo bunting’s nest. According to a study done in Iowa of forty-one indigo bunting nests, it was found that twenty-nine nests contained cowbird eggs.
Besides being a beautiful little bird the male indigo bunting has a very nice song. It is described as a rapid warble with each high pitched note and phrase sung twice- it is often paraphrased as “Sweet sweet, where where, here, here”. The male begins singing in May and continues into August, which is much later than other song birds.
Gladys Black in her book Iowa Bird Life, says that, “The indigo bunting’s singing is not deterred by high temperatures like other birds, in fact the hotter the day the longer he sings.” She goes on to say that he will often sing his song six times per minute.
Because they are very pretty and have a pleasing song they are often kept as caged birds in Latin America and in some parts of Europe. Because of their singing ability they are sometimes called a blue canary.
They are fantastic little birds to have in your yard. They eat many weed seeds, spiders, mosquitoes, and insects that harm plants. You can invite them to come to your yard by having a bird feeder with small seeds, bushes for cover, and a source of water.