With careful landscape planning and a reliable supply of favorite seeds in your bird feeder, you can attract indigo buntings to spend a summer or a winter in your backyard and enjoy their brilliant beauty for weeks on end.
Bird watchers up and down the Atlantic coast of the United States up into Canada look for the bright blue flash of the male indigo bunting in the summer.
Homeowners in Florida can give them a winter home, although the feathers of the male don’t take on their brilliant blue hue until spring.
If you live in Texas, you can use the same methods used to attract indigo buntings to backyards to bring the green, red, and blue painted bunting to your landscape, as it returns from spending the winter in Central America and Mexico.
When Can You Expect Indigo Buntings in Your Backyard?
Indigo buntings look for open woods with trees that lose their leaves in the fall, second-growth woodland, and farms.
You are most likely to attract them if your home is next to a field of grain or a forest that has been replanted after being burned or cut down.
Breeding range for indigo buntings extends from southern Ontario to Maine, and south to the Panhandle of Florida and East Texas.
In North America, the only place you are likely to see them in the winter is South Florida.
They spend their winters in the West Indies and Central and South America. Indigo buntings occasionally roam far off their usual flight paths.
They have been sighted in Ecuador, Iceland, Denmark, Serbia, and the United Kingdom.
Indigo buntings navigate by the stars in April and September. They fly across as much as 900 miles (1440 km) of open water without stopping.
To do this, they have to store about 1/3 of an ounce (9 grams) of body fat, accumulated by eating lots of insects before they take off.
The indigo bunting that appears in your backyard could be arriving famished after a very long flight.
How to Attract Indigo Buntings with Food
Indigo buntings forage for seeds that have fallen to the ground.
Even when birding enthusiasts stock their feeders with all the seeds these birds are known to love, they may prefer to eat the seeds that have fallen to the ground from the feeder than a much more abundant supply of seed in the feeder itself.
The reason it can be hard to attract indigo buntings with food alone is that they prefer edible cover.
Buntings build their nests in tall grasses and low scrub bushes that provide both protection from overhead grasses and a ready supply of insects and seeds.
The female indigo bunting lacks the showy blue feathers of the male but has the ability to blend in with the dry, mature grasses around her nest.
Indigo buntings will venture up into the trees to pick insects off leaves, but they spend most of their time foraging on the ground.
During the summer, indigo buntings forage singly for insects, including aphids, beetles, caterpillars, cicadas, and grasshoppers.
They will also eat buds, berries, and seeds.
During the winter, indigo buntings switch to a mostly-plant foods diet of berries and seeds with an occasional insect.
They love to dine on blackberries, elderberries, serviceberries, and strawberries. If you are hosting indigo buntings over the winter in Florida, be forewarned that they will want their share of your strawberry patch.
In the winter, indigo buntings like to feed together in flocks, so they will strip a berry patch clean if you don’t protect it with bird netting.
If you want to entice indigo buntings with seed from your feeder, you need to place it somewhere they feel secure.
Put out seed on a platform feeder in a patch of grass you have not mowed or on a low-hanging bird feeder hung on a branch over scrubby shrubs or berry bushes.
Make sure that it’s a location that won’t be visited by your cat or by carnivorous wildlife, like raccoons, skunks, and opossums.
Indigo buntings also are shy about feeding in front of larger birds. Install a caged tube feeder to protect them from larger, hungry birds.
Fill it with whole sunflower kernels, out of the shell, or Nyjer seed. Or sprinkle a few mealworms onto a platform feeder.
You will need to take special precautions if you have cowbirds. We’ll discuss those precautions in the next section.
Providing Blue Indigos with Safe Nesting Spaces
In the wild, blue indigos build their nests in dense shrubs or low trees. They may build their nests just one to three feet (30 cm to a meter) above the ground.
A few blue indigos will build nests as high as 30 feet (10 meters) in a tree.
The female builds the nest and cares for the eggs alone.
The nest is constructed from coarse grass, leaves, stems, and peeling of bark or fruit rinds, and lined with soft grass or animal hair. The female binds her nest together with spider webs.
Each clutch consists of one to four eggs, The eggs are usually white, but may have brown spots.
Cowbirds like to lay their eggs in blue indigo nests. The female blue indigo will raise the baby cowbird as her own, reducing the amount of food for her own young.
The first thing you need to do to protect blue indigo nesting sites is to keep the cowbirds away. There are two things you can do;
- Don’t feed the cowbirds. Cowbirds like millet, sunflower seeds, and cracked corn, so put out suet, nectar, whole peanuts (unsalted), suet, mealworms, and safflower seeds.
- Use feeders that have short perches, smaller ports, and no catch basin at the bottom. These feeders will be large enough for indigo buntings but too small for cowbirds.
It also helps to provide your buntings with a cow bird-proof birdhouse.
The secret to success in birdhouses for indigo buntings is making sure it is small enough. It should have a floor of 5 inches x 5 inches (12.5 cm x 12.5 cm) and be no more than 8 inches (20 cm) tall.
There needs to be a round portal hole about 6 inches higher than the floor of the birdhouse, The portal should be 1 ¾ -2 ¾ inches (44 to 70 mm) diameter.
A hinged roof makes inspection and cleaning between broods easier.
Place the birdhouse 2 to 10 feet (60 cm to 3 meters) above the ground.
Indigo buntings don’t like houses that sway a lot, so make sure their birdhouse is on a stable branch of a tree or on a stable platform on a non-bending pole.
You can increase your viewing pleasure by providing your indigo buntings with the materials they need to build their nests.
Put out alpaca fleece or a commercial nesting material ball. The buntings have to make several thousand trips to gather materials for their nest, so putting out nesting materials will give you hours of viewing pleasure.
Now for the most important thing you can do to provide a safe home for indigo buntings;
Make sure any habitat you provide for indigo buntings keeps them away from roads and vehicular traffic.
Indigo buntings favor nesting spaces in unmowed grass along busy highways.
The neglected grass provides cover, seeds, and insects. From the indigo bunting’s point of view, it is an ideal home except for the risk of collisions with motor vehicles.
Almost no indigo bunting survives being hit by a car.
Providing indigo buntings with a secure nesting space at a safe distance (75 feet/ 25 meters or more) from a road goes a long way toward ensuring there will be new generations of indigo buntings to enjoy in the future.
What About Water?
Indigo buntings aren’t especially attracted to water features.
They get most of the water they need from the food they eat, and they usually build their nests in patches of dry grass, not near streams or still ponds.
However, indigo buntings will visit bird baths and fountains to keep their feathers clean if they are available.
Running water is always preferable to still water in a traditional bird bath.
Indigo buntings prefer water at ground level, not in a traditional pedestal-style bird bath.
Since birds defecate in their baths, it is important to clean the bird bath at least every week or so.
You also need to remove the bits of food and bird feathers that can accumulate in the bird bath, as well as leaves and other debris.
Additional Tips for Attracting Indigo Buntings to Your Backyard
With a little planning, you can make your backyard even more attractive to indigo buntings. Consider these11 tips:
- Make sure you choose a tube feeder that is large enough for your indigo buntings to feed facing forward. Indigo buntings have to keep an eye out for predators at all times. They like to cling to tube feeders, but they won’t use them if they can’t keep watch to the sides while they feed.
- Consider a feeder with a spring-loaded perch. A weight-sensitive perch will keep larger birds off your feeder, and allow your indigo buntings to get all the seed they need. The spring-loaded perch will keep mice and squirrels off your feeder, but you can also add a squirrel baffle to prevent squirrels from landing on the feeder from above or climbing up the mounting pole from below.
- Give your indigo buntings seed treats they can’t find in nature. Winter is the time of year indigo buntings like to feast on seeds. If you have indigo buntings in your backyard, chances are that you live in South Florida, where sunflowers aren’t especially abundant. Putting sunflower kernels onto a platform feeder or feeding indigo buntings sunflower seeds with a hopper feeder will give them an additional reason to visit your backyard.
- Add a mister or a dripper to your birdbath. Indigo buntings get a significant part of their water requirements from the dew that collects on grasses. They don’t need water features for survival, but misters and drippers are a natural way for them to get water. Misters and drippers also provide water for the insects on which they feed.
- Don’t worry about a heated bird bath. Indigo buntings spend their winters in warm locations. While a heated bird bath might be attractive during an outbreak of unusual winter cold, most of the time you won’t need to attract them for the winter.
- Make sure your indigo buntings don’t get eaten while they are eating. Never set out a feeder where indigo buntings would be vulnerable to feral or pet cats. Always place feeders about 5 feet (125 cm) away from grass or shrubs your indigo bunting can use for cover, flying for safety should a predator appear. Bird feeders of all kinds should be in enough sun that they can be seen, but not in the open where they invite attention from owls and hawks.
- Keep your feeder full all the time. Unless you live in South Florida, chances are that indigo buntings will only be in your backyard for a month to six weeks at a time. Keep them in your backyard as long as you can by keeping the feeder full.
- Keep your feeder clean all the time. Indigo buntings can catch diseases from pigeon droppings. Keeping their feeder clean helps to keep them healthy.
- Drain standing water that could breed mosquitoes. Indigo buntings and other members of the cardinal family are susceptible to viral diseases like West Nile Virus transmitted by mosquitoes. Use non-toxic means to keep mosquitoes under control to the benefit of birds, pets, and humans in your household.
- Remove reflective surfaces. In the summer, indigo buntings can be territorial. They will become disturbed by and aggressive toward their reflections. Park your car where they won’t find the side mirrors. Place decals on or use shutters to keep them from seeing their reflections in windows.
- Plant ornamental grasses. Indigo buntings naturally live in weeds, but you don’t have to let your yard become weedy to keep them happy. Plant grasses that look good in your yard but provide seeds and cover for your indigo buntings. If that’s possible, let the edges of your yard go without mowing to give your indigo buntings a margin of nesting and foraging ground.
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