If you see a remarkably all-blue bird along the roadside during the summer in Tennessee, it is more than likely an Indigo Bunting. Unlike the Eastern Bluebird with its rusty and white belly, the male Indigo Bunting is entirely blue, startlingly so when seen in good light. This is one of the most abundant and widely distributed birds nesting in the state, and is found in shrubby areas and weedy fields at all elevations. The male is a constant singer well into the summer, and his double-phrased song is fairly distinctive. Indigo Buntings are completely migratory traveling over 1,000 miles each way between their summer range in eastern North America and their winter range in very southern Florida, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. They arrive in Tennessee in mid-April and depart by mid-October.
Description: The Indigo Bunting is a rather slim bird with a short, thick bill. During the breeding season adult males are a solid deep blue; during the non-breeding season (September-April), males are brown with a variable amount of blue scattered throughout. The female is a dull brown year round, with a whitish throat, faint buff wing-bars, and often fine, faint streaks on the breast.
Weight: 0.51 oz
Voice: The song is a series of warbling phrases that are usually repeated. Call notes include a sharp spik, and a buzzy note often given in flight.
- The Blue Grosbeak male and female are similar to the male and female Indigo Bunting. The grosbeak, however, is larger, has a much thicker bill, and obvious rusty wing-bars.
- Eastern Bluebirds have a reddish chest and white belly.
Habitat: Indigo Buntings breed in a variety of brushy and weedy habitats along edges of cultivated land, woods, roads, powerline rights-of-way, and in openings in coniferous and deciduous forests. They winter in weedy fields, citrus orchards, and weedy cropland.
Diet: Small insects, spiders, seeds, buds, and berries.
Nesting and reproduction: Males will occasionally mate with two females in his territory. Indigo Buntings commonly produce two or more broods per year.
Clutch Size: Usually 3 to 4 eggs, with a range of 2 to 5 eggs.
Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days.
Fledging: Most of the feeding is done by the female, and the young leave the nest in about 10 days.
Nest: The female chooses the nest site and builds the nest. It is a well-made open cup of dead leaves, coarse grasses, stems, and strips of bark, held in place with spider web, and lined with fine grasses or deer hair. It is placed in a shrub or an herbaceous plant close to ground. The average nest height in Tennessee is 3 feet above the ground.
Status in Tennessee: The Indigo Bunting is a summer resident, and one of the most abundant breeding birds in the state. It arrives in mid-April and departs by mid-October. While still very common, they are declining in the state.
Dynamic map of Indigo Bunting eBird observations in Tennessee
- Indigo Buntings are nocturnal migrants and use the stars, setting sun location, and other landmarks to navigate. They learn to orient by the night sky as a young bird observing the stars.
- Indigo Buntings breed across eastern North America. Banding studies have shown that birds nesting in the western part of the breeding range migrate to the western part of the wintering range, and birds from the eastern part of the breeding range, winter in the eastern wintering range.
Obsolete English Names: indigo painted finch, blue finch, indigo bird
Best places to see in Tennessee: The Indigo Bunting can be found statewide from mid-April to mid-October in a variety of dense brushy habitats including brushy fields, fencerows, forest edges and natural openings in both coniferous and deciduous forests.
For more information:
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Payne, R. B. 2006. Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea), The Birds of North America, No. 4 (A. Poole, Peter Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, DC; The American Ornithologists' Union.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.