The indigo bunting is a sparrow-sized bird at 5.5 inches in length. It is stocky with a short tail and conical bill.
The male indigo bunting lives up to its name. During the summer breeding season it is completely blue in color and hard to miss. Like all blue-colored birds, it lacks blue pigment. The color comes from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light. This is similar to the particles in the atmosphere that make the sky appear blue.
The female and immature buntings are a cinnamon-brown color with a bit of blue in the wings and tail. This is an uncommon bird throughout New Mexico, but they can be seen during the summer breeding season and more often during spring and fall migration. The indigo bunting migrates at night, using stars to guide them. Earlier this fall I was lucky enough to spot several indigo buntings in the shrubs near water at the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex.
This bunting prefers brushy, weedy areas along streams, abandoned farm fields and the edges of woodlands.
During migration, they can be seen in large flocks feeding in agricultural fields and grassy areas like lawns and parks. Indigo buntings feed near the ground on a variety of small seeds, berries, insects and spiders. In spring, when the hungry male arrives in its breeding territory, it will even eat buds and leaves from trees. It is possible to attract the indigo bunting by providing a thistle seed feeder or mealworms.
During nesting season, the male indigo bunting defends the nesting territory from predators. When disturbed, the male will raise its head feathers, giving it a crest-like appearance. In areas where the indigo and lazuli bunting ranges overlap, they will sometimes interbreed. The female indigo bunting chooses the nest site and builds the nest. The nest is usually near the ground in scrubby bushes or shrubs and well concealed.
The indigo bunting population has declined in the last 40 years, but are still fairly abundant in their range. Expanded agricultural practices and reforestation can negatively affect the population. In their wintering territory in parts of Mexico, it is not unusual for the male indigo buntings to be caged illegally and sold as pet birds because of their beautiful blue feathers.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.”