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Indigo Bunting

Passerina cyanea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The all-blue male Indigo Bunting sings with cheerful gusto and looks like a scrap of sky with wings. Sometimes nicknamed "blue canaries," these brilliantly colored yet common and widespread birds whistle their bouncy songs through the late spring and summer all over eastern North America. Look for Indigo Buntings in weedy fields and shrubby areas near trees, singing from dawn to dusk atop the tallest perch in sight or foraging for seeds and insects in low vegetation.

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Keys to identification Help

Finchlike
Finchlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Indigo Buntings are small (roughly sparrow-sized), stocky birds with short tails and short, thick, conical bills. In flight, the birds appear plump with short, rounded tails.

  • Color Pattern

    A breeding male Indigo Bunting is blue all over, with slightly richer blue on his head and a shiny, silver-gray bill. Females are basically brown, with faint streaking on the breast, a whitish throat, and sometimes a touch of blue on the wings, tail, or rump. Immature males are patchy blue and brown.

  • Behavior

    Male Indigo Buntings sing from treetops, shrubs, and telephone lines all summer. This species eats insects, seeds, and berries, and can be attracted to backyards with thistle or nyjer seed. While perching, they often swish their tails from side to side. Fairly solitary during breeding season, Indigo Buntings form large flocks during migration and on their wintering grounds.

  • Habitat

    Look for Indigo Buntings in weedy and brushy areas, especially where fields meet forests. They love edges, hedgerows, overgrown patches, and brushy roadsides. When not singing from the tallest perches in the area, they can often be seen foraging among seed-laden shrubs and grasses.

Range Map Help

Indigo Bunting Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Indigo Bunting

    Breeding male
    • Small, stocky songbird
    • Short conical bill
    • Brilliant blue overall, but appears grayer in poor light
    • Blue wings edged in black
    • © Andy Johnson, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 2010
  • Breeding male

    Indigo Bunting

    Breeding male
    • Small, stocky songbird
    • Short, silver-gray, conical bill
    • Brilliant blue overall
    • © Norm Townsend, Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 2011
  • Female

    Indigo Bunting

    Female
    • Stocky songbird with short, conical bill
    • Warm brown above, paler below
    • Contrasting whitish throat
    • Faint streaks on breast
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, July 2010
  • Breeding male

    Indigo Bunting

    Breeding male
    • Small, stocky songbird
    • Conical, silvery-gray bill
    • Mostly bright blue
    • Some black edging on wings
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, July 2010
  • Male

    Indigo Bunting

    Male
  • Male

    Indigo Bunting

    Male
    • Small and stocky songbird
    • Short, conical bill
    • Mostly pale brown
    • Patches of bright blue on breast and head
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Corpus Christi, Texas, April 2011
  • Female

    Indigo Bunting

    Female
  • Immature male

    Indigo Bunting

    Immature male
    • Small and stocky with short, conical bill
    • Mostly pale brown
    • Blue patches on breast and wings
    • © Robert Strickland, Beverly Hills, Florida, February 2010

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult male

    Blue Grosbeak

    Breeding adult male
    • Similar to Indigo Bunting but larger and heavier
    • Silver/gray bill much thicker and heavier than on Indigo Bunting
    • Bright rusty wing-bars
    • Narrow black patch at base of bill
    • © photosbyjoe, Texas, June 2011
  • Female

    Blue Grosbeak

    Female
    • Similar to Indigo Bunting but larger and stockier
    • Very thick, heavy bill
    • Warm brown overall with darker brown on face
    • Rusty wing-bars
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, May 2011
  • Breeding adult male

    Lazuli Bunting

    Breeding adult male
    • Similar to male Indigo Bunting in shape
    • Lighter, sky blue on head and back
    • Buffy-orange breast and white belly
    • Bold white wing-bars
    • © Keith Alderman, Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2010
  • Adult female

    Painted Bunting

    Adult female
    • Similar to female Indigo Bunting in shape, but greener overall
    • Bill longer and more curved than Indigo Bunting
    • Mostly pale olive-green throughout, but immature females can be drabber
    • © CleberBirds, Winter Garden, Florida, March 2011
  • Adult female

    House Sparrow

    Adult female
    • Similar to female Indigo Bunting but larger and much stockier
    • Heavy, yellow/gray bill
    • Pale beige stripe through eye
    • Bold patterns on wings and upper back
    • © Robert Scott, Milton, Ontario, Canada, December 2010
  • Adult male

    Eastern Bluebird

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Indigo Bunting but larger and more slender
    • Small, thin black bill
    • Rusty orange on breast and flanks
    • © Debbie McKenzie, Alabama

Similar Species

Blue Grosbeaks overlap broadly with Indigo Buntings but are noticeably larger with a thicker bill. Adult male Blue Grosbeaks are darker blue with prominent rusty wingbars. Female Blue Grosbeaks have larger bills than Indigo Buntings and are a richer buffy brown. The Lazuli Bunting of western North America has only a small range overlap with Indigo Buntings. Male Lazuli Buntings have an orange wash across the breast and white belly. Females are very tricky: on average Lazuli Buntings have bolder buffy wingbars and a warm, buffy, unstreaked breast. Indigo Buntings often have a faintly streaked breast and a whiter throat. Female Painted Buntings are distinctly greenish above, not the buffy brown of an Indigo Bunting. Female House Sparrows have a streaky back and a bolder, paler eyebrow. Eastern Bluebirds are larger birds with straight, thin bills and an orangeish wash on the breast.

Regional Differences

None.

Backyard Tips

You can attract Indigo Buntings to your yard with feeders, particularly with small seeds such as thistle or nyjer. Indigo Buntings also eat many insects, so live mealworms may attract them as well. There’s more about feeding birds at our Attract Birds pages.

Find This Bird

Look for Indigo Buntings in midsummer along rural roads, where they often sing from telephone lines or wooded edges for hours on end. One of the best ways to find them is to learn to recognize the bouncy quality of the paired notes in their song. During migration you may see large flocks of Indigo Buntings feeding in agricultural fields or on lawns. In fall their mostly brown plumage can make them tricky to identify, but look for tinges of blue in the wings or tail as a giveaway.