Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

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Male indigo bunting
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Indigo bunting fact file

Indigo bunting description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusPasserina (1)

The indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) is a common and widespread songbird with a small, stocky body and a short tail (2) (3). As its common name suggests, the male indigo bunting has a characteristic brilliant blue breeding plumage (2) (3) (4) (5), with black lores (4), a purplish head, and darker blue feathers on the wings and tail, which can occasionally appear black (2) (3) (4) (6). The appearance of the male changes dramatically when it is not breeding, with most of the plumage becoming brown with small traces of blue on the wing-coverts, rump, head and breast (4) (5) (7).

The dull grey-brown plumage of the female indigo bunting is similar to that of the non-breeding male (4) (6) (7). The female has faint dark streaking on its breast and belly, a white throat, buff underparts and wingbars, and variable amounts of blue on its shoulders, rump and tail (2) (3) (5) (6) (7). The bill of the female indigo bunting is short, thick and conical (2) (3) (4), while that of the male is bicoloured, with a black upper mandible and a silver lower mandible (4).

The juvenile indigo bunting is similar in appearance to the adult female, although the young male has a variable amount of blue in its plumage (2) (3) (4) (6).

The song of the indigo bunting is a lazy series of ‘sweet’ and ‘tew’ notes, while its calls include a sharp ‘pink’ and a soft ‘tink(7). Vocalisations are made from high, elevated points such as treetops, shrubs and telephone lines (3).

Also known as
indigo bird, indigo painted finch.
Size
Length: 11.5 - 13 cm (2)
Wingspan: 19 - 22 cm (3)
Weight
12 - 18 g (2) (3)
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Indigo bunting biology

A long-distance nocturnal migrant, the indigo bunting forms large flocks and migrates south from its breeding grounds between September and mid-October, using the stars for navigation (2) (3). Northward migration from its wintering grounds usually begins in late April or May. Females usually migrate up to two weeks later than males (2).

The diet of the indigo bunting is mostly composed of small seeds, berries and buds, as well as spiders and small insects such as caterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers (2) (3).

The breeding season of the indigo bunting takes place between May and August, with the female alone building the nest in low vegetation along the edges of woodland and roads. The nest is a woven cup made with leaves, grass, bark and plant stems, which is then lined with softer material such as roots, thin bark, grass and deer hair. The female indigo bunting lays a clutch of 3 or 4 smooth white eggs and incubates alone for 11 to 14 days. During this period the female receives no help from the male, who remains close by but does not feed the female or the hatchlings (2) (3). The young generally fledge the nest between 9 and 12 days after hatching (2).

The male indigo bunting is highly territorial during the breeding season and defends its territory by fighting with other males (2) (3). Most breeding males have one female within their territory, although some may have two or more.A breeding pair remains together for the season and raises up to three broods each year (2)

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Indigo bunting range

The indigo bunting has an extremely large range, breeding in southern Canada and the United States, moving south to Mexico, the Caribbean, Panama and Venezuela to overwinter (2) (5) (8) (9)

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Indigo bunting habitat

The indigo bunting inhabits weedy and shrubby areas which have been previously cultivated or disturbed, such as forest edges, hedgerows, rice fields, open woodland and roadsides (2) (3) (4) (5) (9). It is also known to inhabit urban areas, especially during winter (4)

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Indigo bunting status

The indigo bunting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Indigo bunting threats

Although the indigo bunting is thought to be generally abundant throughout its range, its populations are threatened by loss of habitat due to intensive agriculture, urbanisation and reforestation. As the indigo bunting often inhabits roadside areas, numerous mortalities due to collisions with road traffic may occur, and collisions with buildings are also known to occur during migration (2) (3).

In certain parts of its range, this unique and beautiful bird is collected for the pet trade, and it is also occasionally killed for food or sport in its wintering grounds (2) (3)

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Indigo bunting conservation

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the indigo bunting. No special efforts are thought to be needed at present to ensure the survival of this species throughout its North American range, although they may be required in the future (2)

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Find out more

More information on the indigo bunting and its conservation:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Lores
The space between a bird’s bill and eyes.
Mandible
In birds, the lower jaw and beak, but the term is also used to denote the two parts of the beak.
Nocturnal
Active at night.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a group that occupies and defends an area.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
Wing-coverts
Small feathers which cover the bases of other larger feathers, helping to smooth airflow over the wings.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Payne, R.B. (2006) Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at: 
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/004/articles/appearance
  3. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Indigo bunting (May, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/id
  4. Lockwood, M.W. (2007) Basic Texas Birds: A Field Guide. University of Texas Press, Texas.
  5. Raffaele, H., Wiley, J., Garrido, O., Keith, A. and Raffaele, J. (2003) Birds of the West Indies. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  6. Newton, I. (2011) Birding Manual: Complete Guide to North American Birds. Nook Ebook, New Jersey.
  7. Jones, H.L. (2003) Birds of Belize. University of Texas Press, Texas.
  8. BirdLife International (May, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9651
  9. Parkin, D.T. and Knox, A.G. (2010) The Status of Birds in Britain and Ireland. A&C Black, London.
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Image credit

Male indigo bunting  
Male indigo bunting

© David Welling / naturepl.com

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Tel: +44 (0) 117 911 4675
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