Male indigo buntings appear a bright azure blue under optimal lighting conditions. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.