Indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) are dainty birds found mostly from southern Canada to northern Florida during the breeding season and southern Florida to northern South America during the winter months.
They are migratory birds that often use the stars to navigate as they migrate at night. Mature male indigo buntings have distinctive vibrant blue plumage to attract females during summer that changes to brown for the winter. Females and immature males are brown in color throughout the year.
The feeding habits of these bouncy little birds also depend on the season. So, let’s dig a little deeper and find out what do indigo buntings eat?
Indigo buntings are omnivores. Their diet consists of a mix of grains, seeds, fruit, and insects. On a day-to-day basis, the food they eat depends on the season. The summer months are the breeding season when indigo buntings eat more insects to raise their protein levels. When winter arrives, and they head south, their diet changes to include mostly seeds, buds and berries.
Indigo Bunting feeding on wild cereal grass
The favorite berries for indigo buntings to eat include blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, serviceberries, and elderberries.
After feasting on berries all winter, they migrate north to breed. When they arrive in their breeding grounds, they often eat twigs, buds, and the leaves of trees including cottonwood, oak, aspen, elm, and maple.
As they breed and raise their young, these buntings favor a diet of insects and small arachnids such as grasshoppers, cicadas, caterpillars, aphids, canker worms, weevils, click beetles, and spiders. They even love the brown-tail moth caterpillar that has noxious hairs and can cause rashes and breathing problems for humans.
Beetles, grasshoppers, aphids, and cicadas are the main insects that indigo buntings eat. They are also partial to the odd spider if there are any about.
The breeding season from May to September is the time that these birds eat the most insects. The extra protein comes in useful when they are nesting and raising their young.
Indigo Bunting foraging for food at Sweetwater Wetlands, Gainesville, Florida
The favorite plant foods of indigo buntings include thistle, blueberry, dogwood, strawberry, elderberry, wheat, grasses, oats, corn, alfalfa, rice, and dandelion.
These birds are most likely to eat plant foods during the winter months which they spend in an area covering southern Florida to northern South America. However, they will eat this type of food at other times to supplement their diet.
Indigo buntings forage for food at different levels. They find what they need to eat on the ground as well as in shrubs and trees.
The favorite environment of these buntings is in fields with weeds or shrubby areas where they have easy access to food.
They take berries from shrubs and insects from the leaves of the same shrubs and from trees. Indigo buntings also often forage for seeds on the ground or snatch them from stems.
Indigo Bunting singing from a perch
The season dictates whether indigo buntings find their food alone or in a group with others. They tend to forage in flocks during the winter and on their own in summer.
The solo foraging of summer coincides with breeding season. This is when the buntings are raising their young and have their interests to take care of.
The daytime is when indigo buntings are most active. This is when they spend time looking for food.
These spunky little birds work hard to find their meals. They are equally as likely to be found searching amongst weeds and undergrowth as they are in shrubs and trees.
Indigo Bunting amongst the foliage
Winter is the time of year when buntings can be found in southern Florida and northern South America. While here they eat mainly grasses, seeds and berries. Although they will eat insects if they are available.
At this time of year, these birds often look for food in flocks. They forage for seeds, grain, and berries with other indigo buntings.
Summer is the breeding season for indigo buntings. During this season, they are mostly found in southern Canada and northern Florida. While here they eat insects like grasshoppers, cicadas, and beetles, as well as spiders. Having this insectivorous diet helps them build up the protein levels they need for nesting and raising young.
At this time of year, these buntings forage for food on their own. They use this food to feed their brood, or broods, as they can have more than one per breeding season.
Female Indigo Bunting perched on a branch
When baby indigo buntings are born, they are fed by their parents. The diet they are fed consists mainly of insects. This provides them with the protein they need to stay healthy.
The young indigo buntings are fed by their parents until they fledge at around eight to 14 days, and for a short time after when they remain in their mother’s care.
Indigo Bunting mother feeding baby chicks in the nest
For the most part, young indigo buntings are fed by the female. Sometimes the male helps with the feeding when the young are almost ready to fledge. This normally happens when they are eight to 14 days old.
Once the young birds have left the nest, the male sometimes takes over feeding them for a while if the female starts to set up another nest to prepare for a second brood.
When feeding indigo buntings, the best option is to choose seeds such as thistle or Nyjer. They are also partial to hulled sunflower seeds and will happily retrieve proso millet off the ground.
Given their love of insects, it’s also a good idea to include mealworms when feeding these birds. This helps to vary their diet and provide them with protein which is especially vital during the breeding season.
Indigo Bunting male singing on Butterweed, Marion, Illinois, USA
It’s not unusual to see indigo buntings foraging on all levels. They are equally as happy retrieving seed and grain from the ground as they are looking for food in shrubs and trees.
Indigo buntings can sometimes be scared off feeders by bigger birds. When this happens, they will happily fly to the ground and look for items such as millet that have been placed or dropped there.
Thistle or Nyjer seeds are particular favorites of indigo buntings. They also enjoy eating safflower seeds and hulled sunflower seeds.
Nyjer seeds are an excellent source of energy for birds. This is especially useful when they are feeding during winter months. Sunflower seeds are also highly nutritious. They are packed with protein and rich in vitamins and minerals.
Indigo Bunting eating seeds from a backyard bird feeder
Indigo buntings drink very little. They get most of the liquid they need to remain healthy from the food they eat. However, they do appreciate a convenient source of water on the few occasions when they do need to drink.
A water source, like a small pond, or even a birdbath, also allows these birds to bathe. This is important for feather maintenance as it removes dirt making it easier for birds to preen and spread oils across their feathers helping them to remain waterproof.
Indigo buntings can be shy about entering yards, especially during breeding season when their habitat is more likely to be grass and weed fields. So, it can be difficult to attract them. However, creating a space that mimics their favorite habitat can help. This includes providing cover from shrubs and planting favorite plants such as blackberries, blueberries, and elderberries.
These plants bear fruits and berries that are very tasty to indigo buntings. They also attract beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, and aphids that these little birds also love to eat.
A male indigo bunting perched on a bird feeder in the rain
Indigo buntings do not spend a lot of time in yards, but they can be attracted on occasion, especially during migration. When they do come into a yard, these birds are more often attracted to seeds that have fallen on the ground than they are to bird feeders.
One way of tempting indigo buntings to visit a feeder is to provide their favorite foods such as proso millet, hulled sunflower seeds, and Nyjer seeds. Feeders that are encased in a cage are also often favored by these birds as they help to keep pesky squirrels at bay.
Indigo Bunting standing on a branch
Safflower seeds are a nutritious addition to the diet of indigo buntings. They promote health as they are packed with fat, fiber, and protein.
They may only be small birds, but these buntings are quite capable of chipping away at safflower seeds and they will happily do so.
Sunflower seeds are a potent source of nutrients for indigo buntings. Like many other birds, these buntings prefer to eat hulled sunflower seeds. They are the same seeds as the familiar striped or black oil seeds but have had the inedible shell removed.
Hulled sunflower seeds are a superior source of protein, fat, fiber, and vitamins making them a valuable addition to the diet of indigo buntings.
Insects are an essential part of the indigo bunting’s diet, especially during the breeding season. So, they also often appreciate the addition of suet to their daily menu.
Soft suet nuggets are especially attractive to these little birds. They also love to eat other dietary additions such as mealworms.
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