How to attract indigo buntings to your backyard

Attracting Indigo Buntings and other insect-eating birds can be difficult

Indigo Buntings have always been one of my favourite birds, but attracting them to our backyards is not always easy.

I am lucky enough to have indigo buntings coming to our feeder several times a day. And, they are going to one very specific feeder that I have made sure to keep filled with its favourite foods.

Attract Indigo Buntings with natural food such as insects

These birds of the open woodlands will come to specific seeds in your feeder, especially during migration, but they are among the many birds we may see in our backyards that largely depend on insects, spiders, grasshoppers, aphids, beetles, cicadas and caterpillars as their main source of food during the spring and summer months.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

So, how do we attract Indigo Buntings and other insect-eating birds, including blue birds, wrens and warblers to our yards and keep them coming back, or, better yet, convince them to call our yard their home?

A male Indigo Bunting sits among the flowers of a crabapple in spring.

To successfully attract Indigo Buntings and other primarily insect-eating birds to our yards depends on a multi-faceted approach that begins with providing them with the food they prefer at our feeders – primarily small seeds such as thistle or nyjer, and white proso millet. Sunflower chips – the type available in no-mess blends – can also attract these beautiful birds. A high quality finch mix which includes many of these favourite seeds and, of course, live or dried meal worms will keep them interested in what our feeders are providing.

Use white proso millet and bark butter to attract Indigo Buntings

In addition, I have had success with Wild Birds Unlimited soft suet nuggets known as “Bark Butter Bits” in attracting Indigo Buntings and other insect eaters.

I have found that white proso millet mixed with dried meal worms keeps indigo buntings coming back day after day.

Indigo Buntings are among the most shy birds in my garden. Even the slightest movement from a distance can send them flying off into the nearby cover of our large crabapple trees. Providing several feeding stations or, even better, a caged feeder helps to give them a better sense of security in the commotion that so often surrounds a large feeding station.

Once the feeder foods are in place, ensure there is an abundance of water in the yard and try to provide it in many different forms – from on-ground sources, to hanging bird baths in trees and other quiet areas of the garden, as well as traditional bird baths. (See my earlier story on providing water sources here.)

Once these two key ingredients (food and water) are in place, we need to focus on providing the birds with their natural food sources which includes an abundance of insects as well as berries.

Berries as a key food source: Plant blueberries and serviceberries

Indigo Buntings are drawn to many types of berries including blueberries, strawberries, serviceberries blackberries and elderberries, just to name a few. Many of these fruits could be purchased from local grocery stores and provided at feeders, but why not start now to ensure at least some of these berries are being provided naturally in our gardens?

By planting a few of these berry producers and leaving an area of your garden to go wild with wild strawberry, raspberries etc you will provide perfect habitat for a host of birds that like to dine on berries. Indigo buntings will often forage in these wild areas for seeds, bugs and berries. They can be seen flitting about through the grasses or in shrubs.

In spring, they will often even eat the buds of their favourite trees and shrubs. There is no questions that these “wild” areas provide excellent habitat for a host of insects and keep the birds returning to that corner of your yard.

These berry producers, especially serviceberries, are excellent additions to your woodland/wildlife garden. (See my earlier post on serviceberries here.)

Blueberry plants are also an easy introduction to the garden. You can grow them in containers where you can more easily control the PH levels. (Blueberries like a slightly acid soil) I have two blueberries growing in a large container and another Proven Winners’ hybrid plant that I planted this year in a raised container.

Chances are you will have to work hard to get any for yourself once the birds and garden critters have had their fill, but that’s okay. If you can’t bear the idea of giving up all your favourite fruit to the birds, cover them with a cloche to save some for yourself and offer the remainder to the birds. The critters got all the berries last year. This year, I am determined to get at least a few for myself.

Okay, so we have the feeders set up, an abundance and variety of water sources and berry producing trees and shrubs planted in the garden.

That’s an excellent start and one where many gardeners will be satisfied, but not us. Woodland/wildlife gardeners who really want to attract Indigo Buntings and other insect-eating birds to their backyards will want to take the extra steps to not only attract the birds but the insects and caterpillars that will really bring these birds to our gardens.

Immature Indigo Bunting showing its lack of complete colouring.

Immature Indigo Bunting showing its lack of complete colouring.

Insects: Provide the key ingredient to success

Now let’s talk about those insects that Indigo Buntings are so dependent on for their survival.

It goes without saying that the use of indiscriminate insecticides is not going to result in success. In fact, every effort should be made to create a pesticide-free habitat for the wildlife in your yard.

It never hurts to put up a sign in your front garden advertising that your property is a pesticide-free zone. Unfortunately, we cannot control what our neighbours do but, let’s hope they will follow our lead and reduce or eliminate the insecticides they choose to use on their properties.

Eliminating pesticides is an excellent start, but if you live in a typical suburban lot you may need to take extra steps to make your property insect-friendly.

Here are a few suggestions to increase the number of insects on your property with links to earlier posts on Ferns & Feathers.

Plant an Oak tree: If at all possible, look for an area in your yard where you can plant an oak tree. Studies show that oak trees support the greatest number of insects and caterpillars of all the trees in the forest. Without going into great detail, there is no better tree in the landscape to support a healthy insect and population. In fact, Doug Tallamy in his book Bringing Nature Home states that a “single white oak tree can provide food and shelter for as many as 22 species of tiny leaf-tying and leaf folding caterpillars.”

Go here to read my posts on oak trees.

What tree should I plant in my yard.

Columnar oak is perfect for small yards.

And that is just a tiny fraction of the fauna that depend on a single oak tree. In fact, the mighty oak supports 534 species of fauna, more than any other tree we can plant in our gardens. (See my earlier post here on the importance of oak trees in our landscapes.)

Create a brushpile: Pick a corner of the yard and begin adding sticks, branches and other woody cuttings from the garden to the pile. Maybe some old grasses or last year’s leaves could also find a home in the corner. You are not looking to make a compost pile (although an active compost pile is good too), you are mostly just making a place where insects can gather preferably out of the hot sun. Over time the branches will break down and create good habitat for insects and other small fauna. We have two such areas: one is a massive pile in one corner of the yard that gets added to every year. Some might describe it as an open compost pile but I never turn it, have not removed any “compost” and top it with only garden material from branches to cut grasses, leaves and old container plantings in the fall. The other is the result of pruning two large trees, where I asked the tree company to just leave the branches on the ground. This is an open brush pile and favourite playground for the chipmunks and red squirrels in our yard.

For my earlier post on building a brushpile go here.

Leave some fruit to rot: This is a great way to attract fruit flies. I use a shallow hanging bird bath which is a perfect place to put pieces of apple, watermelon, oranges for the Orioles, bananas etc. These attract all kinds of insects as well as butterflies etc. The fruits get moved to the open compost area once they begin to over ripen.

Leave your leaves in the fall: This is the singularly most important step you can take to encourage an abundance of insect life in your woodland garden. It is vital for insectivorous birds during the extremes in winter when food is scarce and in spring, when migrating birds are returning craving good sources of protein. Despite living in an area surrounded by forested Conservation lands, most of my neighbours are obsessive about picking up every last leaf on their grass and in their yards. Bags and bags of leaves are put out every fall through spring to ensure not a single leaf remains on their properties. It reminds me of how important leaving the leaves on the ground is when I look out the window in late fall, winter or early spring and see a host of birds, rummaging through the leaves looking for insects and larvae winter, spring, summer and fall. (See earlier article here.)

Mud puddles or shallow spots: Many insects, including butterflies can be drawn to shallow mud puddles where they drink and obtain much-needed minerals from the soil.

Backgrounder on the Indigo Bunting

These migratory birds (genus passerina cyanea) spend the winter primarily throughout Central America but breed throughout the eastern United States up into southern Ontario around the Great Lakes and southern parts of Quebec west to Manitoba. An interesting fact about these birds is that they migrate at night, using stars as their guiding lights.

They can often be spotted on the edge of woodlands and along rural roadways where they like to perch on telephone lines and tall trees and share their song for hours on end.

The indigo-blue males, with their striking blue heads that softens to a more cerulean colour on the body, pronounce their presence with joyful songs through the late spring and summer.

It may come as a surprise, since it is their striking colour that sets them apart in the bird world, that their jewel-like colour does not actually come from blue pigment in their feathers, but, instead, from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and actually reflect blue light.

The males sport short conical bills that are dark on the top and a silvery-gray on the bottom.

Females, not unlike many other bird species such as cardinals and orioles, are much more subdued in colour with shades of brown and beige with hints of blue on her wings or rump.

Indigo Buntings like to nest in shrubby areas rather than high in the treetops. this is another good reason to leave some unkept shrubby areas in a corner of your garden.

Who knows, you may be able to convince a couple to nest in your yard where you can enjoy them all summer, up close and personal.

The perfect opportunity to photograph the family as they grow and prepare for their epic migration to lands far, far away.

Good luck and let me know if you have any success attracting Indigo Buntings this season.

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Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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