Passerina cyanea

Status:  Common regular spring and fall migrant east and east-central, uncommon west-central, rare west. Common regular breeder east and east-central, rare west-central and west.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM7099, 15 Aug 1899 Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy:  No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

This species hybridizes with Lazuli Bunting; Short (1961) indicated that Indigo and Lazuli Buntings throughout Nebraska show evidence of hybridization. See Lazuli Bunting for a discussion.

Changes Since 2000: The increasing number of reports in the Panhandle, especially in Scotts Bluff Co, suggests continuing westward movement of the range of this species; as pointed out by Carling and Zuckerberg (2011), the hybrid zone between this species and Lazuli Bunting is shifting westward also.

Spring:  Apr 23,24,25 <<<>>> summer

Migrants arrive in late Apr, although there are earlier reports 13 Apr 2001 in Otoe Co, 17 Apr 2016 Cass Co, 19 Apr 2012 Nemaha Co, 16-19 Apr 2009 one photographed at an Ogallala, Keith Co feeder, and 21 Apr 2013 at Nebraska City, Otoe Co.

  • High counts:  45 in Otoe Co 16 May 2003, 40 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 10 May 2019, 35 there 3 May 2012, and 35 there 21 May 2017.

Summer: Around 1900, this species apparently bred only in the east, westward to the Grand Island, Hall Co area (Bruner et al 1904). As recently as 1958 this was still the case (Rapp et al 1958), although a specimen, UNSM ZM10413, an apparent phenotypically pure male, was taken at Glen, on the White River in Sioux Co, as long ago as 18 Jul 1910. This record, and the statement by Bruner et al (1904) that Indigo Bunting was present in the Niobrara Valley Preserve in 1900 suggests a corridor for birds to move west; Indigo Bunting has indeed spread westward since the 1950s along major river valleys, most notably those of the Niobrara and Platte; it is these two areas where contact with Lazuli Bunting has resulted in the most obvious hybridization (Short 1961).

Highest breeding densities are in the Missouri River Valley; the four BBS routes with highest numbers are in counties adjacent to the Missouri River. Away from the Missouri River Valley, Indigo Bunting is most numerous in the Niobrara River Valley.  In one estimate, it outnumbered Lazuli Bunting by 40:1 as far west as eastern Cherry Co (Mossman and Brogie 1983). It apparently occurs in small numbers in the Niobrara River Valley further west (Rosche 1982), although in the late 1950s it was not found west of Valentine in Cherry Co (Short 1961) and there are no recent records between the Valentine area and the Pine Ridge.

According to Johnsgard (1980), Indigo Buntings breed throughout the Platte and South Platte River Valleys to Colorado; Indigo Buntings are common south of the Platte River Valley. Breeding west of Keith Co along the North Platte River Valley is limited; most males in the Keith Co area are hybrids with white abdomens (Rosche 1994; Johnsgard 1990), although Brown et al (1996) recorded only four birds with hybrid characteristics among 28 Indigo Buntings netted at Lake Ogallala.  Rosche (1994) noted that Indigo Bunting had increased as a breeding species in the Keith-Garden Cos area around Lake McConaughy during the 1980s; it is possible that the incidence of hybrids in Keith Co has been reduced as numbers of Indigo Bunting have increased and the hybrid zone has shifted westward (Carling and Zuckerberg 2011). There are recent reports from Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co, although none later than 9 Jun, suggesting that only migrants have occurred there.

There are several reports from the Scotts Bluff Co area, beginning in 1981; recent reports suggest nesting (or at least hybridization) occurs in the Wildcat Hills and Scotts Bluff NM areas. Wildcat Hills reports are of seven on 12 Jun 2014 in Carter Canyon as well as reports 17 Jun 2016, 26 Jun 2016, and 28 Jul 2013, and from the Scotts Bluff NM area 7 Jun 2016, 28 Jun 2013, four on 2 Jul 2014, and 27 Jul 2013. One was in Scottsbluff itself 18 Jun 2017. These reports suggest that “pure” Indigo Buntings may be moving westward in the North Platte River Valley.

In the northwest, Rosche (1982) noted that it occurs in about the same numbers as Lazuli Bunting on the Pine Ridge, being most common in the Chadron, Dawes Co section of the White River drainage.  Rosche (1982) “strongly suspects” however that there are “few, if any, pure Indigo Buntings present during the nesting season,”; most territorial males show some white on the abdomen.

  • Breeding phenology:
    Nest building: 16 May-18 Jun
    Nestlings: 18 Jun-15 Jul
    Fledglings: 2 Aug-7 Sep

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Oct 12,13,13

Later reports from the Missouri River Valley are mostly from Dixon Co:  8 Oct 2010 female and juvenile, 10 Oct 2005, 16 Oct 2012 immature male, and, amazingly, an immature which remained at a feeder 19 Dec 1998-2 Jan 1999; NOURC concluded that other Passerina buntings could not be eliminated from consideration in the latter report, however (Jorgensen 2001). The only other late Missouri River Valley date is 22 Oct 1984 Douglas-Sarpy Cos.

Away from the Missouri River Valley late dates include: 23 Sep 1909 Lancaster Co (specimen UNSM ZM10655), 25 Sep Dawes Co (Rosche 1982), 27 Sep 2015 one banded at Chadron SP, Dawes Co, 30 Sep 2001 immature male NNF Bessey, Thomas Co, 2 Oct 1992 Dawes Co, 5 Oct 2014 Jefferson Co, 6 Oct 2014 Antelope Co, 7 Oct 2005 Gage Co, 9 Oct 2005 Furnas Co, and 28 Oct 1976 Howard Co.

  • High counts:  11 at Wagon Train RA, Lancaster Co 11 Aug 2018, 10 at N. P. Dodge Park, Douglas Co 8 Sep 2007, and 9 at N.P. Dodge Park 14 Aug 2017, and 7 at Summit Lake SRA, Burt Co, 10 Sep 2000.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NM: National Monument
NOURC: Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
RA: Recreation Area
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of an Indigo Bunting at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 8 May 2016 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

Brown, C.R., M.B. Brown, P.A. Johnsgard, J. Kren, and W.C. Scharf. 1996. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station area, Keith and Garden Counties, Nebraska: Seasonal occurrence and breeding data. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 23: 91-108.

Bruner, L., R.H. Wolcott, and M.H. Swenk. 1904. A preliminary review of the birds of Nebraska, with synopses. Klopp and Bartlett, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Carling, M.D., and B. Zuckerberg. 2011. Spatio-temporal changes in the genetic structure of the Passerina bunting hybrid zone. Molecular Ecology 20: 1166-1175.

Johnsgard, P. A. 1980. A preliminary list of the birds of Nebraska and adjacent Great Plains states. Published by the author, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1990. Additional observations of the birds of the Lake McConaughy region. NBR 58: 52-54.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2001. 1999 (Eleventh) Report of the NOU Records Committee. NBR 69: 85-91.

Mossman, M.J., and M.A. Brogie. 1983. Breeding status of selected bird species on the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska. NBR 51: 52-62.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Short, L.L., Jr. 1961. Notes on bird distribution in the central Plains. NBR 29: 2-22.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2018.  Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online