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Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CARDINALIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

With their vivid fusion of blue, green, yellow, and red, male Painted Buntings seem to have flown straight out of a child’s coloring book. Females and immatures are a distinctive bright green with a pale eyering. These fairly common finches breed in the coastal Southeast and in the south-central U.S., where they often come to feeders. They are often caught and sold illegally as cage birds, particularly in Mexico and the Caribbean, a practice that puts pressure on their breeding populations.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.1 in
12–13 cm
Weight
0.5–0.7 oz
13–19 g
Relative Size
Larger than an American Goldfinch; smaller than an Eastern Bluebird.
Other Names
  • Passerin nonpareil, Bruant nonpareil (French)
  • Colorín sietecolores, Gorrión cabeziazul (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The western population of Painted Buntings begins its fall migration before molting, molts in staging areas in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, then continues to migrate further south. This migration-molt pattern is common among waterfowl but very rare among songbirds. In contrast to the western population, the eastern population of Painted Buntings molts on its breeding grounds before migration.
  • Unfortunately, it’s easy to trap colorful male Painted Buntings by tricking them into attacking decoys. In 1841 John James Audubon reported that “thousands” of the colorful birds were caught every spring and shipped from New Orleans to Europe, where they fetched more than 100 times the price when sold as cage birds. They are still trapped and sold in large numbers in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and to a lesser extent in Florida, despite efforts by conservationists to curb illegal trade.
  • The French name of the Painted Bunting, nonpareil, means “without equal,” a reference to the bird’s dazzling plumage.
  • The oldest Painted Bunting on record was at least 11 years and 10 months old when it was caught and released by a Texas bird bander in 2011.

Habitat


Scrub

Painted Buntings breed in semi-open habitats with scattered shrubs or trees. Birds from the south-central U.S. breeding population use abandoned farms, strips of woodland between overgrown fields, brushy roadsides or streamsides, and patches of grasses, weeds, and wildflowers. Individuals of the coastal Southeast population breed in scrub communities, wooded back dunes, palmetto thickets, edges of maritime hammocks, hedges, yards, fallow fields, and old citrus groves. The two breeding populations also have separate wintering grounds, though both gravitate toward high grass, shrubby overgrown pasture, and thickets. Eastern breeders winter in shrubby or grassy habitats in Florida and the northern Caribbean. Birds from the south-central U.S. winter in similar habitats in southern Mexico and Central America.

Food


Seeds

Painted Buntings eat seeds for most of the year, switching to mostly insects in the breeding season. They forage on the ground for seeds of bristle grass, pigweed, wood sorrel, spurge, panic grass, St. John’s wort, sedge, dock, pine, rose, wheat, or fig. They may fly up to grab a plant stem and drag it to the ground, holding it in place with one foot while eating the seeds. During the breeding season they catch grasshoppers, weevils and other beetles, caterpillars, bugs, spiders, snails, wasps, and flies. In addition to ground foraging, in the breeding season they also forage in marshes and in trees, sometimes over 30 feet off the ground. The buntings may pull invertebrates from spiderwebs, or even dive straight through a web to steal a spider’s prey.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.8–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
11–12 days
Nestling Period
9 days
Egg Description
Grayish or pale bluish white, with fine speckles of brown and gray.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and nearly naked, with some light down, weighing less than a tenth of an ounce.
Nest Description

In as little as 2 days, the female builds a well-constructed nest that is firmly attached to a supporting plant. Forming an inner cup 2 inches wide and 1.5 inches deep, she weaves together some combination of weed stems, leaf skeletons, bark strips, twigs, rootlets, grasses, and sometimes tissue paper or rag scraps. She binds the materials with cobwebs and sometimes lines the nest with horsehair.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Both members of a pair search through dense foliage for nest sites. They usually choose a spot 3–6 feet off the ground—sometimes as high as 50 feet when there is no low vegetation—with nearby perches and open feeding grounds. Common nest plants include Spanish moss, mulberry, mesquite, elm, Osage-orange, greenbrier, oak, myrtle, and pine.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Males vigorously defend territories of about 3 acres, fighting other males by pecking, grappling, and striking each other with their wings. Their fights end with lost feathers, wounds, eye damage, and sometimes death. A male may also dive at and hit a flying female, driving her to the ground and pulling at her feathers. When courting, however, the male goes to great lengths to ingratiate himself with his prospective mate. Among other displays, he spreads his feathers like a miniature male turkey, while the female pecks at the ground. The species is mostly monogamous, but occasionally two females will nest on one male’s territory. Though severely territorial during the breeding season, Painted Buntings may form small flocks on the wintering grounds, often joining other seed-eating species.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

Painted Buntings are still fairly common, but their populations have been dropping for several decades. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimated an average decline of 3.2 percent per year between 1966 and 1995—suggesting the population declined by 62 percent in that time. They are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, and on the Partners in Flight Watch List as a species of concern. The eastern population is suffering from habitat loss and degradation as humans destroy swampy thickets and woodland edges for urban development. Other important sites for conservation include molt staging habitats in Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Loss of riverside thickets in those areas may be hurting the western Painted Bunting population. In addition to facing habitat destruction, Painted Buntings are popular cage birds and are often trapped on their wintering grounds and sold illegally.

Credits

Range Map Help

Painted Bunting Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short- to medium-distance migrant. Western populations migrate to staging areas in Arizona and northwestern Mexico, where they molt before continuing to Central America—an unusual phenomenon for a songbird. Eastern populations molt on the breeding grounds and migrate to southern Florida and some Caribbean islands. Painted Buntings migrate at night.

Backyard Tips

Painted Buntings eat seeds, particularly after the breeding season is over, starting in midsummer. They’re more likely to visit a bird feeder in a yard with low, dense vegetation.

Find This Bird

In migration and winter, search for Painted Buntings by targeting sources of seeds such as weedy fields or bird feeders. In the summer, cruise through secondary growth or edge habitats with dense understory and listen for the species’ metallic chip call or the sweet, rambling song of a male. Painted Buntings spend a lot of time hidden in dense habitat so patience might be necessary; however, the wait will be worth it when you finally spot this gem, surely one of North America’s finest songbirds.

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