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Painted Bunting Life History


Habitat ScrubPainted 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. Back to top


Food SeedsPainted 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

Nest ShrubBoth 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.

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.

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.
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Behavior Ground ForagerMales 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.Back to top


Conservation Low ConcernPainted Buntings are still fairly common, but populations have been dropping for several decades. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimated a decline of 62% between 1966 and 1995, but the 1966-2014 survey does not find significant decreases, suggesting that populations may have stabilized, or at least the decline has slowed, since 1995. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 13 million, with 80% spending at least part of the year in the U.S., and 51% in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Painted Bunting is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Eastern populations suffer 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 western Painted Bunting populations. In addition to facing habitat destruction, Painted Buntings are popular cage birds and are often trapped on their wintering grounds and sold illegally.Back to top

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.

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Lowther, Peter E., Scott M. Lanyon and Christopher W. Thompson. (2015). Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2014). The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (2014b). Available from

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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