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Varied Bunting Life History



Varied Buntings nest in arid thorn forests in canyons, arroyos, stream corridors, and desert washes, and in the hillsides above such areas, from lowlands like the Rio Grande Valley (near sea level) to 4,000 feet elevation. They occasionally forage in more open desert but normally do not leave dense cover, such as mesquite. Across the U.S. part of the range the most common plants are graythorn, hopbush, netleaf hackberry, desert hackberry, Texas persimmon, turpentine bush, desert honeysuckle, and species of acacia, mesquite, willow, oak, juniper, seepwillow, cholla, and prickly pear. Overgrown, scrubby clearings also attract Varied Buntings. They avoid urban and suburban environments and generally do not visit bird feeders.

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Varied Buntings eat insects, seeds, seed pods, and cactus fruit, which they take while perched in vegetation or on the ground. They often forage in pairs (in winter sometimes in small flocks), moving through low vegetation and twitching the wings and tail, presumably to flush insect prey. When an insect flies, they sometimes capture it in flight, and in some cases, they hover-glean insects from vegetation as well. They also probe with the bill in bark crevices for insects and larvae. When they capture prey, they often soften it before swallowing by striking it on a hard surface such as a branch or rock. Prey items include the adults and larvae of butterflies and moths, grasshoppers, ant lions, flying ants, termites, and beetles. They also eat seeds of bristle grass, green sprangletop, fairy duster, and Schott’s yellowhood, and seeds or fruit of organ pipe cactus, saguaro, and prickly pear.

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Nest Placement


The female selects the nest site while investigating the territory with the male. The nest is usually about 3 feet off the ground on an outer branch of a thorny shrub or small tree.

Nest Description

In Arizona, the female builds a cup-shaped nest of grasses and wildflowers, lined with grass and hair. Nests average about 3 inches across and 2.5 inches tall, with interior cup about 2 inches across and 1.6 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Egg Description:

Pale blue or green, with variable amount of speckling and spotting.

Condition at Hatching:

Helpless with sparse down.

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Ground Forager

Male Varied Buntings usually begin singing to claim territory as soon as they return in spring, but in some years, nesting begins only with the onset of summer rains. Females and young males arrive later in the spring than adult males. Territories range in size from about 9 acres to 36 acres; males often return to territories they used the previous year. Varied Buntings appear to be monogamous in their mating system, and male and female remain close to each other for the breeding season. Males sing from both exposed and concealed perches to mark territory. Once mated, they defend females against rivals, usually chasing them in flight but sometimes making a threat display in fluttering flight. Adult males often tolerate first-year males singing in their territory, at least after the female has laid eggs, but do not permit any other males near the female. When foraging early in the nesting season, females follow males. Once nest-building begins, males start to follow females. Females select the nest site and build the nest; male and female share incubation and chick-rearing duties. Once young have fledged, the birds may forage in small groups before migrating to Mexico in late July or August. Small flocks of wintering birds sometimes accompany other seedeating species, and on rare occasions, flocks of over 200 Varied Buntings have been recorded.

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Restricted Range

Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, rates the species a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and includes it on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges. A 2016 Partners in Flight report estimated 70,000 Varied Buntings breed in the United States. With development of the Rio Grande Valley, this once common species has become very scarce there, limited to undeveloped patches of land and wildlife refuges. Further development of its habitat for agriculture, mining, residences, and other human uses may pose a threat. In Mexico, large numbers of Varied Buntings (especially adult males) are captured for sale in the caged bird trade, along with many other buntings, grosbeaks, and colorful songbirds.

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Groschupf, Kathleen D. and Christopher W. Thompson. (1998). Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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

Rosenberg, K. V., J. A. Kennedy, R. Dettmers, R. P. Ford, D. Reynolds, J. D. Alexander, C. J. Beardmore, P. J. Blancher, R. E. Bogart, G. S. Butcher, A. F. Camfield, A. Couturier, D. W. Demarest, W. E. Easton, J. J. Giocomo, R. H. Keller, A. E. Mini, A. O. Panjabi, D. N. Pashley, T. D. Rich, J. M. Ruth, H. Stabins, J. Stanton, and T. Will (2016). Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

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

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