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Male Painted Buntings are the most spectacularly colored of all North American songbirds, with a gaudy combination of red, blue, and green feathers. This species has two distinct breeding populations in North America, but overall, it has shown a significant decline across its entire range during the past 35 years. The exact causes for Painted Bunting's decline are not known, but they are believed to include habitat loss, cowbird parasitism, and trapping for the pet trade on its wintering grounds.
An adult male Painted Bunting is arguably the most distinctive songbird in North America, with the combination of a deep blue head, red underparts, a green back, and a red rump. While not as brightly colored as males, female Painted Buntings are also distinctive. The female has an overall greenish plumage which is more darkly colored above than below.
Painted Bunting has two distinct breeding populations: one found along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina south to central Florida; and another that stretches across much of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, southward into northern Mexico. The Audubon Important Bird Area (IBA) Program has identified a number of sites that provide breeding habitat for Painted Bunting, including North Carolina's Bald Head/Smith Island IBA, which supports 35-40 breeding pairs, and Florida's Fort George and Talbot Islands IBA, where 78 singing males were detected and over 100 birds were banded in 2000. The eastern population of Painted Bunting winters in southern Florida and probably in the northwestern Caribbean, while the western population winters in southern Mexico and Central America. Breeding Bird Survey data from 1966 to 2000 show a significant decline of 2.7% annually for Painted Bunting across its North American breeding range.
Painted Bunting favors somewhat open areas with dense brush at all seasons. Its diet consists mostly of seeds and insects, with insects predominating during the breeding season. These birds forage mostly on the ground or in low brush. Males defend territory by singing from a high perch, often hidden among the uppermost foliage of a tree. Males, who may have more than one mate, will actually fight to hold territories; these fights are sometimes bloody and even fatal. The nest is an open, woven cup of grass, leaves, roots, and animal hair. Painted Bunting often associates with Indigo Buntings in migratory flocks, and sometimes interbreeds with that closely-related species.
The two, separate breeding populations of Painted Bunting differ in their patterns of migration and molt. The western group migrates to northwestern Mexico in late summer. There birds molt into their winter plumage before migrating south in the fall to wintering grounds in southern Mexico. The eastern group migrates directly to the wintering grounds before molting. The molt-migration pattern of the western group is very unusual among songbirds. It requires a stopover molting area which has a mild climate and plenty of food.
Although the exact cause of Painted Bunting's decline is not known, it is most likely the result of loss of habitat. The eastern population, with its very limited coastal range, is especially susceptible to habitat degradation and destruction. The western population also faces the threat of habitat loss, especially on its molting grounds in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Another threat to the eastern population of Painted Bunting is cowbird parasitism, to which they are particularly vulnerable. Brown-headed Cowbirds have only recently reached the southeastern range of the Painted Bunting. In this area, where the buntings have no adaptations to recognize or respond to the cowbirds, parasitism rates are as high as 80%. In the 1990s, Shiny Cowbirds began expanding their range from South America and the Caribbean into the southeastern United States. So far, there are no records of this species parasitizing Painted Buntings, but it may just be a matter of time. Finally, because of their spectacular appearance, male Painted Buntings are popular as cage birds and in Mexico thousands are taken annually for export to bird dealers in Europe.
In November 2001, Audubon formally requested that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) assess the status of the Painted Bunting together with the Mexican Government and incorporate the protection of this species into the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Audubon also urged the USFWS to recommend to Mexico that the Painted Bunting be removed from local trade.
Painted Bunting is identified as an extremely high priority species in Partners in Flight's Bird Conservation Plan for the South Atlantic Coastal Plain. One of the objectives of the plan is to stabilize or reverse population declines for Painted Bunting in the next 20 years. In particular, the plan emphasizes the importance of a stable bunting population on sea islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In addition, the plan calls for the protection of 100% of the remaining maritime woodland communities in the planning area, along with restoration of maritime shrub-scrub (which is preferred by Painted Bunting) where possible. Painted Bunting is also identified as a high priority species in Partners in Flight's Bird Conservation Plan for the Osage Plains.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Painted Bunting as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of wintering populations of Painted Bunting and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Painted Bunting. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
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Elphick, C., J.B. Dunning, Jr. and D.A. Sibley. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Knopf, New York.
Farrand, John, Jr., ed. 1983. The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding. Knopf, New York
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Lowther, P.E. S. M. Lanyon, and C. W. Thompson. 1999. Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). In The Birds of North America, No. 398 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc. Philadelphia, PA.