For the Birds Radio Program: Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting In 2006, Birders World magazine surveyed readers to find out which birds birdwatchers most want to see. The top one was a species that may be extinct, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In second place was a beautiful and reasonably common bird, the Painted Bunting. This lovely creature is nicknamed the nonpareil, and both of the two dictionary definitions of the French term are appropriate—this brilliantly colored bird is of unparalleled excellence, and is as brilliant as the colorful sugary sprinkles on donuts. I got to see several visiting the feeders at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge when I was in Florida at the Space Coast Birding Festival this winter, and the vivid colors took my breath away. Painted Buntings have two populations, one breeding in Florida and the coastal Southeast, and the other breeding in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The two populations have different migration and molting patterns. Painted Bunting males are highly territorial and aggressive toward each other and even toward larger species during the breeding season. Their fights include pecking, beating with wings, and grappling, sometimes resulting in death. But outside the breeding season they spend their time in flocks. This winter, as many as three males and four females come into the feeders at Merritt Island together. They’re skittish—anything that so boldly attracts the eye also attracts predators—but I managed to snap a few photos. Painted Buntings are fairly monogamous, though there is some breeding with individuals that aren’t the social mate. The female incubates and feeds the nestlings. Pairs often stay together to raise a second clutch—the male feeds the first brood after they fledge while the female incubates a second clutch of eggs. When each batch of young is independent, they join flocks and will remain together until they’re old enough to breed. The first Painted Bunting I ever saw was a gorgeous male singing his heart out at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. That was back in 1976, before I was taking bird photos, but even if I’d had a camera and experience, I’d not have been able to snap a shot—this bird stayed hidden in thick branches, only affording momentary glimpses as it flitted through tiny openings. Fortunately, I didn’t need a photo to keep the bird’s beautiful image permanently etched in my mind’s eye. Oddly enough, I saw my second Painted Bunting in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, in the 1980s when a hotline vagrant turned up at a feeding station. I waited a couple of hours for the bird to make a brief appearance and then had to head home. By far the best place I’ve seen them—where Painted Buntings are not vagrants, and not even just common but abundant—was in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. The huge number of Painted Buntings breeding in the refuge is amazing. Cowbirds are trapped out of the refuge in order to protect the endangered Black-capped Vireos, and the lack of nest parasites apparently benefits these nonpareils as well. Painted Buntings are not endangered or threatened, but they are declining significantly thanks to habitat destruction in both the United States and the countries where they winter, and also thanks to the caged bird trade in Central America. Finding ways to protect them will ensure that even if birders never see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, they’ll have an easy time in a big chunk of the southern United States to see this brilliant, unmatched little songbird.