I will never forget my first encounter with a painted bunting. George, my good friend and fellow birder, was visiting us in Wilmington, North Carolina, in June, 1977. As we headed down to Cape Fear for a morning of birding, George spotted a male painted bunting in roadside shrubbery and nearly rolled his aging Valiant in an effort to stop. Since then, I saw these colorful birds on a regular basis during my years in Arkansas and have more recently encountered them in the glade country of southwest Missouri; indeed, painted buntings favor woodland clearings with scattered shrubs and thickets.
Painted buntings occur in two separate breeding populations; one summers along the Coastal Plain from the Carolinas to northern Florida while the second inhabits the south-central U.S., from southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The male, easily the most striking bird in the U.S., is identified by his blue head, red abdomen and patches of green and yellow on his back and sides; the female, while less varied, is also colorful, with a bright olive back and yellow-green chest and abdomen. Highly territorial during the breeding season, the male defends his area from a perch and may breed with two females; fights between males are unusually aggressive for songbirds and may end in death. The deep, cup-shaped nest is placed in low vegetation and 1-5 eggs are laid; unfortunately, painted bunting nests are often parasitized by cowbirds, adding to the pressure of habitat loss in the Southeast. A diet of insects and spiders is consumed during the breeding season, fortified with seeds during migrations and on their wintering grounds.
While the Southeastern painted buntings winter in South Florida and the Caribbean, those that breed in the south-central U.S. winter in southern Mexico and Central America. This latter population, like waterfowl but unlike most songbirds, uses migration staging areas (in southern Arizona and northern Mexico) where they molt before continuing on to their wintering sites. As mentioned above, painted buntings are threatened by cowbird parasitism and by habitat loss (especially in the Southeastern U.S.); their colorful plumage is also a liability and a significant number are captured on their wintering grounds for sale in the caged-bird market.