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One of the most brilliantly colored songbirds of North America, the male painted bunting has a blue head and nape, bronze-green back, red rump and underparts, and narrow red eye ring. The female is a uniform bright yellow-green overall, with a white eye ring. The feet and legs, eyes, and bill of both sexes are dark in color. Plumage of juvenile birds resembles that of the adult female. The males differentiate from the females during their second year, when they begin to exhibit the blue feathers on their head.
Painted buntings average 5-1/2 inches in length and 1/2 ounce in weight.
Distribution and Habitat
There are two distinct populations of painted buntings. The western population ranges from Kansas south to Louisiana and Texas. The eastern population is limited to the coastal regions of North Carolina south to northern Florida. The western population winters primarily in Mexico and as far south as Panama. The eastern populations winter in southern Florida, including the Florida Keys, and occasionally in the Bahamas and Cuba.
The western population's breeding habitat consists of partially open areas scattered with brush, riparian thickets and shrubbery, while the eastern population's breeding habitat consists of scrub communities and the margins of maritime hammocks. Wintering habitat is similar for both the western and eastern populations, consisting of tropical forest margins and tropical savanna.
Foraging habitat is the same as either their breeding or wintering habitat. During migration foraging can occur in mixed flocks with indigo buntings.
The breeding season begins in late April and runs to early August, peaking mid-May through mid-July. Males usually arrive at the breeding territory one week before the females. Pairs are usually monogamous, but occasionally two females will nest on one male's territory.
Both members of a pair search through dense foliage for nest sites. They usually choose a spot 3 to 6 feet off the ground, sometimes as high as 50 feet when there is no low vegetation with nearby perches and open feeding grounds. The nests are built by the females and woven into the surrounding vegetation for strength. 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.
The females raise two broods per season, laying 3 or 4 eggs per brood. The eggs are incubated for a period of 11 days. Parental care of the young is solely the female's responsibility until fledging occurs 12-14 days later. Time between fledging in the first nest to the second nest is around 30 days.
Painted buntings live about 10 years in the wild.
Painted buntings feed primarily on grass seeds when in their wintering habitat and arthropods, caterpillars, spiders, and snails in their breeding habitat. The majority of food is foraged from the ground, with some seeds being taken directly from the grass stalk. Painted buntings have also been observed stealing prey caught in spider webs.
Painted buntings are a social species, with males often involved in vocal exchanges lasting for 30 seconds or more. The song, which consists of a series of high-pitched musical notes, serves as a means for self advertisement and/or territory defense during the mating season when the males become highly territorial.
Males 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. Though severely territorial during the breeding season, painted buntings may form small flocks on the wintering grounds, often joining other seed-eating species.
Painted buntings use a variety of visual displays (upright display, body-fluff display, bow display and wing-quiver display) especially during agonistic behavior and courtship displays during the mating season. Other forms of display are incorporated into unique flight patterns such as butterfly flight (slow,undulating flight with deep wing beats) and moth flight (slow descending flight that can incorporate the wing quiver display). The majority of the displays are exhibited by the males. Predatory response includes alarm calls and frantic fluttering.
Painted buntings are nocturnal, short to medium distant migrants. Fall migration runs from the end of July to mid October and the return trip in spring begins in early April and lasts until mid-May. The western populations undergo a mid-migrant molt in southern Arizona and northern Mexico (outside of both thier breeding and wintering habitat) before reaching thier wintering grounds. The eastern populations molt prior to migration and travel directly to their wintering grounds.
Despite its vivid coloration it is often difficult to see a painted bunting, as it tends to skulk among dense thickets.
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This page was last updated on September 28, 2017.