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The Painted Bunting in Northern Florida

Painted BuntingThe "National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Eastern Birds" identifies birds by color. If you flip through all of the pages of green birds, you will notice that the only green perching native bird with any range within the US is the female painted bunting. Compared to this iridescent bird all of the others are "wanna-be" greens.

The female painted bunting (Passerina ciris) arrives in her northern breeding ground a week or two after the male. Traditionally the male is said to arrive on tax day, but in the past two years, we have noticed them as early as April 1st.

Along the coast, we are lucky to live in the painted bunting's breeding ground. Painted buntings summer in a large area of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. However, here on the East Coast they breed in a narrow area along the coast (marshes and coastal rivers) from the Carolinas to Northern Florida.

Every field guide to birds uses the word "gaudy" to describe the male of the species. With its "violet-blue head and nape, vermilion red under parts, and yellow to green back and wings" (as related in "Common Birds of Jacksonville") it is certainly the most colorful bird in North America.

A Duncraft feeding brochure indicates that the bunting eats black oil sunflower and mixed seeds. However, we find locally that you can attract the birds with millet in a tube feeder. If you can attract them early in the season, they will be with you all summer.

The species is very skittish. If you watch them at a feeder, they seem always to be peering around themselves. Watching. The slightest noise or motion sends them to cover.

For this reason, it is best to provide food for other birds at nearby feeders. Otherwise, cardinals, wrens, titmice and even chickadees will crowd them out.

Tourists that do not have access to your backyard have a challenge finding the painted bunting in the wild. The birds prefer dense brush and swampy thickets and are shy.

Painted Buntings eat seeds and insects mostly on the ground or in low shrubbery. Three to four eggs are deposited in nests made of Spanish moss and twigs from May through June. The couple raises one to two broods per season. The juveniles are dull gray to a green and can be mistaken for the female.

"The National Geographic Field Guide" tersely comments that the Painted Bunting is "declining in the east". "Sibley's Guide to Bird Life and Behavior" explains that their nesting area in the east along the shore is under intense pressure from development and thus populations are declining.

Parasitism by cowbirds is also a problem as the cowbirds move into the eastern area. This is more a factor than in western populations where cowbirds have always been present. The painted buntings in the west have had more time to learn to deal with the cowbird problems.

The painted buntings migrate south by October 15 with the males leaving about two weeks before the females and juveniles. We have had reports that they are gone from backyard feeders as early as September.

They winter in South Florida, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Cuba, while the western cousins' winter in Mexico and Central America. We have heard of painted buntings wintering over in the area and other reports of them wintering over in islands to our north.

Northern Florida is a special breeding ground. Watch for the painted buntings in your backyards or feeding in shrubbery this summer.