North America’s Most Brilliant Songbird Begins to Recover

WILMINGTON, North Carolina, November 17, 2009 (ENS) – With its gleaming red, blue and green feathers, the painted bunting is often described as the most beautiful migratory songbird in North America.

After a 30 year decline and extirpation from parts of its U.S. range, the species appears to be recovering. Now scientists at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington are reaching out to citizen scientists to help them confirm this observation and help advance the bird’s survival.

The painted bunting, Passerina ciris, is classed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. The beautifully colored male was once a popular caged bird, but now its capture is illegal in the United States. Females are colored yellow and green, which protects them from trappers, but males are still targeted in Mexico for the caged-bird trade.

Male painted bunting (Photo by Jamie Rotenberg, UNCW)

“Although past data from the Breeding Bird Survey show that painted bunting populations were declining for 30 years, more recent data, along with detailed monitoring, indicate that these birds appear to be on the rebound,” said Dr. Jamie Rotenberg, ornithologist in the Department of Environmental Studies at UNCW. He says scientists observed a winter-range expansion for painted buntings in Florida last year.

“Still, the good news is tempered by uncertainty surrounding the causes for the recent rebound or whether the population is doing well on both the breeding and wintering grounds,” he said.

The Painted Bunting Observer Team at the university is looking for volunteers to help with a research study in Florida to develop strategies to bring the bird’s population up to healthy and sustainable levels. “We want to find out why the species was in decline and pinpoint what is causing the new increase,” Rotenberg says.

The species’ decline may be due to increased coastal development and more intensive agricultural practices, which clear scrub-land needed by the breeding birds, says Mike Delany, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Research Laboratory in Gainesville.

“The recent turnaround in the painted bunting population may be due to a suite of factors, including more people feeding birds at backyard feeders,” Delany said.

Two separate populations of painted buntings exist in the United States. A western population breeds from northern Mexico to northern Texas and winters in southwest Mexico, but the Painted Bunting Observer Team is not working with this population.

The eastern population of painted buntings breeds in summer along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida and migrates south for the winter into southern Florida and the Caribbean. It is this population that is the focus of Painted Bunting Observer Team research.

In North Carolina and Florida, painted buntings typically breed in a narrow range along coasts and waterways.

In South Carolina and Georgia, the birds also favor the coast, but breed inland in low country scrub and young pine stands. As coastal areas are developed and more inland scrub is cleared, these birds are losing their habitat.

“Florida is unique in that it is the only one of the four eastern breeding ground states that also supports a wintering population of painted buntings,” Delany said.

In Florida, the team wants to recruit and maintain an active group of volunteers who can make observations and collect data at backyard bird feeders and can help band and monitor banded buntings, especially during the winter.

“We hope to determine the abundance and distribution of painted buntings at backyard feeders and to detect population patterns across the coastal-inland and suburban-rural landscapes,” Rotenberg said. “We want to know if there are differences in how males and females use feeders and how important these backyard feeders are as a food resource.”

Last year, Rotenberg and his team had more than 13,000 hits to their website from volunteers in the Carolinas and Florida, and the team captured and banded more than 600 painted buntings.

The banded birds allow the team to learn about migration, site fidelity, lifespan and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth, as well as the behavior of individual birds.

Bands identify individual painted buntings (Photo by Jamie Rotenberg, UNCW)

“When we began, most of our volunteers wanted to know if the same birds were returning to their feeders every year,” Rotenberg said. “With the bands, our volunteers can actually identify individual birds and know if the same ones are visiting.”

Each painted bunting receives three pre-determined colors and one silver band with inscribed numbers. The silver band is a federal band from the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory. The bands are easily viewed with binoculars.

“We put four colored bands on each painted bunting. That color combination is unique to that individual bird,” said Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “This allows observers to identify and distinguish a particular painted bunting from all the rest.”

Earlier this year, a homeowner in Stuart, Florida recorded a bird wintering at their feeder 23 times from January through April, says Barnhill. This bird was originally banded at Bald Head Island, North Carolina in August 2008.”

This December, Rotenberg will be conducting several painted bunting workshops around Florida to help with the “how-to” part of being an observer.

“My workshops cover all aspects of our citizen science-based project, from basic identification and counting of individual male and green birds to more detailed information – including reporting band colors, visit frequencies and duration at feeder behaviors,” Rotenberg said. “All these data collected by our volunteers allow us to achieve our project objectives, including determining painted bunting population demographics and the importance of feeders on the wintering ground in Florida.”

The dates and locations of the workshops are being finalized, according to Rotenberg. For updates about the workshops in Florida or to become a Painted Bunting Observer Team volunteer and learn more about the project, go to, or e-mail the project coordinator at

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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