Florida is the only state with a breeding and wintering population of the colorful eastern painted bunting. Learn about the bird’s habitat, breeding behavior and population status.
The eastern painted bunting
is found in coastal areas
from North Carolina to
northern Florida, and inland
along large rivers.
The male painted bunting (Passerina ciris) is one of the most brightly colored songbirds in North America. The French name for the species, nonpareil (without equal), refers to its distinctive purple, blue, red, yellow and green plumage. Males attain adult plumage when two years old. Females are a yellowish green and resemble subadult males. The male’s song is a variable high-pitched warble. A recording can be heard on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macauley Library website.
Painted buntings occur in two geographically distinct breeding populations: a western population that ranges from northwest Florida to Texas, including Oklahoma and parts of Mexico; and an eastern population limited to coastal areas from North Carolina to northern Florida, and inland along large rivers. Two subspecies are recognized based on geographic distribution, migration patterns and timing of molt (shedding of feathers). Painted buntings in Franklin, Gulf, Bay and Wakulla counties of the Florida Panhandle may be an expansion of the western subspecies or an overlap of occurrence. Genetic studies are needed to determine the range of the two subspecies, or if they are so dissimilar that two separate species should be designated. The breeding range of the eastern subspecies in Florida extends along the northeast coast from the state line south to Cape Canaveral and inland along the St. Johns River. Eastern painted buntings winter in south Florida, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Florida is the only state with a breeding and wintering population.
Coastal scrub plant communities and edges of coastal oak hammocks are the preferred breeding habitats in Florida; however, the subspecies may also use roadside thickets, uncultivated fields, abandoned citrus groves and some urban areas. Painted buntings build nests in shrubs or small trees, usually within 6 feet (approximately 2 meters) above the ground.
The breeding season in Florida is May through mid-July. Territorial males are very aggressive toward other males of their species. Lengthy combative encounters on the ground and in the air can result in lost feathers, eye damage and death. Male painted buntings perform an elaborate courtship display on the ground, hopping around the female with spread wings and a flattened tail. Females build nests of grass and leaves, often locating them in a clump of Spanish moss. The female incubates up to four white eggs with reddish brown speckling for approximately 10 days. Once the eggs hatch, she cares for young in the nest for an additional 12-14 days. Painted buntings can make two or three nesting attempts during a breeding season in Florida. The species is mostly monogamous, but polygyny, the habit of having two or more mates, has been reported.
Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data indicate a significant population decline for eastern and western painted buntings over the past 43 years. More recent trend estimates (1999-2009) indicate a slower decline or stabilization at a lower population level. However, with painted buntings reported from only four of 92 Breeding Bird Survey routes in Florida, data are considered imprecise for statewide trend estimates. Although causes of the rangewide decline are unknown, the narrow geographic range of the eastern population makes it vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation, and local extinction. Even moderate coastal development can reduce populations by 50 percent. In degraded habitat, increased nest loss from predation and nest parasitism, caused when brown headed cowbirds lay and abandon eggs in painted bunting nests, may negatively impact some populations. Painted buntings are illegally trapped and sold as caged birds, which may also contribute to the decline. A U.S. Geological Survey investigation found that this black market trade appears to be widespread in southeast Florida, with adult male painted buntings selling for $55 and subadult males and females selling for $35.
Several organizations have recognized the vulnerability of the eastern painted bunting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a Bird of Conservation Concern; the National Audubon Society includes it as a WatchList species; and Partners in Flight, a cooperative partnership organization, classifies it as a Species of Continental Importance. In addition, the FWC gave the species a high ranking when prioritizing avian information needs to guide future research. See the “Current Research” article for additional information on population status.
Delany, M.F.; Pranty, B.; Kiltie, R.A. 2013. Painted bunting abundance and habitat use in Florida. Southeastern Naturalist 12(1):61-72
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