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Painted Bunting

Story + Illustration by Michele Roldán-Shaw

Know your nature: The male painted bunting is often described as the most beautiful bird in North America and as such has been nicknamed nonpareil, or “without equal.”

A snatch of sweet warbling song. A flash of paint-box color through the trees. The crown jewel of Lowcountry birding is seen. Making their enigmatic journeys from points south, painted buntings arrive here in spring to nest and breed — midsummer is their peak season — then they fatten up on bugs and seeds before wintering away to the tropics.

A tiny but spectacular species, buntings weigh the equivalent of three quarters and pack all the colors of the rainbow. Blue head, red breast, yellow and green wings with tinges of semi-iridescent orange and purple where the lines blur…even the little red ring around their eyes is dramatic. People lucky enough to see this furtive species get a thrill.

While male painted buntings appear to have flown straight in from a children’s coloring book, females are a distinctive bright green.

The secret life of buntings

There are two distinct populations of painted buntings. We claim the eastern group that breeds in the Carolinas, Georgia and North Florida, then winters in South Florida, Cuba or the Caribbean. The western population lives in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas and winters in Mexico and Central America. Like all migrating songbirds, their brave journeys remain largely a mystery to us; they fly by night, unseen and undetected until making landfall again. It’s hard to even imagine these tiny creatures crossing states and seas, but they do. Even when they stop and stay, their secretive ways make them hard to spot.

Here in the Lowcountry, painted buntings favor maritime forest with dense understory, or even thickly vegetated yards. Moving inland, especially along river systems like the Savannah and the Santee, they seem to do well on abandoned farms or where forests border agricultural lands. Ground-foraging seeds are their main food, but during the breeding season they also eat a lot of bugs, even diving at spiderwebs to rob the catch. A shy scrub-dwelling bird, buntings need cover. Backyard enthusiasts have successfully lured them by providing the right type of habitat around birdfeeders, with plenty of low perches and brushy concealment for their approach. Overly manicured yards don’t suit them. I once lived in a country house where I shamefully let the grass grow so tall it started bending over with seed heads — and in came the painted buntings! I also left a paint tray out on the patio until the robin’s egg blue paint in it dried up and the tray filled with rainwater, making a nice bath for them. I’m a lot tidier now, but I don’t see any buntings.

The male perspective

It is only adult males that sport the iconic colors. Females and immature males are nearly identical with uniform yellow-green plumage, pretty if less showy. Buntings are mostly monogamous and tend to be faithful to a territory, returning each year to a claimed spot that males fiercely defend. Their brutal contests of pecking, wrestling and beating each other with their wings result in missing feathers or death. Courting displays are equally fervent and have been described as the male fanning out his fluff and hopping around the female like a funny little windup toy.

Bunting power

To describe the precious little nests that females build is poetry unto itself: a 2-inch cup molded out of leaf skeletons, rootlets, bark strips, grasses, Spanish moss and perhaps a scrap of tissue paper or rag, bound together with cobwebs and softly lined with animal hair, woven into the surrounding vegetation for support. They lay their tiny pale blue eggs finely speckled with gray or brown, then 12 days later the naked hatchlings emerge weighing a tenth of an ounce and utterly defenseless. Snakes prey on them sometimes; but here in the coastal region, habitat loss is the bunting’s main threat, although statewide populations are considered stable or even increasing.

I’ll stop short of saying let your lawn go to seed for the buntings … but a feeder full of white millet and some native scrub might help keep our local population strong.