Look up in the sky – it’s a jewel, a small parrot, no it’s SUPERBIRD!
Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and colorful birds on Seabrook Island or anywhere else is the Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). Look for this small to medium-sized multi-colored finch (about five inches long with an eight-inch wingspan) at your bird feeder and around the edges of dense brush (such as wax myrtles) and thick woodlands.
Painted Buntings nest and breed here from the middle of April through September. Some may stay throughout the winter but most of our birds go south to Florida and to the northwest Caribbean islands. These birds are part of the eastern population that occurs along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida. A second western population breeds in northern Mexico to northern Texas and winters in south-west Mexico.
You will have no problem in identifying a mature male Painted Bunting with its vivid blues, greens, yellows, and reds that make it look like a small parrot. The male’s head is iridescent blue, its throat and underside are bright red, its back is a brilliant green fading to lighter green on the wings. Females and one-year-old males are a uniform yellowish-green color with a slightly lighter eye ring.
These magnificent birds spend most of their time in thick brush and are often seen along woodland edges. They forage on the ground and in shrubs and are primarily seed eaters. They are frequent visitors to Seabrook Island bird feeders and seem to prefer white millet. Although they are basically seed eaters while nesting, they catch, eat and feed insects to their young.
They are fast flyers, darting here and there and are difficult to follow. Males are extremely aggressive and territorial toward other males and often fight over a spot at bird feeders. Their song is a very distinctive continuous series of short high-pitched notes lasting about 2 seconds. Males may sing 9 to 10 songs a minute establishing their territory during spring.
Male Painted buntings may have several mates and females may raise 2 to 4 broods throughout the summer. The nest is built in a bush or tree and is a deep cup of grass, weeds and leaves with a lining of finer grass or hair. Females lay 3 to 5 eggs, incubate them for 11 to 12 days and the young leave the nest in another 12 to 14 days. Males do little in raising the young and frequently are out looking for another mate. A Florida tagging study documented one Painted bunting living in the wild for more than 12 years.
Male birds, because of their bright plumage, are caught and sold as caged birds in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. In the late 1800s, John Audubon reported that thousands of Painted Buntings were being shipped to Europe from the United States. Breeding bird surveys by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the Painted Bunting population has declined by 55% over the past 30 years.
Seabrook Island residents and their guests are fortunate to have one of America’s most beautiful birds. Keep in mind that males only develop their brilliant multi-colored plumage in their second year. Most of the Painted Buntings you will see will be the rather nondescript uniform greenish females and first-year males. The best way of spotting a Painted Bunting is to become familiar with their distinctive song, and once you have identified where they are, watch for a flash of red, blue, yellow and green and have your camera ready.
Should you be lucky enough to find a painted bunting nest I would love to know about it. I have never seen the nest although 2 to 4 pairs nest in my backyard each year. What fun it would be to follow and photograph these beautiful birds raising their young.
We hope you will join the Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) for an evening program focused on our special bird on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in the Live Oak Room at the Lake House. Dr. James Rotenberg will present: “The Conservation Status of the Atlantic Coast population of Painted Bunting,” with the social (wine and snacks) beginning at 7:00 pm and the lecture starting at 7:30 pm. Sign up to attend here: https://seabrookislandbirders.org/sib-evening-programs/
-Submitted by Charley Moore
(Photo credits: Charley Moore)