Painted Bunting Photo by Alex Forsythe

Painted Bunting Photo by Alex Forsythe

A lot of kids head south for Spring Break this time of year. Many of them hit the beach and party all week long. That’s not my version of fun. I would much rather grab my binoculars and camera and look for birds that I can’t get at home! One of my target birds was the Painted Bunting. Most of the buntings I saw were on feeders, but I hoped to see one in a more natural setting. I finally found one by a pond’s edge.

The male Painted Bunting (pictured here) is one of the most colorful in the United States. However, their beauty came close to causing their demise. They are easily trapped using decoys, and in the 1800’s they were shipped by the thousands to Europe where they were sold as pet birds. They are still sold as cage birds in Mexico and Central America today.

Even though most of the world no longer captures Painted Buntings as cage birds, their populations remain in decline. Since 1966 the buntings have declined by about 3% every year. “That’s pretty staggering when you figure that translates into a 50-percent decline,” says Christopher W. Thompson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of a handful of scientists who has closely investigated the species. Conservation efforts have been hindered by incomplete information regarding their wintering grounds. According to the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute, “accounts about the range, abundance, and status are conflicting. Without information about breeding and non-breeding distribution and migratory patterns it is unlikely that effective conservation strategies can be designed to reverse Painted Bunting declines.” The Smithsonian is working to develop a more accurate map of the non-breeding distribution so that conservation efforts can be recommended. The University of Oklahoma is using geolocation tags that hopefully will help shed some light on the buntings’ travels. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes an additional study is needed to determine the affect of cowbirds on the eastern population of buntings (the western population has been exposed to cowbirds for quite some time, while cowbirds have relatively recently expanded into the east).

There is a citizen scientist group called “PBOT” (Painted Bunting Observation Team) operating out of the University of North Carolina. They have banded about 4,000 Painted Buntings since 2005! As of today, they have recorded 355 Painted Buntings during the month of April. Last month they had over 900. That seems like a large number until you look at the trend. In March of 2015, they had 1,181. In March of 2016, the number dropped to 1,065. In March of 2017, the number dropped further to 902. That is not a good direction!

The Painted Bunting is one of the most spectacular birds in the United States. Whether it’s by habitat preservation, or volunteering as a citizen scientist, we should all do whatever we can to help study and save this species. The skies would be much less colorful without these beautiful birds!


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