Mar 27, 2013 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, Spring 2013

Brushstrokes of Spring: Painted Bunting

A male (right) and female (left) painted bunting inspect a backyard birdbath. It takes the male painted bunting two years to attain the vivid multi-colored plumage for which the species is most famous.

I remember well the first painted bunting I ever laid eyes on. The memory is fresh. My buddy and I were hiking along a dirt trail just outside of Dallas, Texas, on a particularly hot midsummer afternoon. 'Twas my first time exploring the Lone Star State. Mississippi kites circled overhead and greater roadrunners scurried along the ground. Having spent most of my life up to that point in southern Ohio, I was easily distracted but such exotic creatures. The armadillos were especially fascinating, as were the cacti. I paused to snap a photo, and that's when I heard it: a sharp pik!

Although it was my first time to hear the distinctive call, I instantly recognized it. Similar to, but slightly lower and softer than, an indigo bunting.

The chipping continued but the bird remained out of sight. I stepped off the trail and faced the thick vegetation where I presumed it was hiding. The surrounding habitat consisted of grassland with a few scattered trees and some brushy spots like where I was standing. I made a few pishing noises, hoping to lure the shy bird into view. It worked. Only a few feet away was what the French call non-pareil, meaning "without equal" in the avian world. I was looking at a painted bunting.

The painted bunting is one of those cool birds that can impress even the most uninterested non-birder. You show anyone an adult male painted bunting, complete with that dazzling mix of red, blue, yellow, and green, and they're a believer. "Is that a real bird?" is an expression commonly associated with painted buntings.

As a fifth-grader, long before I encountered any live painted buntings, I chose one of the colorful birds to serve as the subject of my first (and last) avian watercolor project. I propped open a few of my favorite field guides to serve as models and started painting away, loving the fact that I could use just about every color imaginable on a single bird. If you saw the painting today, you'd understand why I never pursued a career in illustrating, but at the time I thought I was doing all right. It was obvious to me why the painted bunting is commonly known in Mexico as siete colores.

It takes the male painted bunting two years to attain the vivid multi-colored plumage for which the species is most famous. Although not quite as impressive as the adult males, the females and young males are not to be ignored; their parrot-green appearance is equally unique among our North American songbirds. Granted, we have a few warblers and vireos that sport a greenish look, but none of those species has the painted bunting's large, finch-like bill and overall bright, unmarked plumage. No matter how you look at them, these birds are truly non-pareil.

Almost as captivating as its colorful plumage is the painted bunting's sweet, warbling song, which resembles that of the indigo bunting but is more hurried. The typical call is a sharp, metallic, single-note chip.

Painted buntings have two geographically isolated breeding populations. The western population breeds in northern Mexico and in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. The eastern population breeds along the Atlantic coast from Florida up through Georgia and both Carolinas. (The jury is still out on whether these two populations represent two distinct species.) At any rate, the birds typically arrive in these areas in early April to establish territories and commence nesting. You may notice the birds spending less time at your feeders during these first few months; this is because during the breeding season, painted buntings supplement their typically all-seed diet with protein-providing arthropods (mainly insects and spiders). By mid-summer, the birds switch back to seeds, and many a weedy field and backyard feeder is hopping with young yellow-green painted buntings. The birds soon begin their journey south to their wintering grounds, mostly in Mexico and Central America.

Because their range is somewhat limited, painted buntings do not get much publicity as common North American backyard birds. However, these birds do frequent many backyard feeding stations in the 13 states where they commonly occur. The key to attracting them to your feeder is white proso millet—that small, round, cream-colored seed found in most basic seed mixes. (You can also buy white millet by itself from many seed suppliers.) Offer the millet in a hopper feeder, a tube feeder, or directly on the ground for best results. You can also try offering millet sprays or sunflower hearts to attract painted buntings to your feeders.

In addition to feeder seeds, painted buntings will also feast on weed seeds, especially dandelion and chickweed. Allow these weeds to grow in your backyard or garden to increase your chances of attracting painted buntings. You will likely host many other birds as well, including indigo buntings, chipping sparrows, and American goldfinches.

Painted buntings can also be attracted with water. Birds love water for drinking and bathing, and these colorful buntings are no exception. Place a shallow birdbath near the ground filled with about two inches of water. Add some flat rocks to make the bath more accessible to the birds, and use a dripper or fountain to add some motion. Nothing lures birds into view like moving water, and nothing brightens up a backyard like a couple of multi-colored painted buntings cooling off on a warm midsummer day.

About Kyle Carlsen

Kyle Carlsen was an assistant editor for Bird Watcher's Digest. When not writing about birds, he divides his time between backpacking, traveling, and composing piano music. He's also a self-described coffee addict.

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