Frequently Asked Questions

ABOUT PAINTED BUNTINGS

Frequently asked questions about Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris):

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What is a Painted Bunting?

The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) is a neotropical migratory song bird that breeds in two distinct populations: one in the southeastern United States, the other in the Midwest.  Juveniles (fledglings) are an overall drab- to olive-brown with buffy under-parts for about two weeks after leaving the nest.  Males are unmistakable with bright blue heads, red eye rings, and red, green and yellow bodies.  Females and immature males are almost entirely green to greenish-yellow (we refer to all green Painted Buntings as "green birds").

Juvenile Painted Bunting
Juvenile
photo by Jamie Rotenberg
Male Painted Bunting
Male
photo by Debra Carr
Female Painted Bunting
Female
photo by Debra Carr

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Do female Painted Buntings sing?

No, only the male Painted Bunting sings!  If you spot a singing green Painted Bunting, then it is a young male - most likely a second year male trying his best to attract a mate.  Here's a video of a male singing taken by our friend Paul Beardsley.

 

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Where do Painted Buntings breed (nest)?

Painted Buntings are found in the United States in the spring and summer, and migrate south to spend their winters in Cuba, Mexico, and Central America.  Florida is the only state that consistently has a breeding population in the spring and summer (in northeast Florida) and a wintering population (in central and south Florida).

Painted Buntings breed in two separate areas in the United States: 

  • the eastern population breeds along the southeast coast (North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida)
    Coastal Breeding Range
  • the western population breeds in the southern and central midwest (Kansas and Missouri south to Texas and Louisiana)
    Breeding Range

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I live in the Painted Bunting's range, but have never seen one. How do I attract them to my feeder?

Attracting Painted Buntings is often an exercise in patience, followed by a great surprise.  However, by preparing your yard for Painted Buntings, you can improve your chances of attracting these beautiful birds. 

Painted Buntings spend most of their time in shrub-scrub vegetation - so the more low-lying, dense vegetation (small trees, hedges, dense bushes, or undergrowth) you have in your yard, the more appealing it will be to Painted Buntings. 

Painted Buntings love white (proso) millet, which is the small round seed found in many basic seed mixes.  You may be able to find bags of white millet and millet sprays (an entire seedhead of the proso millet plant) at well-stocked wild bird stores and online. 

Painted Buntings are often shy at the feeder, especially around larger birds - so consider purchasing a caged feeder, which is a tube-type feeder surrounded by a wire cage that allows small birds through, but keeps bigger birds from accessing the seed.  Another alternative, especially in the breeding range (when males are particularly territorial and prone to fighting with other males), is to provide several feeders with plenty of space in between them.

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Why are scientists studying the eastern population of Painted Buntings?

Unfortunately, the eastern population of Painted Buntings has been in decline for several decades.  Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) Data collected since 1966 show a 3.2% decline per year for Painted Buntings in the southeast region (North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida).

Avg # of Painted Buntings

Graph of Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data from 1966-1995 (source: Patuxent Wildlife Research Center).

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What has caused the decline in the eastern Painted Bunting population?

As with many troubled species, there are a number of likely factors that have contributed to the decline in Painted Bunting population along the east coast of the United States - but at the top of this list is habitat loss

Painted Buntings often nest in "shrub-scrub" vegetation, a type of low-lying, dense vegetation (early-successional habitat).  Changes in agricultural practices and increased development along the east coast have decreased the amount of this vital shrub-scrub habitat.

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Is there a man-made threat to Painted Buntings?

Yes!  Because of their colorful plumage, male Painted Buntings are often the target of the caged bird market.  Although illegal in the United States, there is still a legal market for caged wild birds in Mexico and other countries.  Please report any caged Painted Buntings in the United States to your local wildlife authorities!

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Are Painted Buntings an "endangered species"?

No, Painted Buntings are not officially listed as endangered or threatened. 

However, several organizations list the Painted Bunting as a species in need of conservational efforts.  The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists the Painted Bunting as Near Threatened; they are a Species of Highest Conservation Concern (in North and South Carolina) and a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (in Florida) according to those state's Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategies; Partners in Flight lists the Painted Bunting as a highly ranked Species at Risk (4.29/5.00) and a Watch List Species for species of Continental Importance for the United States and Canada due to restricted distribution or low population size; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Painted Bunting as one of its Focal Species (USFWS Focal Species Fact Sheet 2005).

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I have Painted Buntings in the spring and summer. Where do they go in the winter?

Painted Buntings migrate south between mid-October and mid-November.  Eastern Painted Buntings fly to central and southern Florida, Cuba or the Yucatan penisula of Mexico.  Western Painted Buntings winter in Mexico and Central America.

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I have Painted Buntings in the winter. Where do they go in the summer?

Painted Buntings migrate north around mid-April.  Eastern Painted Buntings spend their summers in northeast Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.  Western Painted Buntings breed in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

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ABOUT PBOT

Frequently asked questions about PBOT (PAINTED BUNTING OBSERVER TEAM):

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What is PBOT?

PBOT is the acronym for the Painted Bunting Observation Team - a group of volunteer "citizen scientists" who are helping ornithologists learn more about the eastern population of Painted Buntings.  As the name implies, PBOT's goal is to observe, record, and catalogue sightings of this beautiful bird, whose population has been in decline for several decades. 

PBOT started in the early spring of 2005 as a grassroots project to study Painted Buntings in coastal North Carolina.  Dr. Jamie Rotenberg (Asst. Professor, UNC-Wilmington) enlisted the help of the members of Lower Cape Fear Bird Club (Wilmington, NC) to observe and report the number of Painted Buntings at their feeders.  From these humble beginnings, PBOT has grown with the help of funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partnerships with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, the SC Department of Natural Resources, the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Georgia, the NC Wildlife Commission and many others (see Partners list for a complete list of our partners).

The core staff of PBOT are:

  • Jamie Rotenberg, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW)
  • Laurel Barnhill, State Non-game Bird Coordinator, South Carolina Division of Natural Resources
  • John Gerwin, Curator of Birds, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • Lex Glover, Wildlife Technician, South Carolina Division of Natural Resources
  • Leah Fuller, Program Coordinator, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

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What is a "citizen scientist"? How do they help study Painted Buntings?

A "citizen scientist" is a volunteer who makes observations or measurements in order to assist scientific research. You do not need to have any specific scientific background in order to become a citizen scientist, and there are many types of citizen science projects you can get involved in!

Painted Buntings are frequent visitors to the backyard feeder, making them an ideal species to study using the help of citizen scientists.  With the help of volunteer observers, we want to determine the abundance and distribution of Painted Buntings at backyard feeders and attempt to detect population patterns across a wide range of coastal and inland environments, from small suburban backyards to large rural properties.  We hope to find out if there are differences in how males and females use feeders, and to determine how important backyard feeders are as a food resource for Painted Buntings.  Ultimately, we want to find out why the species is in decline and do something about it.

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What is the PBOT study area?

PBOT is focused on the eastern population of Painted Buntings, and we are currently accepting sightings from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida.  We hope to add Georgia to the Team in the near future, and we welcome Georgians to open an account with PBOT now!

We are always happy to hear from our friends in the western range of Painted Buntings (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisana) and see photos of your birds.  Happily, the western population has more stable numbers, so sightings of your Painted Buntings can be recorded a delighful experience rather than a bit of scientific data!

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What are the objectives of PBOT?

By observing and reporting the activity of Painted Buntings at the feeder, volunteers help researchers develop data on populations in a variety of habitats (urban, suburban and rural) across a vast geographical area (including coastal and inland environments).  These data can include quantifying demographic parameters such as population distribution, density and abundance; productivity and adult survival; and behavioral patterns of site-fidelity and habitat use.

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Why does PBOT band Painted Buntings?

Capturing and banding Painted Buntings allows us to identify an individual bird throughout its life.  Through resightings and recaptures of our banded birds we gain knowledge about a variety of life characteristics, including site fidelity, dispersal and migration, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth, and the behavior of individual Painted Buntings.

When our trained banding staff captures a Painted Bunting, they first identify its age and sex, and assess its fat accumulation and feather molt and wear, to help track its overall health.  Then they carefully attach a unique combination of three brightly-colored bands and one silver band that is etched with an identifying number from the US Bird Banding Laboratory.  Because the etched number is too small to see from afar, the unique combination and arrangement of the colored bands with the silver band is what allows our volunteers to identify an individual bird at the feeder.  The combination can also indicate the environment and location of banding, allowing researchers to more quickly determine characteristics of the bird when it is resighted.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources was kind enough to capture and post a video of our bander, John, going through the entire banding process. You can see the 3:55 minute-long video here.

PBOT has banded several thousand individual Painted Buntings in over 60 locations in North and South Carolina since the summer of 2005, producing an extensive record of the habits and migration patterns of these birds.  Due to the current economic climate, we are unable to fund an organized banding program (trained banders, supplies and travel expenses) in Florida - but perhaps you can help us change that!  One of the goals of Friends of PBOT is to help fund a banding program in Florida for wintering Painted Buntings.

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Does banding hurt the bird?

No - or we would not do it!  Over the years, the banding process and the bands have been tested and refined to prevent injury or discomfort to the birds.

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I have a banded Painted Bunting! How do I identify the colors?

PBOT has banded nearly 4000 Painted Buntings since 2005 – which sounds like a lot of birds, but spotting one is actually very uncommon.  If you have spotted a banded Painted Bunting, we would love to know!

It can be difficult to correctly identify the colors and combination of bands on an active bird.  We recommend taking digital photos of your bird, or scanning your photos into the computer, and zooming in on the bands.  Once magnified, it will be much easier to compare your bird's band colors to our band photo (click on photo to enlarge).  In order to read the combination properly, imagine yourself as the bird and read the bands: left leg top band, left leg bottom band, right leg top band, right leg bottom band.  For example, the photo of the banded female (click on photo to enlarge) shows the band combination of "L: purple over dark green, R: silver over pink".  You may also report partial band combinations - for example, the photo of the banded male shows only the left leg, so you would report "L: black over orange, R: unknown over unknown".

All our Painted Buntings are banded with 1 silver metal band and 3 color bands.  (Other banding programs may use only the silver band, or a combination of the silver band and other bands.)  As of the summer of 2010, we also banded all birds with a “split band” containing 2 colors together on 1 band (red/yellow or blue/pink).  These split bands tell us immediately in which state the bird was banded – red/yellow is North Carolina, blue/pink is South Carolina.

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ABOUT BEING A PBOT VOLUNTEER

Frequently asked questions about being a PBOT volunteer:

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What kind of information does a PBOT volunteer collect?

We ask our volunteers to record basic observations about their Painted Bunting sightings: location, date, and time of sighting, and the most number of males and green birds they see together at one time.  When appropriate, volunteers may also record band combinations, visit durations, and other observations.  See our Help Guide for more detailed instructions.

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Why are PBOT volunteers collecting data?

Past studies using bird feeders have demonstrated the importance of feeders to birds by quantifying a variety of parameters, such as feeding and visit rates, possible feeder dependency, the utility of mark-recapture methods on birds using feeders, and survivorship.  It is our goal to collect a similar set of parameters to answer our research questions.  Our Sightings Report forms allow for the collection of four main data types: count data, visit frequency data, visit duration data, and site fidelity.

  • Count data: What is the most number of adult males and green Painted Buntings you see at your feeder together?
  • Visit frequency data: How often do Painted Buntings use my feeder?
  • Visit duration data: How much time do Painted Buntings spend feeding at my feeder?
  • Site fidelity: Are the same Painted Buntings feeding at my feeder each time or are they different birds?

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What is the difference between a Spot Sighting and a Timed Sighting?

A Spot Sighting is for those times when you “spot” a bird (or birds) on your feeder while going about your day.  In this case, you only need to record the date, time, location, and how many males and green birds you spotted. 

Spot Sighting example: while making coffee in the kitchen at 8:08am on February 16th, you spot 2 males and 3 green birds on the feeder – so your Spot Sighting report would be: 2/16/2011, 08:08 (or 8:08am), Home, most males: 2, most greens: 3.

A Timed Sighting is for when you can observe your feeder(s) for 15 minutes or more and record your observations.  For a Timed Sighting, you need to record the date, time and location - the same data as a Spot Sighting - and also keep track of the number of males and green birds you see together throughout your watch.  At the end of your watch time, you record the largest number of males and the largest number of green birds you saw together during your watch.  You can also record the amount of time, in whole minutes, that your birds lingered on the feeder (“visit durations”) each visit during your watch (click on the box Add Bird Times). 

Timed Sighting example: while sitting on the back deck on June 16th at 6:15pm, you start a 20-minute watch during which you see a male who sat on the feeder for 2 minutes, then left, and was replaced by 1 green bird, who stayed for 4 minutes.  The 1 green bird is eventually joined by 3 other greens, and then all 4 are chased off by 2 males, one of which stayed to feed for 3 minutes.  Your Timed Sighting report would be: 6/16/2011, 18:15 (or 6:15pm), Home, most males: 2, most greens: 4 - and under “visit durations”: male (no bands) visited for 2 minutes, male (no bands) visited for 3 minutes, green (no bands) visited for 4 minutes. 

Or you could have a different Timed Sighting situation: while home all day, you watch a single male visit your feeder repeatedly.  You can report that you watched for up to 6 hours and saw only one male.  In this scenerio, reporting "visit durations" may be even easier - watch to see if the male stays on the feeder for several minutes and seems comfortable, or flits on and off the feeder nervously - and report those visits under Add Bird Times.

Of course, if you spot a banded bird, enter its band colors too!

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What does PBOT mean by "green bird"?

Female Painted Buntings are mostly green - but so are young males!  Males are green, just like the females, until they molt into their colorful adult plumage at the end of their second year.  Because it is so difficult to tell females and immature males apart, we lump them all together under the term "green birds".

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What does "most birds seen together" mean?

On our Sightings Forms, we ask that you report the "most number of green birds seen together" and the "most number of males seen together".  Consider this: you watch the feeder for 15 minutes and during that time a male visits 10 times.  It is impossible to know whether it was 10 different males, or the SAME male visiting 10 times!  If you record 10 males in the “Most Number” field, then we will likely have an inflated population for your location. However, if you actually saw 5 males together on the feeder at the same time, then you know for certain that you have at least 5 different birds. So in this case, you can report 5 birds in the “most male birds seen together” data field.  Green birds can be recorded this way as well.

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Why are my sightings not "Approved"?

All sightings are given a "pending" status until the Program Coordinator approves them, which usually happens within one business day.  The primary reason for a sighting to not be immediately approved is a questionable time stamp.  PBOT sighting forms take time in 24-hour format (where 1:00PM is noted as 13:00) - something many of us are unfamiliar with!  Note that there is a 12-hour time "translation" that appears below the time box on the sighting forms, which may help.

If you have a sighting that has not been approved, check the time stamp on it -- anything before 0600 (6:00am) or after 2100 (9:00pm) is an unusual sighting... but not unheard of!  If you do have an unusually early or late sighting, you may want to make a comment in the Notes section at the bottom of the sighting form - this will help the Program Coordinator assess and approve your sighting.

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MORE INFORMATION

Additional information about Painted Buntings:

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I have Painted Buntings - how can I help?

It is very easy to sign up and help PBOT!  Sign up to create an account and start reporting your sightings!

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I don't have Painted Buntings - how can I help?

Because of their limited range, dense brushy habitat, and relative shyness, Painted Buntings are not well-known by the general public.  One of the main missions of PBOT is to educate everyone about the Painted Bunting and it's threatened habitat.  If you are outside the range of the Painted Bunting, you can still help by spreading the word about the importantance of shrub-scrub habitat to Painted Buntings and many other animals.  If you are within their range, you can help by leaving a patch of shrub-scrub (low-lying, dense, brushy vegetation) or allowing an area of brushy growth to re-develop on your property.  This may even attract Painted Buntings to your feeders!

You can also help financially by joining the Friends of PBOT!  Your tax-deductable donation will help PBOT continue to learn more about the beautiful and near-threatened Eastern Painted Bunting, and allow us to expand our banding program to Florida.

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Are there any other studies currently focused on Painted Buntings?

Not at this time.  Our partner project, The Eastern Painted Bunting Population Assessment and Monitoring Project, wrapped up it's work in the spring of 2009.  You can read more about this completed project and it's results at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/point/pabu/ .

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What is PBOT's privacy policy?

PBOT does not share or make public any personal information about our volunteers without their prior consent.  Maps of locations and sightings data (Team Data maps) have limited zoom levels to protect volunteer privacy.  See our Privacy Policy for more information.

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