With one of the most colorful and distinctive plumages of any North American bird, the Painted Bunting is popular with birders, but many aspects of its biology need more study. There are two populations of Painted Buntings with differing migration and molt patterns. One population occurs on the southeastern Atlantic Coast, and the other in the southern Great Plains east to Mississippi.
Territory size in Painted Buntings appears to vary, depending on whether or not each male has nearby neighbors. Isolated males tend to have larger territories. Nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds is fairly common in Painted Buntings.
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Description of the Painted Bunting
The Painted Bunting is sexually dimorphic, but both genders have a moderately heavy bill.
Males have a gaudy, Technicolor plumage, with a bright blue head, red eye ring, red underparts, and a bright, lime-green back. Length: 5 in. Wingspan: 9 in.
Females are lime greenish above and pale yellowish below.
Seasonal change in appearance
Fall immatures resemble adult females, but are duller.
Painted Buntings inhabit brushy areas and woodland edges.
Painted Buntings eat insects and seeds.
Painted Buntings forage on the ground or low in shrubs.
Painted Buntings breed across the south-central U.S. as well as along the southern Atlantic Coast of the U.S. They winter in Mexico, Central America, and south Florida. Their population has declined in recent decades.
Because of its stunning colors, the Painted Bunting is often captured and offered for sale as a pet in Mexico and even in Florida, though it is illegal.
Where it winters in Florida, multiple Painted Buntings sometimes visit bird feeders.
The song is a sweet, warbled sequence similar to that of the Indigo Bunting. A soft “wich” call is also given.
- Males are unmistakable, and the uniformly green upperparts of the female and immature Painted Bunting are distinctive also.
The Painted Bunting’s nest is a cup of leaves, weeds, and grass and is lined with finer materials. It is placed low in a bush or vine tangle.
Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Pale blue with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11-12 days and fledge at about 9-12 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Painted Bunting
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Painted Bunting – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
EASTERN PAINTED BUNTING
PASSERINA CIRIS CIRIS (Linnaeus)
HABITSContributed by ALEXANDER SPRUNT, JR.
Sometimes it seems that a language other than our own succeeds in conveying an idea more convincingly. In the case of the avian gem we know as the painted bunting, Spanish seems more appropriate, because in Spanish it is “mariposa”: butterfly. This bird, in its dazzling brilliance, seems hardly a creature of feathers at all, but rather a dancing butterfly.
No other North American species is so brightly colored, or wears such a Joseph’s coat of startling contrasts. There is no blending of shades whatever, the different hues are as sharply defined as if they were cut by a straight edge. No wonder many people seeing it for the first time can scarcely credit their eyes, because nothing else approaches it. Many other bright birds occur hither and yon about the country, but for flaming, jewel-like radiance, the nonpareil, as we know it in the South, literally fulfills the name; it is “without an equal.”
My acquaintance with the bird dates back to early boyhood days, and my first nonpareil is still vivid in my memory, though I was only 12 at the time. This was on Sullivan’s Island, across the harbor from Charleston, S.C., where my early ornithological researches were carried on. I was quite convinced, on seeing the brilliant singer perched on a light wire in my yard, that I had found a brand new bird, one not listed in my bird book. Glorying in my “discovery,” I enthusiastically related it to my companions and was told rather scornfully by one advanced member of the group that I had seen “nothing’ but a dern nonparel!” Nevertheless, this practical check to my supposed contribution to ornithology did not lessen my admiration for the bird. Seeing it today is almost as great a thrill as it was then, and though it nests annually in my yard, it remains to me a source of constantly recurring pleasure and satisfaction. Spring: The painted bunting is a rather late migrant in spring. Widely scattered localities, together with apparently inconsistent dates, are confusing. Illustrative is its appearance in considerable numbers at the Dry Tortugas on April 14 and its arrival at Charleston, S.C., on April 9 the same year. ï The great majority of birds winter south of this country, but their return in spring is confused in Florida by the fact that some winter there. As Howell (1932) points out: “The presence of wintering birds [in Florida] makes it difficult to determine the date when migration begins:” Migrants have been noted in the Keys late in April (Key West, April 30, Lignumvitae Key, April 29, Miami, April 16). Yet they arrive some years as far up the east coast as Daytona on April 12. On the west coast the dates average earlier, with birds arriving at Tallahassee and Appalachicola on April 19. The bird drops off sharply at the latter locality, and F. M. Weston has found it rare at Pensacola: “My own coastal data on the nonpareil are: Regular spring migrant, common for a day or two in some years. Not known to nest in the Pensacola area nor anywhere in the three western counties of Florida. Only a single fall migration record in my 46 years’ residence.” A similar condition exists along the Alabama coast where Imhof (1962) gives its status on the Gulf Coast as “an uncommon to fairly common spring transient, a rare and local summer resident, and a rare fall transient. It is known to breed only in suburban Mobile. In the remainder of the Coastal Plain, or slightly north of it, it is a rare spring transient.” In Mississippi, Burleigh (1944) gives arrival dates as from April 8 to 26. He calls it “a rather scarce transient both in spring and fall.” H. C. Oberholser (1938), writing on its status in Louisiana, furnishes arrival dates “from March 11th”, but early April appears much more typical. At Baton Rouge, some 90 miles north of New Orleans, it has been noted as arriving in late April, the 22nd to the 28th.
George C. Williams (MS.), in detailed notes from Texas, states that the arrival in Rockport varies from April 9: 27. Dates are later at Houston, as might be expected since it is inland, and range from April 22: 27. At Harlingen, in the Brownsville area, the arrival has been noted as April 24, which seems strange, although in a series of years it corresponds with more northern areas.
Returning now to the east and the South Atlantic region, Frederick V. Hebard (MS.) reports arrival in southeastern Georgia (Refuge) from April 16 at the earliest to April 24. He states that the salt water line of the Great Satilla River lies just below Refuge. Eugene E. Murphey (1937) gives arrival dates for Augusta on the Savannah River as April 25: 28.
At Charleston, S.C. the nonpareil arrives about mid-April. I usually do not look for it until the 16th, and it has arrived many times on that date. Wayne’s (1910) earliest was April 9, but he did not see it in some years until April 23. The males arrive first, and are followed by the females a week to 10 days later. The earliest record for South Carolina was established by E. S. Weyl and J. M. Coombs, Jr., of Philadelphia, on Mar. 21, 1939, which is considerably earlier than the earliest observation made by resident ornithologists.
The nonpareil goes on into North Carolina as far as Beaufort, confining itself, as it does everywhere in the South Atlantic area, to the coast region. Pearson and the Brimleys (1942) state that it is present there from April 15, the exact time it usually arrives in the Charleston area, some 200 miles south. No other arrival dates have been given for North Carolina.
Any critical examination of the nonpareil’s spring migration cannot fail to impress the student with the peculiar hiatus between the Apalachicola and Mississippi rivers of the Gulf Coast (Florida to Louisiana). In this area the bird is rare and unrecorded in some years. East and west of it, the bird is common.
Perhaps George G. Williams’ theory of spring migration around the Gulf of Mexico would explain, or at least help to explain, the comparative absence of the bird in that area. Williams’ (1945) theory counters the long-held idea that all birds cross the Gulf, suggesting that many of them, if not most, travel around it, both east and west. To visualize this revolutionary thought, let us suppose that the spring route follows the shape of the symmetrical sweeping curve outlined by a cow’s horns. Starting at the forehead (Yucatan), one horn curves around the east Mexican coast and sweeps first west, then north and east along Texas and Louisiana to, say, Pascagoula, Miss. The other turns eastward out toward and just short of Cuba, crosses the Strait of Florida, and curves up the west coast of that state to swing westward toward Pensacola. The gap between the tips of the horns basically is the area already mentioned. At the tips of both horns the nonpareil migration almost peters out, most of the birds having cut inland (northward) along the sweep of the horn’s curve into Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi on the west, and up through Florida on the east. This leaves only stragglers to reach the area of scarcity and, as a consequence, they are few in number and considerably scattered.
If there were a strong trans-Gulf migration of these birds directly across that body of water, one could assume that large numbers of nonpareils would make landfall in the United States at the nearest point in a direct line from Yucatan. This point would be the area about Mobile and Pensacola, which is the very heart of the section where the bird is uncommon to rare.
After the above was written much controversial comment about Williams’ theory developed among ornithologists. Most contemporary students of migration disagree with him, holding with that foremost proponent of trans-gulf movement, George H. Lowery, Jr., of Louisiana State University. It seems established today that Williams’ theory was too sweeping in its concept, but it remains probable that some avian species are “shore-huggers” rather than directly trans-gulf travelers. From the evidence at hand, I am strongly inclined to put the nonpareil among these.
Courtship: This takes place as soon as the females arrive and is an animated performance, frequently characterized by lethal battles between the males, remarkable for their savagery.
In his attentions to his prospective mate, the nonpareil carries out most of the courtship procedure on the ground, where he flattens himself out, spreads his wings and tail, and fluffs his plumage much like a miniature turkey gobbler. The display actions are rather jerky and stiff, with alternating periods of activity and stillness.
Nesting: The nonpareil is a bird of low growths, hedgerows, bushes, and thick grassy areas, and is consistent in placing its nest at low elevations. Usually it is in a bush or tangle of vines 3 to 6 feet from the ground and occasionally built in a banner of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). When this is the case, it may well be as much as 25 feet or more high. Such nests are, of course, invisible, and only can be located by seeing the female fly to a particular clump.
The nest itself is well made, a deep cup woven and firmly attached to the twigs or moss strands that support it. The materials are largely grass, weed stalks, and leaves, oftea little more than skeletal tracery in which the grassy cup is formed. The lining is either hair or fine grass.
In most of its breeding range the bird raises two broods each season, but in the Charleston area three are raised, and at times four (Wayne, 1910). Wayne has found young birds “as late as September 16th.” Eggs are laid by mid-May, and, indicative of the three-brood habit, Wayne has secured fresh eggs on May 18, June 16, and July 15. Audubon states that two broods are raised in Louisiana. Wilson, speaking of that State, says that two are “probable.” Obcrholser (1938) says “two or more.” The Rev. John Bachman, quoted by Audubon and living in Charleston near where Wayne worked, notes that “I have had them to raise three broods of young in the year in confinement.” At the northern limit of its Atlantic Coast range (Wihnington-Beaufort, N.C.) the nonpareil apparently reduces its nesting to no more than two, and often just one, brood.
The situation in Florida is curious. Although the bird winters there with regularity, and although it occurs there in large numbers m spring, it is far from a common breeder there. South of a line across the peninsula from Vero Beach to the Gulf of Mexico, there is apparently but one nesting record (Howell, 1932). All nesting records for Florida are coastal, and it is only in the northern half of the peninsula that it breeds at all regularly. It does not breed at all in the “panhandle”.
In Georgia, Burleigh (1958) states that it is “A common summer resident on the coast and along the Savannah River as far north as Augusta. Largely of accidental occurrence in the interior of the State, * * * away from the coast it is rarely observed.” Eugene E. Murphey (1937) states that it used to nest abundantly at and about Augusta, Ga., but less so in recent years. Some of the dimlnution he lays to the charge of “those * * * who have charge of highway construction and maintenance, who relentlessly wage a war of extirpation against all roadside vegetation,” thus. eliminating favored nesting sites. Augusta is the only inland locality in Georgia where the species breeds, or even occurs, regularly. It is on the Savannah River at the “fall line.”
A somewhat similar situation prevails along the coastal rivers of South Carolina where the nonpareil penetrates farther inland along the course of such streams than they do in areas where there are no rivers.
Burleigh (1944) states that he knew of only two localities in Mississippi where it nested, a regular one near Pass Christian and another near Bioxi, which was for one season only.
The male has little if anything to do with the domestic arrangements, as might be inferred from the brilliant plumage, calculated to draw attention. He stays in the general vicinity of the nest and sings constantly in territorial warning. The inconspicuous female is easy to overlook.
The incubation period is usually 11 days, but sometimes 12. The fledging period lasts from 12 to 14 days. The male is not recorded as taking any part in feeding the young while they are in the nest, but he occasionally feeds them after they have left it.
Eggs: The painted bunting usually lays three or four eggs; occasionally sets of five eggs are found. In shape they vary from ovate to short-ovate. They have a slight gloss and the ground is grayishwhite or very pale bluish-white. The markings, in the form of speckles or fine spots, are in shades of brown such as “chestnut,” “chesnut brown,” “Mars brown,” “pecan brown,” or “russet brown,~~ with undertones of “pale mouse gray,” and “pale Quaker drab.” The spotting is generally concentrated toward the large end where often a ring is formed, although some eggs are fairly well covered with very fine specks. The measurements of 50 eggs average 18.9 by 14.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure p21.3 by 15.~3, 17.8 by 13,7 and 18.0 by 13.2 millimeters.
Plumages: T he literature contains many direct contradictions on the nonpareil’s plumage development. Wilson stated that “On the fourth and fifth season, the bird has attained his complete colors.” Audubon took exception to this statement and maintained that full plumage was attained at the “second season.” Actually some males do not attain their full breeding plumage until their third year.
In first fall plumage the young male resembles the female. The next spring it is still much like the female, but blue feathers begin to appear on the head and by the following year practically full plumage is attained. The patchy appearance of some birds in that interim is remarkable. Wayne (1910) collected a male that had the throat, jugulum, and eye ring bright yellow instead of red.
Dwight (1900) states the juvenal plumage is acquired by a complete postnatal molt. Both sexes are then olive-brown above and the wings are dull clove-brown with sage-green edgings, brownish on the coverts. The tail is dull olive-green. Underparts are pale grayish drab washed with buff, most marked posteriorly. The orbital ring is pale buff. The bill is umber-brown with the upper mandible darker. In dried specimens the feet are dark sepia.
The first winter plumage is acquired by a post-juvenal molt which seems to be complete, one specimen from South Carolina taken October 13 being in this dress. The birds are now bright olive-green or oil-green above, and the wings and tail have become darker than in the juvenal plumage. The coverts are wholly oil-green and the remiges and rectrices are edged with a sllghtly paler shade. Underparts are olive-yellow, becoming maize-yellow posteriorly and dull lemon anteriorly. The orbital ring is lemon-yellow. Individual variation is considerable with some birds more yellow, or more green, and some males showing occasional blue or reddish feathers.
In the first nuptial plumage, acquired by wear, young males resemble the average adult female. The more worn primary coverts are, however, usually brown, and lack the greenish edgings. Juvenal coverts may be retained. The adult winter plumage with its brrniant colors is acquired by a complete postnuptial molt. Probably year-old birds do not acquire remiges and coverts tinged wholly claret as in adults. This would account for the green feathers mixed with the others in many specimens in which all the feathers are equally worn. The claret and greenish remiges and the body plumage are equally fresh in November birds. The claret-tinged tail is first acquired at this molt.
The adult nuptial plumage is acquired by wear. Birds with stray green remiges are probably birds of the second nuptial stage; those having all the remiges tinged claret are probably of the third nuptial. The primary coverts are usually tinged claret at both stages and unlike the brown ones of the first nuptial period. The full adult dress is certainly assumed at the second postnuptial molt and in some cases, probably at the first.
Molts and plumages of the female correspond to those of the male. In the juvenal plumage the wings and tail are duller; in the first winter dress, relative dullness prevails but the sexes scarcely differ, and the first nuptial plumage is assumed by wear. This plumage is characterized by worn brown primary coverts as in the male. At the first postnuptial molt females assume bright green-edged remiges, rectrices, and primary coverts and are even greener above and yellower below than males in first winter dress. At the second postnuptial molt or later ones, birds tend toward the plumage of the male, developing blue or dull red feathers where brighter areas occur in the male.
Many young males cannot be distinguished with certainty from females by plumage alone. The absence of mixed plumages of old and new feathers, as found in Pa.sserina cyar&ea, belies the occurrence of any semiannual molt as in that species.
Behavior: The nonpareil always gives the impression of being sprightly and vivacious. That this is not altogether due to its brilliant plumage is evidenced by the fact that this applies to the female also. It is often a dooryard bird, which adds to its popularity. Abundant as it is, many people living in its range are not acquainted with it, which seems to bear out the belief of some writers that the nonpareil is a shy bird. Certainly many say that it is, but the facts do not support it. It is rather retiring in the fall and often hard to find, particularly the male, but during a lifetime spent with it I have never seen any indication that the bird deserves this reputation.
It nests freely in towns and cities, many pairs doing so annually in Charleston. It is not unusual to see a male perched on a telephone wire above a street, delivering its song completely in the open and at some distance from any cover. Regarding its tendency to frequent the proximity of human habitation, I know of no spot more closely identified with this bird than the grounds of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Williams and fhe latter’s sister, Miss Clara Bates, in Fort Pierce, Fla. Miss Bates and nonpareils are synonymous. This charming lady has maintained a feeding station for the birds for years and has come to know the species intimately.
Miss Bates (MS.) says: “These birds of the forest edge find a perfect winter habitat in the botanically interesting Florida ‘high hammock’ adjoining our yard. This piece of untouched native growth, approximately three acres in extent, provides both cover and food. Cabbage palms, live oaks, red bay, hickory, gumbo limbo, and mulberry rise above the lower growth of tree-like shrubs and smaller bushes, and are festooned with many species of vines. Everything in this sub-tropical ‘jungle’ bears fruit or seeds. At the edge of the hammock low-growing plants and grasses add their quota of food for the birds. Because of the dense shade in the hammock many of the fruits and seeds mature in mid-winter, and because of that fact there is never any scarcity of food.
“But regardless of the abundance in the hammock, the nonpareils prefer the table spread for them in our yard. They use the hammock for cover, but I never see them in the heart of it. Their favorite hide-away is the immense spread of saw palmetto, with its impenetrable tangle of prostrate trunks and sharp-edged leaves. The huge fanlike fronds give concealment from enemies, and protect the birds from storm, or a too ardent sun. I hear them flitting and rustling in the palmettos all day long, and occasionally catch a glimpse of bright eye or gay plumage.
“My feeding station is placed three feet from the edge of the hammock, near the palmettos. A tray is fastened to the side of a red bay, and a large bush of snowberry (Chicocca alba) surrounds the twin trunks of this tree. I spread food underneath the bush near a large flowerpot saucer that serves as the birds’ bath. I feed a commercial mixture of cracked wheat and corn, and add sunflower seeds. Water is an added attraction.”
Accounts of the selection of a perch when singing are greatly confused. No less eminent an autL~ority than William Brewster (1882b) says that “The bird almost invariably sings in the depths of some thicket, and the voice ceases at the slightest noise.” How Mr. Brewster could have made this statement will always remain a mystery, but his lead has been followed by others. Frank M. Chapman (1912) quotes C. J. Maynard as follows: “[It] is always shy and retiring, seldom appearing in the open, but remaining in the dense, thorny undergrowth * * ‘~’ï Whenever the birds perceive an intruder they retire into the depths of these fastnesses, and it requires considerable beating to drive them out * * ~. The adult males are especially shy, and seldom show themselves. Even while singing they remained concealed, and * * * it was with the utmost difficulty that we caught sight of the authors of the harmonious strains.” Chapman evidently gave full credence to this pronouncement, which must have been based on a phenomenal local condition and which is at variance with the usual facts. Frederick Hebard (MS.) states that “They never ascend to the top of a tree or the end of a branch but sing from a perch about halfway up and halfway out from the trunk.”
Such positive statements are characteristic, but almost always come from northern observers, whose observations most likely are spotty and intermittent. Contrast them with statements of those who either live in the bird’s range or have spent much time there. Howell (1932) says that “When singing, the males seek a perch near the top of a small tree.” Eugene E. Murphey (1937) says of the bird at Augusta that it is its custom “to perch on the top of some small bush, high grass stalk or weed to sound its beautiful song.” Pearson (1942) describes the singing perch as “from some exposed twig.” Now these are vastly different statements from those of Brewster, Maynard, and Hebard. In a lifetime of intimate contact with the nonpareil, I can only say that they represent the actual facts in the bird’s behavior. Undoubtedly the above observers must have seen something to justify their opinions, but their descriptions not only are not characteristic but are the direct opposite.
Exposed and elevated perches (from 3 to 30 feet) are the rule. As to the song ceasing “at the slightest noise” (Brewster, 1882b), this is far from the case. As already mentioned, the birds sing freely from telephone and light wires in absolutely open situations, and often along city streets. Traffic flow does not affect it at all. I have often watched nonpareils singing from a perch distant from any cover while, a few yards beneath, children played, dogs barked, and other clamor went on.
Quite a remarkable characteristic of the bird is its marked pugnacity. For a small passerine species, it is certainly a “scrapper.” Unlike most avian combats which consist of little more than feints and threats, nonpareil battles are frequently bloody and often fatal. They mean business. They usually occur during mating and in territory defense, but they are not limited to these times. Multiple fights are not unusual throughout the summer. The males fly at each other and peck savagely, buffeting with their wings and mixing up in a tight tangle. The birds are so engrossed that one can sometimes pick them up in one’s hands. They appear completely oblivious to everything else in the fervor of the fight. Eyes are sometimes put out, heads streaming with blood and denuded of feathers are commonplace. Occasionally one or another dies.
I have experimented with a mounted bird lure placed near a nonpareil’s territory. The mounted bird was soon set upon with great energy and reduced to a wreck in a few minutes. Curiously enough, this outstanding characteristic of the bird is made little of: and frequently omitted: by many writers. Wayne (1910) describes it well as follows: “As soon as the females arrive mating begins and battles take place daily between the males, which are always extremely pugnacious. In an adult male taken June 24th, 1891, nearly every feather on the top of the head was missing, undoubtedly lost in these encounters. * * * On many occasions I have seen males engaged in combat which did not cease until one was killed. I have repeatedly caught them while fighting, and a male which I examined shortly after a fight had both eyes completely closed.”
The nonpareil delights in baths and is a frequent visitor to basins and fountains. At times I have had the bird disport in the spray of my garden hose, and the effect has been beautiful. The dashing movements and glowing colors amid a rainbow of spray makes them seem like detached bits of prismatic brilliance.
As might be supposed, the nonpareil is not easily intimidated by other birds, even larger ones. Miss Bates (MS.) has interesting comments along this line: “The Nonpareil is the only bird at the feeding station not afraid of the aggressive Mourning Dove. If chased from the tray by this furious ‘bird of peace,’ he will immediately fly back to the tray behind the dove and continue to feed. Sometimes there are three or four Nonpareils on the tray with a dove, but always behind him! They feed with Cardinals, White-eyed Towhees, Catbirds and Ground Doves and are unafraid of the larger birds. On the ground * * * they eat side by side with rabbits and squirrels.”
The nonpareil is a true finch in its habitat preferences and in all its actions. It is an open country bird, although it resorts to dense cover at times. Scattered treees, field edges, grassy situations, hedgerows and shrubbery along roadsides, trailing vines and the like, are favored haunts. Its actions are distinctly sparrowlike; it feeds a good deal on the ground or on bending grass stalks, and prefers low cover most of the time.
Voice: It seems to me that the literature has been cavalier in its treatment of the nonpareil’s song, which is said to be weak and lacking in character and which is invariably compared unfavorably to that of the indigo bunting (Passerina cyansa). Nuttall (1832), for instance, says that “Their song much resembles that of the Indigo Bird, but their voice is more feeble and concise.”
Alexander Wilson’s (1832) terminology is practically identical with Nuttall’s: “Their notes very much resemble those of the Indigo Bird but want the strength and energy of the latter, being more feeble and more concise.” Later on, in his account of the species, he speaks of captive specimens singing with “great sprightliness.”
Audubon (1841) is somewhat more generous in his appraisal; he too calls it “sprightly,” but adds that “although not so sonorous as that of the Canary, or of its nearer relative, the indigo bunting, is not far from equalling either.” Later and contemporary writers also compare it with P. cyansa consistently.
William Brewster (1882b) writes: “The song is a low, pleasing warble very un-Finch-like in character. I should compare it to that of the Canadian Flycatcher [Canada warbler, Wilsonia canadensisj, but the notes are less emphatic, though equally disconnected.” I agree that it is a “pleasing warble,” but have never thought it “low.” Compared to most small passerine birds, the song of the nonpareil does not lose volume. It can be easily heard from a distance of 100 yards, and it is, at any rate, an indefatigable performance, heard from morning till night. Two or three pairs nest close to my home annually, and seldom do many minutes pass without the song resounding clearly and cheerfully.
Mrs. T. E. Winford describes the call note as “pik-pik-pik.” Aretas A. Saunders wrote Mr. Bent that “the song of the painted bunting is sweet and musical, high-pitched, but rather weak. It is much more musical in quality than that of the Indigo Bunting. It is made up of single-notes, two or three-note phrases, and occasional trills, usually with abrupt changes in pitch, and it is uncommon to have two or three consecutive notes on the same pitch. Phonetic examples are: tida dayda tida day teetayta tita; witee wi witee wi witato; and to taytletay weeto weeto taytletay wee.
“In 17 records obtained in Oklahoma in 1950, the number of notes per song varied from 7 to 13, averaging a little more than 10. The length of songs varied from 1 to 4 seconds, and averaged about 2. There was a pause, however, in the 4-second song, so that by leaving it out, the average would be about 1.85. The pitch varied from D# to D’. In different songs, the pitch varied from 2 to 4% tones, averaging about 3.
“Each bird sings a number of different songs. I recorded four different songs from one bird. They prefer a conspicuous although not necessarily high, perch from which to sing, and I heard one bird sing from the ground. In general, the song shows a tendancy to start on a higher pitch and end on a lower one, seven of my records ending on the lowest note of the song.”
Food: A member of the Fringillidae, the nonpareil is primarily a seed-eater. This has been shown by stomach analyses, although these have not been extensive, and by observation.
In South Carolina, I have observed the bird closely. Its frequency, not to say constant presence, in weedy fields, edges of woods and salt marshes, roadside hedges, and so forth, indicate that seeds of grasses are its main dependence. And added to the habitat is the actual sight of the bird on the stems of such growth, picking away at the heads of seed. Foxtail grass (Alopecurus), some pines, figs, and sunflowers furnish most of the preferred seeds in the Carolina Low Country.
In Florida, Howell (1932) examined 13 stomachs, in which vegetable food composed 73 percent of the total content. Among the “considerable quantities” of seeds were those of various grasses, sedges, and weeds, including dock (Rumex ace,to.sella), Panieum.s, Hypericums, and Cyperu.s. One stomach contained pine seeds, another rose seeds. Wheat was found in two, and fig seeds and pulp had been taken “in several instances.” Animal matter consisted of insects, amounting to 27 percent; those represented were “beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bugs, wasps, flies and lepidopterus larvae.”
W. L. McAtee (in Beal, McAtee, and Kalinbach, 1916) says: “Few complaints have been lodged against the painted bunting on the score of its food habits. It is said to eat rice at times, to peck into figs and grapes, and to bite off the tips of pecan shoots. In no case that has come to notice, however, has it been charged with doing serious damage. Certainly no such charge is supported by the investigations of the Biological Survey, for no product of husbandry has thus far been found in any of the stomachs examined, 80 of which have been examined, all collected in Texas in July, August and September.” He goes on to say that animal matter composed 20.86 percent and vegetable matter 79.14 percent, closely paralleling the ratio in the specimens mentioned by Howell from Florida. With the eastern and western portions of the range thus indicated, it is not to be supposed that much variation takes place in the central areas of the bird’s occurrence.
McAtee further observes that 2.48 percent of the animal food “was made up of weevils, mostly cotton boll weevils. All insects of this group are destructive, but none more so than the notorious cotton boll weevil, and this species had been eaten by 18 of the 80 nonpareils examined.” The cotton-worm is also eaten, and composed 3.14 percent of the animal food. Other insects listed by McAtee include “grasshoppers, crickets, click beetles, leaf beetles, caterpillars, true bugs, and small hymenopterans. A few spiders and one snail also were taken.”
In the vegetable category, he found that “The vegetable food is remarkable in consisting largely of a single item: the seeds of foxtail, or pigeon grass. This is one of the worst weeds in the United States. The 80 painted bimtings made over two-thirds (precisely 67.03 percent) of their total food of its seeds. The seeds of other grasses composed ~.88 percent of the food grasses alone, thus furnishing over nine-tenths of the vegetable portion.” Other seeds were those of mallow, amaranth, sorrel, and nail grass.
He sums up by saying that practically all the vegetable food is weed seeds and the animal food almost exclusively injurious insects, more than a fourth being the two greatest pests of the cotton crop. Surely this is an honorable record and one which deserves better knowledge on the part of the farmer, gardener, horticulturist, and bird student. It is easy to wish that the nonpareil’s range was greater than it is.
Caged: In the days when cage birds were in vogue in this country, the nonpareil held front rank in popularity. The practice was an old one, for both Wilson and Audubon comment on it. Wilson (1832) had the following to say concerning it:
I found these birds very commonly domesticated in the houses of the French inhabitants of New Orleans; appearing to be the most common cage bird they have. The negroes often bring them to market, from the neighbouring plantations, for sale; either in cages, taken in traps, or in the nest. A wealthy French planter, who lives on the banks of the Mississippi, a few miles below Bayou Fourche, took me into his garden, which is spacious and magnificent, to show me his aviary; where, among many of our common birds, I observed several nonpareils, two of which had nests, and were then hatching. * * * Many of them have been transported to Europe; and I think I have somewhere read, that in Holland attempts have been made to breed them, and with success.
Six of these birds, which I brought with me from New Orleans by sea, soon became reconciled to the cage. In good weather, the males sang with great sprightliness, though they had been caught only a few days before my departure. They were greedily fond of flies, which accompanied us in great numbers during the whole voyage; and many of the passengers amused themselves with catching these, and giving them to the Nonpareils; till, at length, the birds became so weU acquainted with this amusement, that as soon as they perceived any of the people attempting to catch flies, they assembled at the front of the cage, stretching out their heads through the wires with eager expectation, evidently much interested in the issue of their efforts.
Though the practice of caging native wild birds has now long since been prohibited, I recall an experience similar to that of Wilson’s that I had in New Orleans when I was ehown the aviary of a wealthy citizen there. He was neither French nor a planter, but he was interested in birds, and had a collection housed in as fine a structure as any zoological park in the country could boast. There was a caretaker whose sole responsibility was to devote himself to the avian captives. I was assured that the necessary permits were had and, like Wilson, I saw several nonpareils there.
Audubon (1841) too was impressed by the cage-bird traffic: * * * no sooner does it [the nonpareil] make its appearance [in LouisianaJ than trap-cages are set, and a regular business is commenced in the market of that city. The method employed in securing the male Painted Finch is so connected with its pugnacious habits, that I feel inclined to describe it, especially as it is so different from the common way of aliuring birds *
A male bird in full plumage is shot and stuffed in a defensive attitude, and perched among some grass-seed, rice, or other food, on the same platform as the trap-cage. This is taken to the fields or near the orangeries, and placed in so open a situation, that it would be difficult for a living bird of any species to fly over it, without observing it. The trap is set. A male Painted Finch passes, perceives it, and dives towards the stuffed bird, with aU the anger which its little breast can contain. It alights on the edge of the trap for a moment, and throwing its body against the stuffed bird, brings down the trap, and is made a prisoner. In this manner, thousands of these birds are caught every spring. So pertinacious are they in their attacks, that even when the trap has closed upon them, they continue pecking at the feathers of the supposed rival. * *
They feed almost immediately after being caught; and if able to suoport the loss of liberty for a few days, may be kept f or several years. I have known some instances of their being kept in confinement for upwards of ten years. Few vessels leave the port of New Orleans during the summer months, without taking some Painted Finches, and through this means they are transported probably to all parts of Europe. I have seen them offered for sale in London and Paris, with the triffing difference in value on each individual, which converted the sixpence paid for it in New Orleans to three guineas in London.
Wayne (1910) says: “This species is easily caught in trap-cages in the months of April and May. A decoy bird is placed in a cage and the latter is then placed near some hedge where Nonpareils are present. As soon as a male perceives a bird of his species in the cage, he at once makes for it and is caught. Large numbers used to be taken in this manner. They become tame almost at once, and seem to prefer hemp seed as an article of food when in captivity.”
Earle R. Greene (1946) states: “This beautiful little bird has suffered to an alarming degree from trapping and caging, practiced over many years by the Cuban population of the keys. The Cubans love birds, but their admiration expresses itself in wishing to cage them to have them about their homes and dwellings and stores. The writer found that breaking up this practice was a delicate and difficult matter, and one that required considerable public education.” Prior to Mr. Greene’s tenure of office at Key West, the National Audubon Society’s representative there, Edward M. Moore, had been working on the cage-bird situation for several years. Thanks to his experience with West Indian peoples in former years, and his diplomatic handling of the matter, cage-bird traffic was greatly reduced.
Field marks: The male painted bunting is so absolutely distinc.tive that it cannot be confused with any other species. Howell’s (1932) vivid, if terse, description leaves nothing to the imagination, although none is needed. This is what he says: “Head and nape azurite blue (dark violet blue); foreback yellow-green; rump dragon’sblood red; underparts scarlet.” No one could fail to recognize such a bird as that, but many of course, are not aware of its existence, and when seeing it for the first time, are somewhat incredulous of the evidence of their own eyes.
The female is so utterly unlike the male that those unfamiliar with the species would never connect the two. It is easy to understand, however, that the brilliance of the latter would be a dead give-away at the nest, while the somber colors of the female blend well into the surrounding vegetation she frequents. To quote Howell (1932) again, he says of her: “Upperparts oil green or bice green; underparts pyrite yellow &ellowish green), shading to amber yellow on the belly; wings and tail hair brown (dark drab) shaded with green.” Peterson (1947) notes her primary field characteristic by pointing out that “no other small Finch is green.”
In closing my remarks on the bird’s appearance, let me quote Miss Clara Bates (MS.) once more. In writing of the earliest fall arrival at Fort Pierce in 1937 (August 10) she says: “This little chap was down on the shore in front of our place, feeding on a three-foot stalk of heavy-headed sea grass. It was one of the most exquisite sights I ever saw: the male in full plumage, clinging to the bending grass stem and eating the seeds, chipping softly to himself all the time. The white coral sand of the shore, the river blue as the tropical sky, and the background of deep green sea-grape, made a wonderful setting * * * his plumage was as gay as that of a painted butterfly, and he poised as lightly on the grass-stem. He was so fearless that I was able to move within a few feet of him, and could observe his vivid red eyelids without using my field glasses.~~ Fall: The southward movement of the nonpareil starts rather early, but covers a considerable period. From the northern limit of its South Atlantic range (Beaufort, N.C.) the last appearance dates in fall are nothing if not vague. Pearson and the Brimleys (1942) say no more than that the bird leaves in “early autumn.” In the Charleston region the species becomes progressively less common in late September and more so in October, when the males are difficult to locate. Most of the birds leave during that month, and it is unusual to see one after October 20: 25. The latest record is November 4. Murphey (1937) states that it leaves the Augusta (Ga.) region in “late October.”
In North Florida, Howell (1932) gives last dates for Fernandina as October 20; Daytona, October 22; New Smyrna; November 7; and Sombrero Light, November 11. At Fort Pierce, Miss Bates (MS.) says that the earliest fall appearance (south of the breeding range) is August 7, adding that “the early fall migrants pass on rapidly.” From early August on, however, she has the birds more or less continually at her place through fall and winter. Florida is the only state in which it winters with regularity, and that occurs very locally and in the southern portion. Illustrative of Miss Bates’s observance, from August through the remainder of the year are: August 10, 15, and 29; September 26; October 10 and 19; November 19; and December 6. From January to April she has birds in varying numbers constantly.
My own experience with nonpareils in winter in Florida embraces the Lake Okeechobee area (Okeechobee City, N.E. corner of the lake, and Clewiston, S.W. corner) where I conducted the Audubon Wildlife tours for several years. In each of these towns the species was observed regularly at several feeding stations from January through the rest of the winter months.
In 1960, the Audubon tours were shifted to Naples on the southwest coast, nearer the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Nonpareils were present in Naples the entire winter. In the beautiful Caribbean Gardens of Naples, this species frequents the close vicinity of cages housing parakeets and finches to pick up seeds scattered therefrom, and, at times, as many as a half dozen can be seen any day from January through March. Several privately maintained feeding stations in the town itself harbor nonpareils the entire winter. Therefore, the species really is a common, though perhaps local, wintering bird in Florida from Lake Okeechobee southward.
In Texas, Williams (MS.) gives departure dates at Cove (near Galveston) as from September 17 to October 19. The latest Texas departure is more than 2 weeks earlier than the latest South Carolina date.
Winter: Alexander F. Skutch contributes the following: “Painted buntings arrive in Guatemala early in October. During the winter months they are found throughout the length of Central America as far south as western Panama, but are more abundant in the north than in the south, and on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica appear to be absent. Although on Nov. 15, 1930, I met a single male at 8,500 feet in the mountains above Tecp~n, Guatemala, he had probably not yet settled down for the winter; certainly while in Central America the great majority of painted buntings spend this season between sea-level and 5,000 feet. A. W. Anthony (Griscom, 1932) round this bird abundant in January and February in the arid valley of the Rfo Negro at Sacapulas in northern Guatemala, but I have never anywhere known it to be common. In parts of Central America that I have visited, I have met at most scattered individuals of the painted bunting; it has always appeared to be rarer than the indigo bunting, wbich winters in the same localities. The seeming rareness of painted buntings may be caused in part by the dense cover they haunt, in riverside brakes of tall wild cane, high grass, pastures overgrown with bushes and weeds, and similar low, crowded vegetation. Adult males, of course, wear their variegated nuptial attire throughout the year; and as early as midMarch I have seen males and females keeping company as though mated. I have never heard the painted bunting sing in Central America. My latest spring record is of a female seen near Los Amates in the Motagua Valley of Guatemala on April 18, 1932.”
Range: Missouri, Tennessee, and North Carolina to Veracruz, Yucatan, and Cuba.
Breeding range: The eastern painted bunting breeds from southern Missouri, southwestern Tennessee (Memphis), southern Alabama (Mobile), central South Carolina (Columbia), and southeastern North Carolina (Beaufort) south to southeastern Texas (Houston), southern Louisiana (Calcasieu Lake, Pass a Loutre), southern Mississippi (Biloxi), and central Florida (Punta Rasa, New Smyrna).
Winter range: Winters from southern Louisiana (Cameron, New Orleans), central Florida (Seven Oaks, Fort Pierce), and the northern Bahamas (Grand Bahama, Berry Islands, New Providence) south to southern Veracruz (Tres Zapotes), Yucatan (Chich~n Itz~), Quintana Roo (Cozumel Island), and Cuba; casually north to South Carolina (Winnsboro), North Carolina (Fayetteville), New Jersey (Haddonfield), and Massachusetts (Falmouth).
Casual records: Casual north to the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts.
Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Nayarit: Tres Marias Islands, April 26. Florida: northern peninsula, March 9; southern peninusla, March 21. Alabama: Dauphin Island, March 26. Georgia: Savannah, April 7 (average, April 14). South Carolina: March 21; median of 10 years at Charleston, April 15. North Carolina: Brunswick County, May 2. Maryland: Laurel, May 1. New Jersey: Cape May, May 4. New York: Easthampton, May 13. Louisiana: New Orleans, March 11; Baton Rouge, April 6. Mississippi: Gulfport, April 8; Rosedale, April 23. Arkansas: Little Rock, May 2. Tennessee: Memphis, May 2. Minnesota: near Madison, May 2. Texas: Austin, April 4; Sinton, April 5 (median of 6 years, April 19); Cove, April 14. Oklahoma: Tulsa, April 11; Custer County, April 17. Kansas: Winfield, April 28. Nebraska: Hastings, May 19. Colorado: Denver, May 17.
Late dates of spring departure are: El Salvador: Chilata, April 27. Veracruz: southern Veracruz, Apiri 6. Campeche: Ichek, April 22. Florida: Lower Keys, June 13. Alabama: Grove Hill, May 23. Mississippi: Deer Island, May 9. Texas: Central Coast, May 30.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Arizona: Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains, August 11. New Hampshire: New Hampton, August 21. Maryland: Ocean City, August 31. El Salvador: Divisadero, November 12.
Late dates of fall departure are: Arizona: Fort Huachuca, September 13. New Mexico: Mesilla, September 30. Oklahoma: Fort Sill, September 6. Texas: Cove, October 19; Austin, October 14. Mississippi: Deer Island, November 1. Louisiana: Baton Rouge, October 23. New York: Manhattan, October 19. New Jersey-Island Beach, September 29. Virginia: Blacksburg, September 7. South Carolina: November 5. Georgia: Augusta, October 21. Alabama: Dauphin Island, November 1, October 17. Florida: Fowey Rocks Light, November 20; Leon County, October 31.
Egg dates: Florida: 2 records, May 16 and May 27.
Georgia: 72 records, May 1 to July 26; 36 records, May 18 to May 31.
WESTERN PAINTED BUNTING
PASSERINA CIRIS PALLIDIOR Mearns
Contributed by WENDELL TABER
Mr. Bent stated that this race is larger than its eastern relative. The red under parts of the male are paler vermilion red, and the female is more grayish green above and more buffy, less yellowish below. These color differentiations may well be associated with the somewhat different type of habitat. Charles IL Blake writes to point out that this race inhabits the drier part of the range of the species. He also quotes R. W. Storer (1951) who says that replaced tail feathers in the male may be of female type and red may occur in the plumage of first year males and also adult females. Blake comments that these phenomena have also been observed in the purple finch and can be expected to be general in species with strong sexual dimorphism.
Florence M. Bailey (1928) states the nest is located in hackberry, cat-claw, or chaparral, about six feet from the ground, made of grasses and sometimes leaves, lined with finer grasses and hairs. There may be four or five eggs. Practically all of the vegetable food is weed seeds, two-thirds of it being seeds of foxtail grass. The measurements of seven eggs, furnished by E. N. Harrison, average 19.1 by 14.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.0 by 15.0, 18.6 by 15.2, 18.3 by 14.8, and 18.4 by 14.5 millimeters.
Range: New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Panama.
Breeding range: The western painted bunting breeds from southeastern New Mexico (Mesilla, Carlsbad), central Oklahoma (Blame County, Oklahoma City), and central eastern Kansas (Solomon, Lawrence) south through western and central Texas to southern Chihuahua (Camargo), southern Coahuila (Hip6lito), and southern Texas (Edinburg, Victoria).
Winter range: Winters from central Sinaloa (San Lorenzo), San Luis Potosi (Xilitla), and central Tamaulipas (Victoria) south through Mexico (exclusive of the Yucatan Peninsula), and Central America to western Panama (Chiiquf).
Casual records: Casual in California (Tia Juana River Valley), Oregon (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge), Arizona (Nogales, Huachuca Mountains, Chiricahua Mountains), and Colorado (Denver).
Egg dates: Texas: 89 records, March 28 to July 26; 22 records, May21 to June 10.