It’s no small feat for songbirds like Painted Buntings to live long lives. From habitat loss to building collisions to illegal pet trade and underground singing competitions—yes, that’s a thing—Painted Buntings face threats every day.
But in a picturesque small South Carolina town, at a stunning farmhouse with lush blooming gardens, Audubon South Carolina’s team documented an individual that tied the age record for the species.
This bunting’s story started 14 years ago. At that time, Lex Glover, a retired wildlife technician at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and Jamie Rotenburg, a professor at the University of North Carolina, started the Painted Bunting Observation Team (PBOT)—a research program that banded, released, and monitored buntings across their East Coast range.
The program enlisted the help of feeder hosts who would record the comings and goings of individual birds for years, learning about their longevity and other behaviors. Ann Knolte and Hank Stallworth hosted one of these stations at their farmhouse. That’s where Glover and Rotenburg banded this particular bunting.
Even after the PBOT program ended, Knolte had continued taking detailed notes of bunting behavior in her yard, including this one that visited the area for years. Fast-forward to July 2023—she contacted Jennifer Tyrrell, an engagement manager at Audubon South Carolina, who, along with her intern Katie Galletta, came out to determine if he was as old as they suspected, by confirming his age and identity from the metal band on his leg.
Then they waited. “Sitting where my friend Lex sat 14 years before, obsessively watching for the arrival of one specific bird, hoping he had not met an untimely end, we anxiously waited with bated breath for old man bunting,” recounts Tyrrell.
An afternoon regular in the yard, like clockwork, he appeared.
Jennifer Tyrrell holds the 14-year-old Painted Bunting while showing off its bands. Photo: Katie Galletta
Tyrrell carefully recorded his band number to confirm this was the bird they thought he was and quickly processed and released him to live on for another day.
The oldest Painted Bunting ever recorded was 14 years old, and sure enough, coming in at 14 years, this individual tied the longevity record for the species.
Tyrrell owes this discovery to the people who took the time to research and band these birds and those who provided vital habitat for them right in their own yards. She urges others who want to attract Painted Buntings to plant the native plants they need, reduce pesticide use, turn off lights during migration, and keep cats indoors.
As for this 14-year-old Painted Bunting, he’s still visiting Nolte and Stallworth’s backyard oasis as he prepares for his migration journey. (You can track the species' path with the Bird Migration Explorer).
“Now we wait until next spring,” says Tyrrell. “Will our old friend show up at Ann and Hank’s for a 15th year, breaking the record as the oldest Painted Bunting to ever live? Only time will tell.”
To learn more about Audubon South Carolina’s efforts to track and study Painted Buntings, visit their website.
Story originally published on Audubon.org by Gabrielle Saleh