Unlocking the Mystery of South Carolina's Painted Buntings

What you can do to keep those flying rainbows in our skies?

If there was ever a standard spark bird, Painted Buntings are it. Among birders, Passerina ciris are referred to as the nonpareil, or “without an equal.” Their bright, colorful plumage is almost unbelievable in its complexity—you can get lost looking at the iridescent galaxy of an after second-year aged (ASY) male’s wing coverts (the small feathers that cover the wing over top of the flight feathers allowing for aerodynamic contour).

It’s a bird that people travel from far and wide to see—seeking them out like a hidden treasure for the eye candy that they are. 

Painted Buntings occur in two main populations: those along the Southeastern coast, and a more abundant and widespread Western population.

Painted Buntings are known to winter in Central America, Mexico, Southern Florida, and some places in the Caribbean. What we don’t know is where our population spends its time during the winter months. While a few stay put year-round—delighting surprised homeowners when they spot a glorious splash of color in their yards on bleak winter days—a majority head south between September and October, when the nighttime flying conditions are right for safe passage. But exactly where these birds go and how they get was a mystery (though we’re pretty sure they fly).

Painted Bunting Release

Aside from being a Painted Bunting admirer like everyone else, my job, as the Engagement Manager and Master Bird Bander, is to help solve the mystery of where South Carolina’s Painted Buntings go during that other half of the year.

 PABU populations (PABU is banding shorthand for Painted Buntings) has experienced decline in some of it's range. Much like us, these birds love the Lowcountry and nearby coastal regions, which is where they choose to nest and raise their young. We humans, who favor the same habitat, tend to remove the birds’ preferred scrubby edge habitat in favor of clean lines, manicured lawns, and non-native landscaping. We swap out Wax Myrtles for Crepe Myrtles, and unwittingly evict these winged rainbows from our yards in the process.

While habitat loss in the coastal breeding range is a major factor in population decline, we know far less about the hurdles and perils these birds face on their wintering grounds.

Birds don’t respect the political boundaries we draw on maps, so managing for a species’ conservation presents significant challenges. They often travel to places that we have no control, influence or power over. Some birds, like the Cerulean Warbler, are victims of the illegal drug trade. Their specific wintering habitat is also favored by the coca farmers who supply the world with cocaine. And drugs aren’t the only problem. Coffee plantations are notorious for destroying habitat for many of our beloved species as well. If you’re not buying shade-grown coffee, unfortunately, you’re contributing to the destruction of wintering habitat in exchange for monoculture coffee plantations. Fortunately, bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee is easy to procure and just as delicious—and it’s a habit you can feel good about it!

Painted Bunting Plumage

Beyond habitat loss, Painted Buntings are also frequently a casualty of the pet trade, thanks to their beautiful, technicolor plumage. For anyone who has had a pet bird, you know the joy these amazing little creatures can bring as a permanent member of the family and spectacular fixture in your home to admire every day. But wild-caught birds don’t make good pets. They are immensely stressed and not acclimated to human presence, so the affection and interaction one hopes to share with a pet simply aren’t there. Trapping these individuals on a large scale removes them from the breeding population as well, further contributing to their decline, not unlike many of the parrots who have declined dramatically from the bird smuggling pet trade.  

Knowing where our PABUs go in the winter will give us a better idea if they’re declining due to a loss of wintering habitat driven by illicit or commercial agricultural ventures, or if they’re declining because of the pet trade, and will help inform hemispheric conservation efforts.

Since 2016, Audubon South Carolina, thanks in large part to grant funding from the Carolina Bird Club, has worked to capture and place geolocator backpacks on ASY male PABUs in hopes of capturing the secrets of their migration and wintering grounds. Beginning in 2018, we also began collaborating the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to further our work.

These little backpacks cost roughly $200 a unit and weigh less than 4 percent of the birds’ body weight, and they use light sensors to record sunrise and sunset times. After successfully tagging the birds, the trickiest part is recapturing these now trap-shy individuals a year or later when they return to South Carolina. But when we do, within the precious technological adornment they wear on their backs, lies the story I like to call “There and back again, a Painted Bunting’s Tale.” Using the magic of statistical software and technology, we’re able to see the basic route and timeline of their journeys outside the state.

Satellite technology would be immensely helpful to track these individuals in real-time, but such tags are still far too heavy to attach to these small birds, which only weigh between 14 and 19 grams, or about as much as three quarters. So, for the time being, geolocation technology is the best we can do to get the clearest picture of the birds’ overall journey.

 We deployed 10 units between our banding stations on Dewees Island, Kiawah Island, and St. Matthews. The next summer, we recovered two of those units, which isn’t too bad of a return rate! The bird from Dewees Island spent it's winter in Cuba! The bird from Saint Matthews spent it's winter in the Everglades / west coast region of Florida! 

Painted Bunting tagged on Deweese Island, SC. Photo: ASC Staff

In the meantime, here’s a list of what you can do to help Painted Buntings and keep those flying rainbows in our skies:

  • Plant native plants and simulate natural vegetative structures and layers in your yard (they love Wax Myrtle!)
  • Buy bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee and help protect that wintering habitat!
  • Try luring them to your yard by using high-quality white millet in a caged tube feeder—that seems to be their favorite!
  • Keep cats indoors!
  • Donate to help support our ongoing research efforts!

How you can help, right now