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Painted Bunting
Passerina ciris
– Family
Authors: Lowther, Peter E., Scott M. Lanyon, and Christopher W. Thompson

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Adult male Painted Bunting, breeding plumage
Adult female Painted Bunting; Florida, May
Figure 1. Distribution of the Painted Bunting.

Only when male Painted Buntings reach their second fall do they achieve the dramatic combination of blue, green, and red colors that make this species one of the most spectacularly plumaged songbirds in North America. Indeed, its French name, nonpareil, means “without an equal.” In contrast to the male, the plumage of the female is cryptic green and yellow green. Males in their first year of life exhibit a femalelike plumage, and can be distinguished from females only in the hand.

Painted Buntings have two geographically disjunct breeding populations: a western population primarily in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana; and an eastern population limited to coastal portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. Western and eastern populations have different patterns of molt and migration.

Western populations migrate to staging areas in southern Arizona, Sonora, and northern Sinaloa, Mexico, to undergo the Prebasic molt, and then continue to migrate farther south to overwinter. This molt-migration phenomenon is fairly common in many nonpasserines, especially waterfowl, but has been documented for only a few passerines (e.g. Bullock’s Oriole [Icterus bullockii], M. Leu and C. W. Thompson unpubl.). Eastern populations, in contrast, undergo the Prebasic molts on the breeding grounds before migration.

Another unusual feature of this species’ molt cycle is that young birds undergo 2 molts in their first fall, both resulting in plumages nearly identical to that of adult female. The first molt begins within a few days of fledging and replaces Juvenal body plumage with a supplemental body plumage; the second molt typically occurs a month or more later.

The Breeding Bird Survey has documented a general population decline for the Painted Bunting since 1965; this is a major reason that this species is listed on the Partners in Flight WatchList as a species of special concern. The eastern population faces loss and degradation of breeding habitat due to development of swampy thickets and woodland edges, its preferred habitat. The habitat requirements of the western population, which is also declining, are less well understood. Conservation concerns for the western population must also consider the molt staging area of this population as an important component in its life cycle.

Most aspects of the Painted Bunting’s life history have been little studied. The only intensive studies of this bunting have dealt with song (e.g., Forsythe 1974, Thompson 1976, Norris 1982) and molts and plumages (e.g., Thompson 1991a, 1992, Thompson and Leu 1994).