The Beautiful but Gaudy Painted Bunting
By Ro Wauer
No other bird can be confused with the male painted bunting. This colorful little bird is almost unreal. To me, it is gaudy, but my wife thinks it is the most beautiful of all birds. Males possess a deep blue head; green (almost chartreuse) back; bright red underparts, rump, and lower back; brownish wings and tail; and red eye rings. Whether it is considered beautiful or gaudy, when seen up close, it can hardly be ignored.
The sparrow-sized painted bunting is one of our neotropical migrants that arrives in South Texas in early spring. It immediately establishes its territory and nests, and its young usually are fledged and on their own by July. The female, a plain, greenish yellow bird, does most of the household chores, while the colorful male is defending its territory. Most of this involves singing from various posts; it will vigorously chase away other painted bunting males when necessary. Its song is a surprisingly loud (for such a small bird) and clear, musical warble, like "pew-eata, pew-eata, j-eaty-you-too." There are times in South Texas when two or even three signing males can be heard at an especially choice nesting area. They prefer mesquite grasslands and open thicket areas.
Males seldom remain all summer and usually head south to their wintering grounds (Mexico to Panama) by late July. Females and the youngsters often remain until September, and some females and young birds may overwinter in choice feeding areas, such as along the Rio Grande floodplain, all winter. During the nesting season, males and females will readily visit seed-feeders. I have two or three males and six to eight females at my feeders almost daily. And the males will often sing their sweet songs while perched in the tree just above the feeders.
There is a very good reason why we often see more females than males at our feeders, especially after the young are fledged. Painted buntings, like many other birds, are polygamous; a single male mates with several females. Although humans tend to question this practice, it is a very practical one for many birds, particularly for neotropical migrants that must select a territory, court, mate, and raise a family in a relatively short period of time. The females simply choose a male that is best able to claim and hold the most superior territory. A resource-rich territory, with plenty of seeds and insects to feed the nestlings, will most likely provide a better chance of producing offspring than an inferior one.
With this better understanding of the painted bunting lifestyle, you probably will never again look at one of these amazing creatures with the same perspective.