The Eastern Painting Bunting Working Group discussed several
approaches to reversing the bunting decline, including research, monitoring, management,
education and international partnerships. Some good news for buntings is
the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Bill, which provides incentives
to farmers for restoring hedgerows, maintaining field borders and other
wildlife management enhancement efforts. Restoring the bobwhite quail
through the recently formed Northern Bobwhite Quail Conservation Initiative
also holds promise as painted buntings and bobwhite quail can benefit from
the same management practices.
Recent bunting research conducted through Clemson University and the U.S.
Geological Survey Wildlife Co-op Unit at the University of Georgia has
provided badly needed information on bunting breeding biology and habitat
use, but much more is needed. To find out more about painted buntings, see
these Web sites:
www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/ or contact John Cely
at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Columbia at (803) 419-9645
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The painted bunting is a sparrow-sized member of the finch family and is
considered by many to be North America's most beautiful bird, said John
Cely, wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Male buntings are gaudily colored in blues, reds, and apple greens while
the females and first-year males are lime green. Painted buntings consist
of two separate populations, a western one that has a more widespread range
covering seven states, and an eastern population that has a highly
restricted coastal distribution confined to only four states: North
Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. Some biologists
suggest the Eastern painted bunting may actually be a separate "look-alike"
species because of differing migration patterns and plumage molts.
According to long-term Breeding Bird Survey data going back to 1966, the
Eastern painted bunting has been declining at an annual rate greater than 3
percent. This translates into more than a 60 percent total population loss.
The Eastern painted bunting population is estimated at only 100,000 birds,
and South Carolina supports the majority, about 54 percent, or 54,000
birds. South Carolina is also unique in that a significant number of
buntings in the southern part of the state are found as far inland as the
"fall line" between Aiken and Columbia where they are associated with
shrubby areas, hedgerows and field edges.
Biologists believe that the primary culprit behind the painted bunting
decline is loss of habitat, Cely said. Buntings rely heavily on grass seeds
for food and nest in bushes, thickets and other scrubby places. They reach
greatest densities in coastal sea islands but are also found in grassy
fields interspersed with shrubs, hedgerows, and field edges associated with
agricultural habitat. It is perhaps no coincidence that several other bird
species that use similar early successional habitat, including bobwhite
quail, loggerhead shrike and common ground-dove, show almost identical
population declines as the painted bunting. Actually an entire suite of
so-called grassland or early successional birds has been declining at
alarming rates since surveys were first started in 1966. In addition to the
painted bunting, bobwhite, shrike and ground dove, some others include
common barn owl, Eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, Bachman's sparrow,
grasshopper sparrow, indigo bunting, gray catbird, prairie warbler, brown
thrasher and Eastern towhee.
Although some of these species are still relatively common, the long-term
downward trends require a pro-active conservation effort before some may
eventually become listed as threatened or even endangered.
Grassland and successional habitats are maintained by prescribed fire,
mowing, discing and other such disturbances at regular intervals. Painted
bunting habitat must be actively managed to stay in the appropriate
successional stage these birds prefer; otherwise a fallow field left alone
will eventually turn into a pine or pine-hardwood forest and the buntings
will leave. Although painted buntings can coexist with some development,
the intensive growth and urban sprawl that has taken place along the
Southeastern coast in the past 35 years has permanently eliminated much
Other factors negatively impacting painted buntings are outdoor house cats
and brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds. Recently a problem with
illegal bunting trapping on the Latin American wintering grounds has come
to light. One investigator estimated that as many as 22,000 painted
buntings were trapped and exported for the caged-bird trade in Mexico
during 2000-2001. Although most of these birds were probably from the more
numerous western bunting population, which is also declining, evidence has
surfaced that buntings are also being trapped for the export trade, as well
as local use, in Cuba, which is the heart of the Eastern painted bunting's