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Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris

Painted Bunting

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Cardinalidae
  • Polytypic 2 Subspecies

Authors: Schulenberg, Thomas S.

Life History


Painted Buntings primarily feed on seeds, especially of grasses. Small invertebrates (primarily insects, but also spiders and snails) also are eaten regularly, at least during breeding, and are the sole diet of nestlings.


Painted Buntings most often forage on the ground; during the breeding season, however, buntings also may ascend as high as 10 m (33 ft) above the ground. Also, at coastal sites, buntings have been observed foraging in marshes as far as 50 m (164 ft) from forest cover. When foraging for seeds, buntings drag a seed-laden stem to the ground by fluttering up and grasp the stem with the bill; the bunting then strips the seeds while the stem is held against the ground with a foot. When foraging for arthropods, Painted Buntings sometimes eats extract and consume items from spider webs.

Male Painted Buntings sing as soon as they arrive on breeding territories. Males typically sing from an exposed, elevated perch (1-10 m [3.3-33 ft] above the ground); but the song also may be given from a perch more concealed among vegetation, especially by males on territory before the arrival of females, and by non-territorial males. The rate of singing may be as great as 10 songs per minute, during interactions between adjacent males during territorial establishment. The rate of singing declines markedly following the arrival of females, and shows yet another significant decline after pairs are established.

Singing by males on the wintering grounds has not been reported.

Agonistic behavior. 
The breeding season displays of the Painted Bunting have been little studied; the following review is based on the major study of male Painted Bunting behaviors, conducted at a single site in Georgia (so referring to the eastern population) (Lanyon and Thompson 1984). Also note that interactions between males may incorporate more than one of these displays, and also may escalate into attacks.

Upright Display. This is display is given by male, usually on the ground. The male hops with an upright posture on fully extended legs, and with the head raised and extended. The tail also is raised (45–90° angle to the body) and the wing tips lowered, exposing the red rump. More than half (53%) of all Upright Displays were directed at a female other than the male's mate or in the presence of a neighboring pair. The Upright Display also often is seen when two males encounter one another at a territorial boundary. Less frequently, this display is directed at the male's own mate.

Bow Display. This display is performed from a perch, at or above the level of the bird to which the display is directed. The bird leans forward, raising the tail and pointing the head towards the subject of the display; the body and tail may end up perpendicular to the ground if the perch is essentially vertical (such as a grass stem), but from a horizontal perch, the angle of the body to the ground rarely exceeds 45°. The wing tips are lowered, exposing the red rump. The Bow Display is used in a variety of contexts; it most frequently (29.8% of observations) is directed most frequently to the female of a neighboring pair, but among other contexts, it also is used in the presence of the male's mate and a neighboring male (17.3%), at the male's mate (14.4%), and at a female other than the male's mate (13.5%).

Flutter-Up Display. This display occurs when a male flies toward another, approaching male. Both buntings decelerate and extend the feet forward. The buntings contact one another, with grappling feet and an audible beating of the wings, and while grappling may ascend as high as 5 m. in this Aerial interaction between males; birds approach each other with feet extended to grapple; may ascend with audible wing-beats as high as 5 m before dropping to the ground and disengaging.

Wing-Quiver Display. This display is given by the male after landing (on the ground or on a perch) next to another bunting, of either sex. The male erects the body feathers, lifts and quivers the wings with the wing tips lowered, and raises the tail up to about a 45° relative to the body. This display ends when the nondisplaying bunting flies away, or is chased by the displaying male. The Wing-Quiver Display is directed most frequently (37.2% of observations) at a neighboring male, and also is frequent (27.9% of observations) in response to playback of conspecific song.

Butterfly Flight. This display is given in an undulating flight, with slow, deep wing beats; the body feathers also appear to be appressed. This display almost always performed during interactions between two males. It is directed most frequently (39.4% of observations) in the presence of a neighboring male, either when the neighboring male is alone (39.4% of observations), or in the presence of the male's mate and the neighboring male (27.3% of observations) or both members of the neighboring pair (18.2% of observations).

Moth Flight. This is a slow, descending flight with erect body feathers and with the rapid fluttering of the extended wings. This display takes place in the context of flight during the Wing Quiver displays.

Flutter-Up Display. Aerial interaction between males; birds approach each other with feet extended to grapple; may ascend with audible wing-beats as high as 5 m before dropping to ground to disengage. Of 69 displays observed on St. Catherines I., GA, 36.2% directed at neighboring pair, 36.2% at own mate and neighboring male, 26.1% at neighboring male alone (Lanyon and Thompson 1984).

Feather-Pulling. Male dives and hits flying female, drives her to ground and while on her back, pulls at her remix or rectrix for several seconds before flying off; 7 of 8 observed instances involved female other than mate (Lanyon and Thompson 1984).


Reported territory sizes for breeding Painted Buntings range from 0.64 to 6.66 ha (1.58 to 16.46 acres). Sizes typically are larger for isolated territories, and smaller for territories that are contiguous with other territories; territories also are smaller and at higher densities in preferred habitats. High levels of year-to-year site fidelity have been reported in one study.

Male Painted Buntings vigorously defend territories by chasing intruding males, and with male to male fights. Bird-trappers capitalize on the strong territorial response of Painted Buntings by using a captive male as a decoy to lure birds into traps, a practice that was described as long ago as the early 19th century.

Territoriality wanes after breeding, and buntings may congregate at food sources by August. On the wintering grounds, Painted Buntings may be found singly or in small flocks.

Sexual Behavior

The Painted Bunting typically is monogamous, but a few instances of polygyny have been reported.

Courtship Displays
The following review is based on observations at a study site in Georgia (so referring to the eastern population) (Lanyon and Thompson 1984). In a typical courtship sequence, the male performs a Moth Flight (see Agonistic Behavior, under Behavior) and glides to a landing on the ground 1-2 m from the female. The male faces away from the female, and performs a Wing Quiver Display (see Agonistic Behavior, under Behavior). The female hops towards the male, who in turn walks (not hops) away. The male increases the intensity of his wing quivers, and the male's breast touches the ground. When the female halts, the male towards the female, increases the rate of wing quivering, and slowly extends and raises first one wing, then the other, to a fully extended position over the back. Then the male walks towards the female, with both wings help upright and rigid above the back. When the male is within a meter of the female, he flies towards her, and hovers over the female with shallow, rapid wing beats. Copulation then occurs, or the female drives the male off.

Wing-Quiver Displays increases, and wings are alternately extended above back; male walks toward female with both wings extended over back, and when <1 m from female flies to and hovers over female; either copulation follows or female drives off male.

Social and interspecific behavior

Painted Buntings are highly territorial when breeding. As the young buntings become independent, they begin to form flocks. On the non-breeding grounds, Painted Buntings frequently join mixed-species flocks of other granivorous birds.


Painted Bunting nests are parasitized by both Brown-headed (Molothrus ater) and (much less commonly) Bronzed (Molothrus aeneus) cowbirds. The breeding range of the western population of Painted Bunting overlaps, in part, the historic range of Brown-headed Cowbird. Rates of nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds in the western population increased, at statistically significant levels, between the 1870s and 1980s. There are few reports of nest parasitism on the eastern population, which was allopatric to cowbirds until recently. Painted Buntings, at least in the western population, usually abandon the nest if it is parasitized early in egg-laying, but will accept cowbird eggs if the nest already contains more than three bunting eggs.


Painted Buntings primarily are monogamous, but may be polygynous; rates of polygyny of up to 25% of a population have been observed. Females also may solicit extra-pair copulations, although there are few data on the prevalence of this behavior.

Painted Buntings often raise two broods within a single season, with an interval of 29-30 days between the fledging dates of the two broods.

Most males delay breeding until the third calendar year (just after attaining the brightly-colored, definitive male plumge), but some second-year males (i.e., males in a plumage that still is mostly green) establish territories and breed. Females begin breeding in the second calendar year.

Nest Type. 
The nest, which is built solely by the female, is a well-formed cup made of plant fibers, leaves, and other plant materials, with a lining of hair and fine grasses. The nest is firmly attached to vegetation. Nests usually are placed in low vegetation, 1-2 m (3.2-6.5 ft) above the ground; but may be high as 15 m (50 ft) above the ground, where suitable lower sites are not present.

Egg Description. 
Painted Bunting eggs are ovate, with a slightly glossy texture. The background color is grayish white or very pale bluish white; the eggs are speckled and spotted with various shades of brown and gray, the markings concentrated around the larger end of the egg. The dimensions of the eggs are 19 x 14.5 mm (0.75 x 0.57 in).

Clutch Size. 
Painted Bunting clutches usually are three or four eggs, although reported clutch sizes vary from one to five. Clutch size does not vary with latitude or with longitude. The only apparent geographic variation in clutch size is that mean clutch size decreases during the breeding season in the western population (from a mean of over 4 eggs/clutch in late March to a mean of less than 3.5 eggs/clutch by late August); no such decrease is reported for the eastern population.

The incubation period is 11-12 days (mean 11.4 days). Only female Painted Buntings incubate the eggs.

Hatchling Painted Buntings are altricial and nidicolous. They gain size at a rate of about 1 g/day. Nestlings have an insectivorous diet, and are fed entirely by the female. Fledging occurs after 8 or 9 days, at a weight of 10 or 11 g. Males will feed the fledged young if the female renests, and may remain together for up to 34 days. Juvenile Painted Buntings begin to form flocks, after becoming independent of parental care.

Populations and Demography

Across the United States breeding range of Painted Bunting, Breeding Bird Survey results show a long-term (1966-2003) decline at an average rate of -1.6 %/year (Sauer et al. 2007).  The long-term decline of -1.6 %/year, while worrisome, masks some interesting counter-trends. There was a significant decline of -2.8 %/year, across the range of Painted Bunting, between 1966 and 1979; but the general trend, across the United States range of the species, is of stabilization or slight increases between 1980 and 2005. Statistically significant declines are evident in Breeding Bird Survey data from the South Texas Brushlands and East Texas Prairies physiographic strata, which contribute to an overall pattern of decline across Texas. At the same time, the Breeding Bird Survey data also show statistically significant increases for the Rolling Red Plains physiographic stratum, which is centered on north central Texas and western Oklahoma, and for the state of Oklahoma. The Breeding Bird Surveys do not show statistically significant population trends for the eastern population of Painted Bunting; but Breeding Bird Surveys probably do not adequately sample the coastal habitats where eastern Painted Buntings breed in the greatest densities, and so these surveys may not be very sensitive to population trends in this critical region (Sykes and Holzman 2005).

In captivity, Painted Buntings have lived for up to 17 years 7 months. The oldest age reported for a free-ranging bunting is 12 years.

Recommended Citation

Schulenberg, Thomas S.. 2009. Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: