Painted Buntings are migratory songbirds, with little overlap between breeding and wintering areas. The distributions of the eastern and western populations are completely or almost completely separated throughout the year; therefore, the distributions of each population are described separately. Like most other passerines, Painted Bunting is a nocturnal migrant.
In addition to the principal range, there are many extralimital records of Painted Bunting (Mlodinow and Hamilton 2005). At least some of these records clearly are of birds that have escaped from captivity; but many, perhaps most, records are of wild birds. Painted Buntings have occurred as far west as California, Oregon, and Washington, north to Alberta and Saskatchewan, and across southern Canada to the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island); and east to Bermuda. Across most of the United States, in Canada, and in Bermuda, the majority of vagrant Painted Buntings are reported in spring (especially May and June), with a second, smaller "peak" of sightings in late fall and winter. In contrast, in Arizona and in California most records of Painted Bunting are in late summer and fall; this is the same time of year when birds of the western population of Painted Buntings are migrating to staging areas in northwestern Mexico (see below).
The eastern population of the Painted Bunting breeds from eastern North Carolina south to northern Florida. In the northern part of this region (central and southern North Carolina and northern South Carolina), Painted Buntings primarily are restricted to a narrow band along the coast. Here, Painted Buntings breed from Carteret County, North Carolina, south and west along the coast to southern Georgetown County. In contrast, in southeastern South Carolina and in eastern Georgia Painted Buntings are found not only along the coast, but the breeding distribution also extends well inland. In South Carolina, this inland breeding distribution extends from southern Georgetown County north and west to Richland, Lexington, Aiken, and southern Edgefield counties. In Georgia, the inland breeding distribution extends from Columbia and Washington counties south and east to Tattnall, Long, and Wayne counties, and also upstream along the Altamaha river drainage to Bibb and Laurens counties. Breeding also has been confirmed in recent years in Sumter County; and there is a single 19th century breeding record from Putnam County (the only reported breeding site in the Piedmont). Breeding Painted Buntings continue south along the Atlantic coast of Florida to northern Brevard County.
Due to the expansion of breeding Painted Buntings into inland areas in South Carolina and Georgia, these two states together represent more than 85% of the total area in which the eastern population breeds. Away from the coast, however, breeding Painted Buntings often are very local, and buntings do not fully occupy this region. Also, taken all together the breeding area occupied by the eastern population is only 4% of the breeding area occupied by the western population.
Painted Buntings generally arrive on the breeding grounds in April; abundance declines rapidly in September, and essentially all birds have departed by the end of October.
Painted Buntings depart almost completely from the eastern breeding range, and migrate south. Generally, eastern Painted Buntings winter in southern Florida, the Bahamas, and on Cuba; but some aspects of the wintering distribution of eastern Painted Buntings remain poorly-known.
A main wintering area is southern peninsular Florida, from the Florida Keys north to Manatee County on the west coast, and north to Orange and Brevard counties in central Florida and on the east coast. Painted Buntings appear to be widely distributed throughout this region, although observers (and hence most records) are along the east coast. Painted Buntings also regularly winter in the northern and central Bahamas, with reports from most of the islands from Grand Bahama south and east to Long Island (with the exception of Cat Island); there are no reports from islands in the southern Bahamas. The relative abundance of buntings in the Bahamas is not well-known; most accounts describe the status of buntings there as uncommon to rare, but other observers report wintering buntings to be fairly common. Not surprisingly, buntings also are more common on the larger islands of the Bahamas than they are on smaller islands.
The greatest uncertainty about the winter distribution of the eastern population of Painted Bunting is over its status on Cuba. Painted Buntings have been reported from throughout most of Cuba, but clearly are more common and more frequent in western and northern Cuba, east at least to central Holquin Province. Painted Buntings unquestionably overwinter on Cuba. More interesting are recent suggestions that Painted Buntings are more abundant on Cuba during migration than they are during the heart of the winter season. It would be useful to have more data to better document the seasonal and geographic peaks of Painted Bunting abundance on Cuba. The obvious question is: where would these buntings be migrating to and from? Some authors (Sykes et al. 2007) suggest that some eastern Painted Buntings migrate through Cuba to winter on the Yucatan Peninsula. Currently there are no documented records of eastern Painted Buntings from anywhere southwest of Cuba; consequently this hypothesis merits further research.
In addition to the main wintering areas, Painted Buntings occur in winter, rarely, along the east coast of the United States north to New Jersey. Presumably most of these records refer to birds of the eastern population, but again, this has not yet been documented. Painted Buntings also are vagrants to the Turks and Caicos islands, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands.
The western population of Painted Buntings breed from the Gulf Coast of the United States west to southern New Mexico; and north to Kansas, and south to northern Tamaulipas. The breeding range of Painted Bunting includes coastal Alabama, west to central Mississipi, then continuing north to encompass almost all of Arkansas; southwestern Missouri; southeastern Kansas; Oklahoma (outside of the panhandle); and most of Texas (except for the northernmost panhandle, and perhaps southwestern portions of the panhandle as well). In New Mexico, Painted Buntings breed in the lower Rio Grande valley in Dona Ana County; in the lower Pecos River valley (upstream to Debaca County); and in the lower Canadian River valley (west to eastern San Miguel County). There also is a small, isolated population along the Mississippi River in east central Missouri and adjacent southwestern Illinois. In Mexico, Painted Buntings breed from northeastern and eastern Chihuahua across northern Coahuila and Nuevo Leon to northernmost Tamaulipas. Much remains to be learned about the breeding range of the western population of the Painted Bunting, especially at the periphery of the breeding distribution, even in the United States.
Painted Buntings typically arrive on the breeding grounds in April (Texas, Louisiana), late April (Oklahoma), and early to mid May (Missouri). Buntings depart the northern portions of the breeding range (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma) in late August and September.
The western population of the Painted Bunting departs entirely from the breeding area. Migration begins early, with many birds departing the breeding grounds at the end of July and in August. At least some of the population migrates to northwestern Mexico (Sonora and northern Sinaloa), which is a "staging area" within which the buntings undergo a prebasic molt. Historically, this staging area also encompassed adjacent southeastern Arizona, where it was reported to be a common migrant in the late 19th century; but currently Painted Bunting is only a rare migrant in Arizona. Buntings may remain on the staging area until October before departing.
The principal wintering grounds of Painted Bunting extends from central Sinaloa, on the west coast of Mexico, and southern Tamaulipas, on the east coast, south to western Panama. Painted Buntings do not winter on the central plateau of Mexico, but occur there in migration (March to early May, and late July to October). It is fairly common to common in the northern portions of the wintering range, south at least to western Nicaragua; but is rare to uncommon farther south. In Costa Rica, it is more frequently reported from the Pacific slope, in the northwestern part of the country; but in Panama there are more records from the Atlantic slope, in western Bocas del Toro.
Breeding populations of Painted Buntings in the United States have shown a steady decline of -1.6% per year. Efforts to halt or to reverse this trend will depend in part on a better understanding of the distribution of Painted Buntings, in both the breeding and nonbreeding seasons.