With their vivid fusion of blue, green, yellow, and red, male Painted Buntings seem to have flown straight out of a child’s coloring book. Females and immatures are a distinctive bright green with a pale eyering. These fairly common finches breed in the coastal Southeast and in the south-central U.S., where they often come to feeders. They are often caught and sold illegally as cage birds, particularly in Mexico and the Caribbean, a practice that puts pressure on their breeding populations.
Painted Buntings eat seeds for most of the year, switching to mostly insects in the breeding season. They forage on the ground for seeds of bristle grass, pigweed, wood sorrel, spurge, panic grass, St. John’s wort, sedge, dock, pine, rose, wheat, or fig. They may fly up to grab a plant stem and drag it to the ground, holding it in place with one foot while eating the seeds. During the breeding season they catch grasshoppers, weevils and other beetles, caterpillars, bugs, spiders, snails, wasps, and flies. In addition to ground foraging, in the breeding season they also forage in marshes and in trees, sometimes over 30 feet off the ground. The buntings may pull invertebrates from spiderwebs, or even dive straight through a web to steal a spider’s prey.
Painted Buntings are short to medium distance migrant. Western populations migrate to staging areas in Arizona and northwestern Mexico, where they molt before continuing to Central America—an unusual phenomenon for a songbird. Eastern populations molt on the breeding grounds and migrate to southern Florida and some Caribbean islands. Painted Buntings migrate at night.
Painted Buntings eat seeds, particularly after the breeding season is over, starting in midsummer. They’re more likely to visit a bird feeder in a yard with low, dense vegetation.
Find This Bird
In migration and winter, search for Painted Buntings by targeting sources of seeds such as weedy fields or bird feeders. In the summer, cruise through secondary growth or edge habitats with dense understory and listen for the species’ metallic chip call or the sweet, rambling song of a male. Painted Buntings spend a lot of time hidden in dense habitat so patience might be necessary; however, the wait will be worth it when you finally spot this gem, surely one of North America’s finest songbirds.