(Above) A painted Bunting resting on tree. Photo credit: Thomas O’Connor © FotoKimo Bluemont, VA
A half-dozen goldfinches, pure yellow against the fresh grass of May, sought scattered dandelion seeds. Brilliant as they are, they can’t compare to the painted bunting that showed up at Tom O’Connor’s Clarke County, Virginia bird feeder a few days ago.
An adult male painted bunting’s dazzling array of primary colors resembles a freshly opened box of crayons. Roger Tory Peterson’s bird guide, with masterful understatement, calls it “visually arresting.” The shimmering blue head and the gold-green back feathers are stunning. Seen from below, the bird’s underside blazes red from beak to tail. Although wing and tail feathers of most birds are seldom colorful, a painted bunting’s wings and tail reflect traces of red, green and bronze. Yet the beauty of these important feathers barely registers on the bunting-bedazzled eye.
The gift of beauty may also be the painted bunting’s undoing. They became ornaments for people’s homes. In the 1840s, John James Audubon was able to buy caged painted buntings on the streets of New Orleans. But even when the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty established protections for all birds that migrate across international boundaries, this didn’t stop people from wanting caged painted buntings. Never a common bird, its numbers are still dwindling because the males continue to be illegally trapped and sold as cage birds on the black market. Male painted buntings are easily caught alive in special cage traps in the spring when they become very territorial. It’s easy to lure any male painted bunting in the area into a trap by placing a live male bird inside as a decoy. Such traps can be readily bought in certain outdoor markets in Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas and Southeastern Florida.
The natural breeding range of the painted bunting in North America is restricted to areas along the East Coast from Florida to the Carolinas, and inland from the Gulf states north to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas. They fly south to winter in the Bahamas, Mexico and Central America. Certain individuals sometimes wander far beyond their typical range as far north as New York and Ontario, Canada.
One such wanderer appeared at Tom O’Connor’s bird feeder in Bluemont, Virginia last week. O’Connor, who takes exquisite photographs of birds, sent me three pictures in an email and described the encounter: “He showed up here Tuesday, May 10, 2022, [and was] in and out all morning. The feeder shots of the painted bunting were shot through the glass widow of my living room. That’s why they’re not (too) sharp.” O’Connor also acknowledged the bird’s alternate name, Nonpareil, means “without equal.”
That name, in my opinion, also applied to the photographs he attached. Having never seen (nor painted) a painted bunting myself, I was thrilled to learn about this sighting and asked permission from O’Connor to share his photos. Compared to the size of the feeder, the bird looks a bit smaller than an American goldfinch. And the photography is sharp enough to show the individual feathers in the bird’s scarlet eye ring.
Male painted buntings take two years to acquire their glorious colors. During their first year they closely resemble the females, which are plain only by comparison. Their various shades of green match the skin of a lime in different stages of ripeness. Many songbirds are olive-drab, but a female painted bunting sports bright greens normally worn by birds in the parrot family.
Keep a sharp lookout at your bird feeders this spring, because in nature, beauty may show up anywhere.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer