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Painted buntings are in decline. Citizen scientists with backyard feeders are helping track them

The oldest known painted bunting is held upright in a woman's hand. The picture shows the birds' dark eyes, blue head, and red, yellow and green feathers.
Jennifer McCarthey Tyrrell, Audubon South Carolina
The oldest known painted bunting in the US was discovered at a South Carolina farmhouse in July 2023. Many hope he returns again this spring.

Dr. Jamie Rotenberg will talk about his research at the Sarasota Audubon Society's Meet and Greet on March 19 at Celery Fields.

People often journey hundreds of miles to see a painted bunting for themselves.

"It's unbelievable, the colors. It's like, unreal, isn't it?" said Gerry Atkinson, 80, who traveled from Ontario, Canada, to Sarasota, where she just saw one of the songbirds for the first time.

The male birds' feathers are a bold combination of red, blue, green and yellow. The females and juvenile males are a vivid green.

In French, these birds, known by the scientific name Passerina ciris, are called "nonpareil," which means "unrivaled."

A green female painted bunting perches on a pole.
courtesy Patricia Greig
Female painted buntings, and juvenile males, are all green.

Birdwatchers gather almost every day in winter under a gazebo, near the Nature Center at Celery Fields, pointing their cameras or binoculars toward bird feeders filled with white millet. It can take a little patience, but one or two painted buntings will often stop by.

“They are so popular,” said Jamie Rotenberg, a retired professor of environmental science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

“Whenever you say ‘painted buntings,’ people just come out in droves,” he said.

It was that level of enthusiasm that Rotenberg wanted to harness almost two decades ago when he became involved with the eastern painted bunting working group, which included representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“At the time, it was known that painted buntings were not necessarily endangered and not necessarily threatened. But they were in decline. And so folks were really worried about them," he said.

Dr. Jamie Rotenberg at Celery Fields, wearing a blue tee shirt
Daylina Miller
Dr. Jamie Rotenberg, a retired professor of environmental science at UNC Wilmington, is pictured at Sarasota's Celery Fields on March 14, 2024.

State and federal surveys of the birds showed some information on their whereabouts and habits, that their numbers were falling at least 3.2% annually from 1966 to 1995, which triggered additional conservation efforts, including Rotenberg's work starting in 2006. 

“I wanted to have basically an army if you will, to help us find out where painted buntings were. Because we just didn't know enough about it,” he said.

Knowing that birds are regular visitors to backyard feeders, “I thought, well, why don't we start this citizen science approach?"

A bird box near a feeder at Celery Fields is painted with a picture of a painted bunting
Daylina Miller
A painted bunting is depicted — in a painting — near a bird feeder that several of the birds frequent in winter in Sarasota's Celery Fields.

And that's how the painted bunting observer team (PBOT) got started. Experts, like Rotenberg and colleagues, would capture the birds, put a small color-coded band on their leg, and release them.

Then citizen scientists, in North and South Carolina, with bird feeders on their property, would report sightings of the birds.

They've found some surprising things.

A painted bunting at a feeder in Sarasota
Daylina Miller
A painted bunting at a feeder in Sarasota, March 2024

One of the birds that was banded in 2010 showed up last year at a South Carolina farmhouse. That would make him over 14, which is about twice the average lifespan of a songbird.

"We went to go look at it, and caught it and confirmed the band number and sure enough, that bird was the oldest one that had ever been recorded," said Jennifer McCarthey Tyrrell, a master bird bander at Audubon South Carolina, who verified the discovery in July 2023.

It's remarkable to see a bird that old, given all the threats they face, beginning with just making it out of the nest alive as a fledgling, she said. 

"Light pollution, building strikes, cats, pet trade, capturing, you know, the odds are against them," she said.

They nicknamed the bird "Old Man Bunting" and are counting the days to see if he shows up again this spring. 

When they caught him last year, he did not look his age, Tyrrell added.

“He was beautiful. He was perfect. Yeah, I want to age like a bunting,” she said with a laugh.

A woman's hand with blue fingernail polish holds a painted bunting. The color coded leg bands on both his legs are visible.
Courtesy Jennifer McCarthey Tyrrell
"Old Man Bunting," pictured in July 2023, in a shot that shows of his color-coded leg bands.

Painted buntings can be found in the midwest too. Rotenberg and colleagues focused on a smaller group that migrates up and down the East Coast, going as far south as Mexico, Cuba and Belize.

The latest research from the Breeding Bird Survey shows that painted buntings are on the rise in Georgia, up 1.5%, and North Carolina, which is up 1.9%, according to an analysis by Rotenberg that he will present at Wednesday's Audubon Society gathering in Sarasota.

But they are declining 1% per year in South Carolina and are down 1.5% in Florida. Overall, the Atlantic population of painted buntings is dropping 0.6% annually.

"In South Carolina, we're experiencing what we call the coastal squeeze. And that means we have sea level rise coming from one side, and then we have development coming from the other," Tyrrell said. "And that is destroying a lot of maritime forest habitat. And that's where a lot of our coastal painted buntings live."

Two green colored painted buntings at a feeder
Daylina Miller
Females and young males are shades of green

When they migrate to south Florida, Cuba and Mexico, they may face other risks, like being caught and sold in the exotic pet trade.

The painted bunting observer team that Rotenberg began while at the University of North Carolina ended its banding work in 2012, after counting some 5,000 painted buntings.

But his students are continuing to band and track buntings, at the Cape Fear Bird Observatory in North Carolina.

A man in a hat and white tee shirt looks through binoculars at a birding area
Daylina Miller
John Groskopf is a lifelong bird enthusiast and Sarasota native. He says his mom told him that his very first word was "bird."

For John Groskopf, a bird enthusiast and member of the Sarasota Audubon Society, painted buntings are worth protecting.

“When I really got into birding for the first time, this was a bird that I thought was like one of those holy grail birds,” Groskopf said. “They are gorgeously painted birds.”

Groskopf said people should download the eBird app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to track sightings if they want to be part of citizen science efforts more generally when it comes to birds.

Researchers hope that knowing more about these colorful birds will encourage people do things that help keep them alive, like planting native bushes and trees, keeping domestic cats inside, and preserving forested land.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.