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  • Writer's pictureJohn Sterling Poole

The Beautiful Buntings are Back!

With the return of hummingbirds comes another bird that everyone also loves: the painted bunting. When someone asks me what a hunting looks like, I have no other way to describe: “Like something from Alice in Wonderland.” How lucky we are to have these visitors come back to us every year from far away. Unfortunately though, these birds go through more and more obstacles every year to grace our yards with their colorful plumage. They are beginning to rely more and more on us to provide them with the proper nutrients to ensure survival. This post will review many facets regarding painted buntings such as where they go, what obstacles they face, what they prefer, and where you can see these birds here in the Tri-County area!

Where They Go

Curtesy of

Like a lot of migratory birds, the buntings follow where it is warm! During our summer, they can be found all along the southeast coast (ending in North Carolina) as well as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and some parts of Alabama. A lot of them will migrate through Mexico, however our buntings will have come up through Florida. They breed in these areas during our late spring/early summer where there is ample food (at least there used to be).

Once winter begins to set in, the buntings go south, leaving the USA altogether (although a very few folks in the very southern parts of Florida will have some buntings who stick around). They move south towards lower Mexico and Central America. They’ll also flock to the Caribbean. South America is a big stretch for these birds to reach, but it isn’t unheard of. They remain slightly above the equator for all of winter. There they simply prep for their return to northwards for their important breeding season.

What Obstacles They Face

Unfortunately, their population is slowly decreasing for several reasons. As birders, we can all agree that urbanization is never going to help the birds. The destruction of wooded areas and wetlands takes away a great bit of their natural habitat. In under-developed countries, this practice is sadly overactive. In the USA, it happens enough for it to be an issue. This, however, isn’t the biggest issue rising currently and this can be slowed (possibly even stifled) with folks providing all the needed nutrients and supplies the buntings require.

Small wonder why folks want them so badly.

A larger issue has arisen in the Caribbean and Central Mexico that is a lot harder to slow down. Due to their colorful nature, some people want buntings in cages. Many poachers capture plenty of male buntings during our winter and sell them off as exotic birds. This is sad for a multitude of reasons. Unlike other exotic birds like parrots or parakeets, buntings do a poor job of adjusting to a cage. Buntings are incredibly shy, skittish, and anxious. These birds prefer intense coverage, and they wish to hide away. In my opinion, no bird should be caged. This is especially true for the bunting. Another consequence of this poaching is that they typically only capture the more colorful males (the females are a bright green that is also beautiful, but the variety of colors in the males overshadows them). I don’t think I have to delve into what happens to a species population when a lot of males are taken out of the community.

As for the poaching, there are really only two steps you can take to slow this tragedy. The first is to spread awareness. Plenty of organizations are dedicated to the protection of any wildlife. The second step is ensure the buntings have a successful brood and a proper migration.

What They Prefer

Due to their shy ways, many folks never see these birds in their yards. It can be quite a headache to draw them in because many people see them as “high maintenance.” If you are leaning that direction, consider these two things: 1. They need you. 2. They are truly breathtaking to see.

First and foremost, they like wooded areas or wetlands. They like to hide away in shrubs, branches, crevices, whatever. Seldom will you see one out in the open. With that in mind, you want to place their feeder (more on that in a minute) and water (if there isn’t a viable water source nearby) closer to the denser areas in your yard. I actually leave a brush pile in my own for the birds. Beyond just buntings, birds enjoy a spot where they can relax in the shade, protected from predators, and near the feeders.

Their diet is a little more particular than others. They don’t like most seeds; they don’t eat mealworms; they stay away from suet usually. They’ll eat some fruits and berries rarely, but usually nothing you can provide. What they will eat is millet. They love millet and are happy with it. When nesting, buntings will eat a good bit of insects (caterpillars, crickets, flies, etc.) for their clutch, so, as always, stay away from insecticides! Since they are so shy, though, they will not share a feeder with other birds. This means you need to set up a feeder on its own, away from the other feeders, baths, and houses. (Occasionally, you’ll see a bird on a regular feeder, but it is fairly rare.) This feeder doesn’t need to be a big one as millet is so small that quite a bit can go into the tube. To ensure that buntings can make this feeder their own, we recommend putting a cage around it. These prevents larger birds from bullying the buntings, eating up all the millet (as pigeons and doves are apt to do), and it keeps squirrels out of it. Sometimes, other small songbirds will fly into the cage to peck at the millet. However, if you have a feeder elsewhere with more variety of food, they’ll leave your bunting feeder alone.

Again, all birds need water. If you aren’t near a natural water source, providing water is helpful to all birds. To better serve the buntings, setting up a water source near their area is always appreciated.

Where Can You Find Them

Even though a lot of folks aren’t able to attract these beauties to their yard, they luckily can still see them in the Lowcountry. Buntings have been seen as far up 26 as Orangeburg (I live in North Charleston and have seen these near the busy Rivers Avenue). They like the woods and wetlands. With that being said, there are plenty of areas in the Tri-County to go to.

Near our store, Pitt Street Bridge usually has a good bit of luck in finding them. Not too far from us, the islands have a good bit of them. Sullivans, Isle of Palm, and Seabrook all have them. Going further away from Mt. Pleasant, you can find them on James and Johns Island as well as West Ashley. Kiawah is usually a good spot too. My favorite, though, and the place I recommend the most is Caw Caw.

Caw Caw is my personal recommendation because you won’t only see painted buntings there. You’ll see all manner of flora and fauna there from flowers and willows to armadillos and alligators! It may be a bit of a drive for some of y’all, but it is worth a day trip.

Closing Out

The painted buntings are with us every year from about mid-March to late October. They are beautiful in their detail and song. They are also struggling. They need you, they need me, they need all of our customers to help them out. If you have any questions or comments, give us a call or stop by! If you have any photos, send them our way via email or Facebook! We love experiencing your love of nature with you!

If you want to learn more about our products and order online, visit our online store!

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