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  • Writer's pictureJohn Sterling Poole

The Return of the Painted Buntings

With spring comes so many great things: flowers, bird nests, green leaves, hummingbirds, and the most colorful bird around. That is of course the painted bunting! So many folks go out many miles to simply see these colorful birds, but the residents of the Lowcountry can just draw the buntings into their yards! Should be as simple as that, right? Not quite. Buntings are incredibly particular about a host of different factors, from seed to location to feeder. Hopefully this can help you draw in the elusive birds!

The first point to understand about painted buntings is how to identify them. The males are easy to identify: they are the colorful ones! The females, however, lack the variety of colors. They are a beautiful light green all over. Sometimes they show hints of yellow. What can be tricky about identification is that the juvenile males have the same color scheme as adult females. You can tell them apart, however, by looking for blue around the males’ eyes. Painted buntings also have a very distinct call. In fact, some folks have drawn male buntings in by playing the call. You should not play the call too often, though, as it might convey the message to the other buntings that your yard has been claimed!

Buntings are difficult to attract because they are high maintenance. They do not like to share their space with other birds, and they will eat only one type of food: millet. Now there are two types of millet that we and a lot of other stores sell: white millet and hulled millet. The difference is that hulled is denatured and therefore will not sprout underneath your feeder. This type of millet also will not leave behind a little casing that can become a problem if it builds up. While some folks do not mind the mess, the birds will actually take notice of shelled and unshelled food. Shelled food requires less energy to eat, so birds typically appreciate this type of food over unshelled food. Buntings are just the same, but unlike other birds, the buntings are quite shy and wary around other birds.

That is why we suggest customers set up a completely separate feeding station for the buntings. Buntings insist of eating from tube feeders, but since they do not want to share, that tube feeder has to be caged. These cages restrict the size of the birds that can eat off of your feeder. Our cages, for example, limit anything larger than a cardinal from getting in. Other birds, sparrows and wrens for example, will sometimes eat millet at the caged feeders, but if you are feeding a blend that contains sunflower chips in it, they will eat from that feeder instead of the caged one. The more distance you put between the caged feeder setup and your other setup, the better. I simply recommend you keep them as far apart as you can, but for specifics, more than 10 feet apart should suffice.

Tying into to their shyness and cautious attitudes, buntings love to hide out in foliage and brush. Bushes or thicker trees are excellent cover for the buntings, so putting those caged feeders near that cover can encourage some activities at your feeder. While it might be nice to haul off larger limbs that fall during thunderstorms, consider piling those limbs near your caged feeder. Most birds like a perching area near their feeders, especially buntings. Buntings also use that cover to hide from predators. You could say that the buntings are a little paranoid, but having that cover nearby gives them a sense of security and comfort which will encourage them to stay on and near the feeders longer. That gives you plenty of time to get some great shots of these beautiful birds!

Some folks luck out without the cage!

Like all birds, buntings love water features and they rely on them. Having a water feature in your yard will not only help you attract buntings, it will help you attract tons of other birds. Most folks think that buntings prefer the wetlands, but they are seen in those areas typically because they need the water. While buntings do like wooded areas for cover, they would be just as partial to your birdbath as they would to a pond in your neighborhood. If you love your birds and want to bring in the most variety, you really need a water feature out in your yard that is clean and constantly filled (moving water also brings them in)!

The areas where we see the most painted buntings in the Lowcountry are usually the marshlands and heavier wooded areas. Caw Caw Interpretive Center is a great place to see them, but several people have seen them out at Sullivan’s Island. Many of our customers from Mt. Pleasant and Isle of Palms also see them in their yards.

So now is the time to get those caged feeders out and filled with some hulled millet, both of which we have on our online store. We are wanting to navigate this trying time in the safest possible fashion for our customers and our employees while still providing the birds what they need! We are open regular hours for curbside pick up only, but our online store is open 24/7! Stay safe, wash your hands, and watch the birds!

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