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Groups Work To Halt Decline Of Eastern Painted Bunting

A four-state group of biologists, land managers, information specialists and others met recently at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' Webb Wildlife Center in Hampton County to discuss the plight of the Eastern painted bunting and formulate strategies to halt the precipitous decline this bird has experienced during the past 35 years.

The Eastern Painting Bunting Working Group discussed several  approaches to  reversing the bunting decline, including research, monitoring, management, education and international partnerships. Some good news for buntings is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Bill, which provides incentives to farmers for restoring hedgerows, maintaining field borders and other wildlife management enhancement efforts. Restoring the bobwhite quail through the recently formed Northern Bobwhite Quail Conservation Initiative also holds promise as painted buntings and bobwhite quail can benefit from the same management practices.

Recent bunting research conducted through Clemson University and the U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Co-op Unit at the University of Georgia has provided badly needed information on bunting breeding biology and habitat use, but much more is needed. To find out more about painted buntings, see these Web sites: and or contact John Cely at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Columbia at (803) 419-9645 or by e-mail at

The painted bunting is a sparrow-sized member of the finch family and is considered by many to be North America's most beautiful bird, said John Cely, wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Male buntings are gaudily colored in blues, reds, and apple greens while the females and first-year males are lime green. Painted buntings consist of two separate populations, a western one that has a more widespread range covering seven states, and an eastern population that has a highly restricted coastal distribution confined to only four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. Some biologists suggest the Eastern painted bunting may actually be a separate "look-alike" species because of differing migration patterns and plumage molts.

According to long-term Breeding Bird Survey data going back to 1966, the Eastern painted bunting has been declining at an annual rate greater than 3 percent. This translates into more than a 60 percent total population loss. The Eastern painted bunting population is estimated at only 100,000 birds, and South Carolina supports the majority, about 54 percent, or 54,000 birds. South Carolina is also unique in that a significant number of buntings in the southern part of the state are found as far inland as the "fall line" between Aiken and Columbia where they are associated with shrubby areas, hedgerows and field edges.

Biologists believe that the primary culprit behind the painted bunting decline is loss of habitat, Cely said. Buntings rely heavily on grass seeds for food and nest in bushes, thickets and other scrubby places. They reach greatest densities in coastal sea islands but are also found in grassy fields interspersed with shrubs, hedgerows, and field edges associated with agricultural habitat. It is perhaps no coincidence that several other bird species that use similar early successional habitat, including bobwhite quail, loggerhead shrike and common ground-dove, show almost identical population declines as the painted bunting. Actually an entire suite of so-called grassland or early successional birds has been declining at alarming rates since surveys were first started in 1966. In addition to the painted bunting, bobwhite, shrike and ground dove, some others include common barn owl, Eastern meadowlark, field sparrow, Bachman's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, indigo bunting, gray catbird, prairie warbler, brown thrasher and Eastern towhee.

Although some of these species are still relatively common, the long-term downward trends require a pro-active conservation effort before some may eventually become listed as threatened or even endangered.

Grassland and successional habitats are maintained by prescribed fire, mowing, discing and other such disturbances at regular intervals. Painted bunting habitat must be actively managed to stay in the appropriate successional stage these birds prefer; otherwise a fallow field left alone will eventually turn into a pine or pine-hardwood forest and the buntings will leave. Although painted buntings can coexist with some development, the intensive growth and urban sprawl that has taken place along the Southeastern coast in the past 35 years has permanently eliminated much bunting habitat.

Other factors negatively impacting painted buntings are outdoor house cats and brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds. Recently a problem with illegal bunting trapping on the Latin American wintering grounds has come to light. One investigator estimated that as many as 22,000 painted buntings were trapped and exported for the caged-bird trade in Mexico during 2000-2001. Although most of these birds were probably from the more numerous western bunting population, which is also declining, evidence has surfaced that buntings are also being trapped for the export trade, as well as local use, in Cuba, which is the heart of the Eastern painted bunting's wintering range.


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