AUDUBON’S NONPAREIL BUNTING THREATENED
By Vince Jackson
John James Audubon aptly named it the Nonpareil Bunting, a bird so strikingly beautiful that he thought it to “have no equal,” when he first saw it in South Carolina. Ornithologist and South Carolinian Alexander Sprunt Jr. said that it is “brilliant in its flaming, jewel-like radiance. Truly it is without equal.”
Today, people who have seen Passerina ciris might agree with these lofty assessments. The Painted Bunting, a small finch found along the South Carolina coast and inland near the state’s rivers during the summer, is certainly an unmistakable eyeful. To some it is gaudy in its red, blue and green carnival plumage, but most just look with their mouths open and their eyes wide.
Unfortunately, like many songbirds it is in trouble. Loss of breeding habitat, nest parasitism by the more aggressive Brown-headed Cowbird, capture in Mexico and Central America for the pet trade, and feral cats all take a toll.
The popularity of beach homes in SC has diminished the coastal habitat of the Painted Bunting, but the bird can live in proximity to man if bird-friendly conditions exist, say experts.
Buntings feed frequently at bird feeders. In fact most sightings are made while they are consuming bird seed in people’s backyards. They also stay close to the ground and this makes them more visible to observers. Because of these characteristics the bird has become a “favorite” and “desirable” to homeowners who enjoy watching birds, say coastal bird watchers like Joe and Maureen Osteen, who have a summer home at Edisto Island.
“Joe and I really enjoy seeing these beauties in our yard. Wow, they are something else,” said Maureen.
People who live on the coast or have a summer home there can provide suitable habitat for buntings by leaving native trees like wax myrtle, scrub pine and red cedar on their property. Native grasses, beach scrub and Spanish moss make needed contributions for food and nesting material, unlike more exotic introduced plants. Consider low, creeping seed and berry producing plants to attract buntings instead of a lawn, says the National Audubon Society.
The Painted Bunting has been given a high priority by conservation groups working to save songbirds from extinction. The bird is on the National Audubon Society’s Watchlist of species in decline and special attention is being paid to populations on the barrier islands of South Carolina and Georgia due to the advantageous habitat the islands afford.
Population censuses indicate that Painted Buntings are declining at the rate of 3% a year in South Carolina. That amounts to an almost 50% decline in twenty years. Scientists at the Migratory Bird Data Center think that Painted Buntings can be managed much like game birds such as quail and dove.
“The barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina offer the best historic habitats for these birds to survive. That is where the effort should be focused,” says researcher Joe Myers of the US Geological Survey.
Anyone interested in tracking Painted Buntings or contributing sighting information can go to the PAINTED BUNTING OBSERVER TEAM website for more information.