Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris



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Figure 4. Annual cycle of breeding, molt, and migration of the Painted Bunting.

Thick lines show peak activity; thin lines, off-peak.

Painted Bunting nest, Georgia

Chatham Co., GA. 10 May 1905. Ruler is 8 cm.; photographer Rene Corado

Painted Bunting clutch, Georgia.

Chatham Co., GA. 11 June.


Pair Formation

Male may accompany female “as though already mated” as early as Mar in Costa Rica (Stiles and Skutch 1989). In Georgia, however, males arrive 1 wk earlier than females, and pairs form on territories (SML).


Nest construction begins about 5 d after arrival of females (SML).

First Brood Per Season

Figure 4. Egg dates: In Texas, 27 Apr–19 Aug (Nyc 1939, Oberholser 1974c), 28 Mar–26 Jul (Taber 1968). In Georgia, 7 Apr–20 Jul (Mr. Perry in Davie 1898), 1 May–26 Jul (Sprunt 1968b). No seasonal difference in distribution of egg-laying between eastern and western populations (CWT).

Nest Site

Selection Process

Of 35 nest-site explorations observed at St. Catherines I., Georgia, 32 involved pairs; both birds search foliage (more rapidly than when foraging for food); either male or female enters Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) or other dense vegetation and then crouches; crouching females may arrange foliage about themselves; in 12 of 32 cases, male preceded female into clump (Lanyon and Thompson 1984).


In Oklahoma, “nest territories invariably had . . . (1) enough vegetation, though it be but a single tree or small bush to support . . . the nest; (2) several singing perches for the male; (3) a feeding ground, usually a grassy field with scattered shrubs” (Parmelee 1959: 2).

Site Characteristics

Nests in low vegetation, 0.9–1.8 m above ground, sometimes to >8 m (Sprunt 1968b) and as high as 15 m if no lower vegetation is available (SML). Mean nest height, in Oklahoma, 98 cm (range 30–228 cm, n = 45) above ground. In central Texas, mean nest height 1.14 m ± 0.82 SD (n = 62); mean distance from main stem 12.7 cm ± 4.40 SD (n = 62); mean overhead cover (concealment of nest from 15 cm above nest), 66.5% ± 3.22 SD (n = 62; Barber and Martin 1997). For 17 nests on James I., South Carolina, nest height 1.3 m ± 0.8 SD; height of vegetation above nest 0.8 ± 0.5 SD; distance to nearest opening 0.7 m ± 0.7 SD (W. Post pers. comm.).

Museum egg slip data (CWT) for western population (n = 102 nests) include the following species as common nest plants: mulberry (Morus spp.), 28 nests; mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), 19 nests; elm (Ulmus spp.), 18 nests; and 27 other plant species (37 nests). In Oklahoma (n = 45 nests), most common nest plants included winged elm (Ulmus alata), 14 nests; osage-orange (Maclura pomifera), 8 nests; smilax (Smilax bonanox), 4 nests; post oak (Quercus stellata), 4 nests; and 10 other plant species, 15 nests (Parmelee 1959).

Museum egg slip data (CWT) for eastern population (n = 146) include the following species as common nest plants: oak, 62 nests; myrtle (Myrica cerifera), 30 nests; pine, 17 nests; Spanish moss, 13 nests; and 14 other plant species (24 nests).


Construction Process

Nest built by female alone in as little as 2 d; lining may be added after first egg is laid (Parmelee Parmelee 1959, Parmelee 1964); 1 nest consisted of bottom and part of side at 10:50 on 19 Jun, all of cup and lining were started at 16:15 on 20 Jun, lining was finished 21 Jun, and first egg was laid 22 Jun (Parmelee 1959). One nest in Missouri was built in 3 d by female alone (Norris 1982).

Structure And Composition Matter

Nest well made; deep cup woven and firmly attached to supporting vegetation; lined with hair or fine grass (Sprunt 1968b). Nest a “neat, thin-walled cup of plant fibers, slender dry weed-stems, and leaf skeletons bound together by cobweb” (Sutton 1977a). Nest well cupped, “composed of tissue paper, rags, withered leaves and other plants, and leaves and stems; inwardly of fine fibrous rootlets . . . [or] horse hair” (Strecker 1893: 39); built of “leaves, bark strips, twigs, rootlets and fine grasses . . . sometimes lined with horse hairs” (Davie 1898: 405); sometimes includes paper (B. 1892), snake skins (Savary 1936), or spiderweb (Norris 1982).


For 6 nests on James I., South Carolina (W. Post pers. comm.), outside diameter 82.0 mm ± 9.1 SD; inside diameter 54.2 mm ± 3.5 SD; outside depth 63.0 mm ± 8.4 SD; inside depth 43.2 mm ± 5.2 SD; mass 6.7 g ± 2.2 SD (n = 4).


Partly exposed; insulative value unknown.

Maintenance Or Reuse Of Nests, Alternate Nests

Nests sometimes reused, but no details on frequency or manner of reuse (Finke 1979).

Nonbreeding Nests

Not known.



Usually ovate or short ovate.


For 184 clutches, using mean egg of each clutch: mean length 19.08 mm ± 0.04 SE (range 17.57–21.41); mean breadth 14.47 mm ± 0.02 SE (range 13.71–15.44). Only slight (and nonsignificant) differences between eastern and western populations in egg size, though eggs of western population slightly larger in congruence with slightly larger size of adult birds. Mean egg volume, for both eastern and western populations, shows statistically significant increase with season (CWT; see Acknowledgments for sources).


No information.


Background color grayish white or very pale bluish white; speckles and fine spots, more concentrated at larger end, of various browns or grays: chestnut, chestnut brown, Mars brown, pecan brown, russet brown, pale mouse gray, and pale Quaker drab (Sprunt 1968b).

Surface Texture

Slightly glossy.

Eggshell Thickness

No data on thickness. Mean mass of empty shell 0.129 g (range 0.090–0.161, n = 310 eggs from 80 clutches; Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology). Of all egg measurements (see above), only empty shell mass (here, mean value of all eggs in set) showed significant differences between eastern and western populations (t = 4.45, df = 89, p < 0.001; CWT): eastern population, 0.126 g ± 0.001 SE (range 0.100–0.148, n = 69 clutches); western population, 0.134 g ± 0.001 SE (range 0.112–0.150, n = 39 clutches).

Clutch Size

Commonly 3 or 4 eggs. Of 16 clutches in Oklahoma, 9 had 3 eggs and 7 had 4 (Parmelee 1959). On Sapelo I., McIntosh Co., Georgia, mean clutch 2.9 eggs (n = 62; J. M. Meyers, E. G. Springborn, and L. K. Duncan unpubl.).

Clutch-size distribution in 225 nests from western populations (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Tamaulipas, Mexico), based on contents of nests when found: 6 nests with 5 eggs each, 153 with 4 eggs, 54 with 3 eggs, 10 with 2 eggs, and 2 with 1 egg. Clutch-size distribution in 388 nests from eastern populations (South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida), based on contents of nests when found: 9 nests with 5 eggs each, 331 with 4 eggs, 47 with 3 eggs, and 1 with 2 eggs. Clutch sizes of 1 and 2 probably represent incomplete, parasitized, or predated nests. These data compiled from various sources (see Acknowledgments; CWT). No variation in clutch size in relation to latitude or longitude; however, mean clutch size decreases during season in western population—but not eastern population—from 4.14 (28 Mar) to 3.37 (3 Aug; n = 381 clutches for eastern population, n = 216 clutches for western; CWT).


Eggs laid shortly after dawn, 1/d; 21 eggs (in 8 nests) laid between 05:00 and 06:30 (Parmelee Parmelee 1959, Parmelee 1964). Egg-laying lasts 1–7 min (observed 4 times at 2 nests); female suddenly raises body to high setting position, spreads tail, erects feathers, and occasionally turns about (Parmelee 1959).


Onset Of Broodiness And Incubation In Relation To Laying

No information.

Incubation Patch

Present in breeding females (Thompson 1992a).

Incubation Period

Generally 11 d (Vasseur and Leberg 2015), 11 d, sometimes 12 (Sprunt 1968b); mean 11.4 d (Parmelee 1964). From laying to hatching of last egg: mean 11 d, 6 h (n = 3), between 11 d, 6 h and 11 d, 9 h (n = 1; Parmelee 1959), 11 d (n = 1; Norris 1982).

Parental Behavior

Only female incubates (Burns 1915a). During incubation, female feeds most often midmorning, late afternoon, and evening before sundown; absent from nest sometimes >30 min; female remains on nest overnight (Parmelee 1959).

Hardiness Of Eggs Against Temperature Stress; Effect Of Egg Neglect

No information.


Preliminary Events And Vocalizations

No information.

Shell-Breaking And Emergence

Eggs in clutch may hatch during 6- to 40-h interval (Parmelee 1964). Measured hatching intervals: 4.5 h (3-egg clutch), 23 h (3-egg clutch), 40 h (4-egg clutch; Parmelee 1959). Time of day: First egg to hatch in 4-egg clutch hatched about 12:30 (Norris 1982).

Parental Assistance And Disposal Of Eggshells

After hatching, female seen removing eggshells a “short distance” from nest (Norris 1982).

Young Birds

Condition At Hatching

Altricial (nearly naked and helpless) and nidicolous (confined to nest). About 2 g; scant, light down (Parmelee 1959).

Growth And Development

Young gain about 1 g/d until fledging at 10–11 g in 8–9 d at nests checked daily (Parmelee Parmelee 1959, Parmelee 1964); one nestling fledged at 10 d (Norris 1982). Nestling period 10 d (Vasseur and Leberg 2015); Sprunt (Sprunt 1968b) uncritically indicated a longer nestling period (12–14 d), but gave no data. Eyes open at age 3 d (Parmelee Parmelee 1959, Parmelee 1964). No data on linear measurements or growth of body parts.

Parental Care


Female frequently broods between feedings; at 1 nest, female brooded 3 young overnight for 8 nights (Parmelee Parmelee 1959, Parmelee 1964).


Care provided by female only (Parmelee 1964, Lanyon and Thompson 1984); identified food items included caterpillars, grasshoppers, and small beetles in s. Oklahoma (Parmelee 1959), caterpillars and beetle larvae in s. Missouri (Norris 1982); male not recorded feeding young in nest (Parmelee 1959, Sprunt 1968b). No data on feeding rates.

Nest Sanitation

No information.

Cooperative Breeding

Not known to occur.

Brood Parasitism

Identity Of Parasitic Species

Brown-headed (Molothrus ater) and Bronzed (M. aeneus) cowbirds.

Frequency Of Occurrence

For Brown-headed Cowbird, about 50 records from Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi (Friedmann 1963, Friedmann et al. 1977), and Kansas (Mengel 1970a). In Oklahoma, 13 of 45 nests parasitized; 9 of these were deserted before third or fourth bunting egg was laid (Parmelee 1959). In central Texas, 4 of 60 nests parasitized in 1991–1992, but extensive cowbird control has been carried out at this Fort Hood site since 1988 (Barber and Martin 1997). Few records of parasitism on eastern population: 5 of 62 nests parasitized during study on Sapelo I., McIntosh Co., Georgia (J. M. Meyers, E. G. Springborn, and L. K. Duncan unpubl.).

Only 2 published records of parasitism by Bronzed Cowbird (Friedmann 1963, Friedmann et al. 1977). A Painted Bunting nest at Welder Wildlife Refuge, San Patricio Co., Texas adds an interesting third record: Contents of nest were 1 bunting egg on 22 May 1995, added were 1 Bronzed Cowbird egg the next day and, on 24 May, 1 Brown-headed Cowbird egg; nest deserted on 22 or 23 May (B. D. Peer pers. comm.).

On the basis of composite data compiled from several sources (Parmelee 1959, Wiens 1963, Cornell Nest Records Program and museum egg sets, CWT), rate of Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism on western population of Painted Bunting increased between 1870s and 1980s (regression of parasitism rate [transformed by arcsin-square root] by decade is statistically significant: t = 4.54, p < 0.01).

Response To Parasitic Mother, Eggs, Or Nestlings

Painted Buntings tend to desert nest if parasitized early in egg-laying period, but will accept cowbird eggs if >3 bunting eggs are present in the nest when parasitized; not known to bury cowbird eggs (Friedmann 1963). In Texas, in “about 8 cases out of 10” (total sample size unknown), parasitized bunting nests were deserted (R. W. Quillin in Friedmann 1963). Painted Buntings known to rear Brown-headed Cowbird young “several times” (Friedmann 1963). On Sapelo I., Georgia, 2 cowbird young were reared from 5 eggs laid in 5 nests (J. M. Meyers, E. G. Springborn, and L. K. Duncan unpubl.).

Effects Of Parasitism On Host

Western population overlaps core high-density distribution of Brown-headed Cowbird; eastern population, historically, has been allopatric to cowbirds (see Lowther 1993a). Speculation that the significant difference in eggshell mass (see Eggs, above)—an indication of thicker shells in western populations—suggests adaptation to reduce egg breakage due to high frequency of cowbird parasitism of Painted Buntings of s. Great Plains.

Fledgling Stage

Departure From Nest

Departure described for 1 nest from Oklahoma by Parmelee (Parmelee 1959: 8): Painted Buntings gradually “nudged” their way out of nest, moving toward the female when she brought food. “By fledging time, they climbed on one another, on the rim of the nest, and often on the supporting limb close by, settling back in the nest once the female left. When they left the nest finally, they gradually moved into the surrounding foliage. Some tumbled straight down to the ground. There they were fed by the female who readily located them by their loud food-chirps. At first these fledglings, half walking, half fluttering, made their way laboriously through the ground vegetation, . . . Within a few hours they worked their way back to the upper foliage where they remained mostly still, calling when hungry, and occasionally flying from branch to branch or bush to bush. One 9-d old chick that had remained on the ground for 3 h after falling from the nest suddenly flew straight up and alighted on a limb 6 ft [1.8 m] above the ground; another made its way up by successive short flights.”


Little information. Skull pneumatization is completed in 46 d (estimated), beginning mid-Sep and ending early Nov (Thompson 1992a).

Association With Parents Or Other Young

Oklahoma observations by Parmelee (Parmelee 1959), except as noted. Male will feed fledged young if female is involved in another nesting. Of 41 fledgling broods on St. Catherines I., Georgia, males fed young in 9 (Lanyon and Thompson 1984). One brood of 3 young that left nest at 9 d was in care of female until young were 16 d old, when male took over brood (and female renested); brood and male remained together until young were 34 d old; male then joined female and second brood. After becoming independent of adult care, young begin to flock together.

Ability To Get Around, Feed, And Care For Self

When 9 d old and out of the nest <2 h, 3 young flew about 12 m; 9- and 10-d old chicks (out of nest) could be easily caught, older chicks could not be caught (Parmelee 1959). Female made up to 20 feeding trips/h to 4 young out of nest, 10–13 d old (Norris 1982). Young birds 26 and 29 d old captured and ate insects; young 32 d old ate grass seeds; these young were still receiving parental care (Parmelee 1959).

Immature Stage

No information.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, P. E., S. M. Lanyon, and C. W. Thompson (2015). Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.