All About Painted Buntings

You have to see this prismatic feeder bird to believe it.

You recognize common feeder birds by color. Red? Cardinal. Blue? Blue jay. Yellow? Goldfinch. But when all those colors and more are on one bird, you’re looking at a painted bunting. (Read more: 15 Common Backyard Birds You Should Know)

Where to Spot Painted Buntings

Males have bright blue heads, red bodies and yellow-green backs, with darker green on the wings. They develop this bold color in the fall of their second year. Females and juveniles sport a lime green hue, an unusual color among North American feeder birds.

Look for painted buntings in the south central and southeastern states. They have two distinct summer breeding areas. One covers a large area from Texas to Mississippi and north to Kansas, and another is centered in the coastal Carolinas. Painted buntings undertake a short winter migration to Florida, Mexico and Central America, when they gather in small mixed flocks with other birds, such as their indigo bunting cousins. (Read more: Birding Basics to Indigo Buntings)

How Painted Buntings Nest and Raise Their Young

Female or juvenile painted buntings look green and nearly identical.photo credit: Michelle Summers
photo credit: Michelle Summers This is a female or young male painted bunting (the two are nearly identical).

During the breeding season, males are extremely territorial. They stake out an area of about 3 to 8 acres and defend it vigorously from other males. Vicious fights may ensue, with males wounding other males. Females may even get caught up in the fray. Once the territory is secure, males sing and spread their feathers to attract a mate. (Only male painted buntings sing songs like: graffiti graffiti spaghetti-for-two. If you think you see a plain green female bursting into song, it’s most likely an immature male in his first year.) Together the male and female choose a nest site, generally in dense vegetation about 3 to 6 feet off the ground.

Females build the nests and lay a clutch of three or four pale eggs speckled with brown, which they incubate alone for about 11 days. Once the eggs hatch, the female stays busy feeding her young brood, again with no help from her mate. The hatchlings fledge the nest in about nine days, and females often lay a second clutch of eggs soon after.

What Painted Buntings Eat

For most of the year, painted buntings are seed-eaters, favoring seed from native grasses like switchgrass. During the breeding season, they switch to protein-heavy insects for extra energy. Females may steal bugs caught in spiderwebs, and even pull webs down to feast on the spiders that built them. Once breeding season ends, they return to seeds, especially ones they find on or near the ground.

How to Attract Painted Buntings

A painted bunting lands in a coniferous tree.photo credit: Betty Berard
photo credit: Betty Berard Find a painted bunting in the wild by checking ebird.org for locations where they’ve been recently sighted.

To attract these stunning fliers to your yard, offer millet seed in a feeder with perches. Painted buntings are wary and easily scared off, so hang a feeder with a protective cage around the tube to discourage bully birds. Ensure that your yard provides low dense vegetation by planting plenty of native grasses. These bright beauties love birdbaths, too.

Patience is the key with painted buntings. They may be slow to come around, but once they find a constant food source and protective shelter, they’re likely to return frequently.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find he reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.