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Passerina Buntings

by Mike Scully

This article first appeared in the June 2004 issue of the San Antonio Audubon News.

The familiar little buntings in the genus Passerina are perhaps the most extravegantly colorful birds in North America, surpassing even the warblers and orioles by virtue of their habit of singing abundantly from an exposed perch, bright colors resplendent in the sunlight. Encountering a singing male Indigo or Painted Bunting for the first time comes as a pleasant surprise for many novice birders, inciting exclamations of admiration and appreciation. Images of these species are often featured on the covers of bird guides and magazines and have probably done much to draw attention to bird watching and nature in general.Indigo Buntings

Although collectively referred to by the old European term of “bunting,” the six species in this genus are now grouped in the exclusively New World Family Cardinalidae. Two species in the genus are found in the Tropics, the remaining four species migrate north each year and breed solely or in part within North America.
The males are persistent songsters, as noted previously often singing from a prominent perch. Males do not attain their full adult splendor until their second year. The females are notably drab and ordinarily do not sing. First-year males resemble females in the case of the Painted (P. ciris) and Varied Buntings (P. versicolor), or blotchy variations of the mature males in the case of the Indigo (P. cyanea) and Lazuli Buntings (P. amoena). These first-year males sing as vigorously as do the older males but often do not fare as well when wooing females.

The buntings in this genus prefer edge or successional habitats and thus have tolerated human disturbance fairly well. Typically, the older males arrive on the breeding grounds first and aggressively establish territories. Monogamy is the norm although polygyny is frequent, as are extra-pair copulations. The female alone builds the cup-shaped nest and incubates the 3–5 eggs. Development is rapid, the eggs hatch in 12 to 14 days and the young fledge in about 2 weeks. Multiple broods are the norm, as many as 4 being recorded in the case of the Painted Bunting.

The Varied Bunting is a primarily Mexican species, limited in the United States to parts of the desert Southwest where it has become a much sought-after target species for traveling birders. By way of contrast, the Indigo Bunting (right) is an abundant Trans-Gulf migrant, breeding across the eastern two-thirds of our continent north to southern Canada. The Lazuli Bunting (below, left) replaces the Indigo Bunting across the West and the two species may interbreed in areas of range overlap. Indigo Buntings have also been recorded interbreeding with Painted Buntings, the hybrids arising from both these sorts of liaisons suffering a competitive disadvantage against the parent species.
Lazuli Bunting
The Painted Bunting occupies two separate ranges with the United States, the smaller Eastern population breeds along the Atlantic seaboard from North Carolina to Florida, moving to southern Florida and the Caribbean in winter. The larger western population occupies a range extending from Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma south and east through Texas to northeast Mexico. After breeding, this western population moves west to southern Arizona and northwest Mexico where the buntings undergo a late-summer molt. Interestingly, much of the Lazuli Bunting population migrates to these same areas, both species later moving further south for the winter.

Populations of both the Painted and Indigo Bunting have been steadily declining in recent decades, with the eastern population of Painted Buntings being of special concern. Habitat loss has been especially severe in some areas and all of these buntings are susceptible to cowbird parasitism. In addition, these species suffer for being attractive, having pretty songs and being relatively easy to keep alive in captivity. The Painted Bunting in particular is a popular cage bird in Mexico and all these buntings fetch high prices in the international pet trade.

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