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A flash of color caught my eye, of something fluttering just above the ground and disappearing into the tall grass. There it was again, only this time, its kaleidoscope of colors accentuated by early morning rays of sun revealed the source. A painted bunting was skillfully riding seed laden grass stems to the ground and expertly stripping the seed. As I watched it busying itself with the task at hand, it brought back memories of the first one I had seen as a kid. A pair had nested in a shrub next to our house and I was glad they were there. I made sure my mother knew about the nest so I had a good excuse to put off trimming that hedge for several weeks. She didn't buy it when I told there were probably lots of them nesting in all the other hedges too.
French settlers in the southern states called them "nonpareil" which translates "without equal", and although I don't agree with some things the French say these days, they were "right-on" in the case of painted buntings, for there is no bird of equal beauty in Cross Timbers Country that I'm aware of. The Spanish colonists named them "mariposa pintada" or "painted butterfly" - I like that even better. Their scientific name Passerina ciris was inspired by the Greek myth of Scylla who turned into the bird keiris. They're close kin to grosebeaks and cardinals in their family Cardinalidae.
Painted buntings are found throughout much of Texas except the northern Panhandle during the spring and summer months and then depart during the fall for Mexico and Central America for the winter. The deep blue colored indigo bunting (P. cyanea) is found more commonly in east and northeast Texas although some may nest here in Northcentral Texas.
Painted bunting males are breathtakingly beautiful, sorta like one of my grandmother's patchwork quilts, with their brilliant red breast, rump and eye-ring, bright olive green back, and indigo blue head feathers. Once males put on their "coat of many colors", they keep it throughout the year and don't molt it like some other species of birds do. Females are drab with olive green coloration above and pale yellowish green below. At 5 ½ inches long, these sparrow-size songsters often go unnoticed unless you spot or hear a male singing from his perch. I've read it described as a high-pitched musical measured warble, as if they were saying pew-eata, pew-eata, I eaty you too. Otherwise, they're shy, preferring to stay hidden in dense foliage and brushy areas throughout the day.
Males arrive ahead of the females and stake out potential nesting territories in dense low brush. When females show up, males strongly defend their choice for a "home sweet home" from other would be suitors in the area with their delightful twittering, warbling song and pugnacious attitude. Fights sometimes get nasty, resulting in serious injury to combatants. Swooned females build woven cup nests of grasses, plant stems, leaves, rootlets and hair, usually 3-6 feet above the ground. Females lay 3-4 light blue speckled eggs that hatch in 11-12 days and do most of the feeding of young for another couple of weeks. If she decides to go off somewhere and nest again, the male will take over those domestic duties. Several nesting attempts are the rule. Since he may have more than one mate, he keeps busy making all his appointed rounds.
Painted buntings prefer to eat grass and weed seeds but compliment their diet with fruits and berries. Insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and caterpillars are also eaten or fed to nestlings. Although illegal in the United States, in Mexico and Central American they're caught and sold as a popular caged bird in the pet trade. Brown-head cowbirds are known to lay their eggs in the nests of painted buntings, letting them incubate, feed and fledge their young for them which another good reason to dislike those sorry devils.
The sound of these and other Neotropical migrant bird species singing throughout the spring and summer months here in Cross Timbers Country is music to my ears and a reassuring symbol of their tenacity for survival and endurance. These birds need the Cross Timbers and we in the Cross Timbers need them, or at least I do. I can only hope that as stewards of these lands, we have the foresight and vision to consider the habitat needs for these little flying rainbows now and far into the future.
Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!