Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris



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Female Painted Bunting, Dry Tortugas, Monroe Co., FL, May.

Note bright, grass-green head and upperparts, and dull yellowish underparts. Wings lack wing bars. Image by Kevin Karlson.; photographer Kevin T. Karlson

Adult male Painted Bunting, Laredo, Webb Co., TX, 10 May.

Dorsal view of adult male. Note blue head and nape, with chartreuse back. Rump and underparts red, contrasting with darker reddish wings and tail. Image via Birdshare by Carlos Escamilla.

Adult male Painted Bunting, Laredo, Webb Co., TX, 7 May.

Adult male Painted Bunting is distinctive and unlikely to be confused with any other species within its range. Image via Birdshare by Carlos Escamilla.

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

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

Juvenile Painted Bunting, Block Creek NA, Kendall Co., TX, 12 July.

Juvenile is similar to adult female, but green is more dull/grayish, and gape and base of lower mandible are more orangish. Note also pale tips to wing coverts forming weak wing bars. Image via Birdshare by Stephen Pollard.

First Alternate male Painted Bunting, Laredo, Webb Co., TX, 4 May.

Note blue feathers on head, and worn primary coverts typical of First Alternate. Image via Birdshare by Carlos Escamilla.

First Basic Painted Bunting, John Heinz NWR, Tinicum, PA, 7 January.

First Basic plumage. Similar to the adult female plumage, but note the retained inner remiges (inner primaries, outer secondaries) and primary coverts. Image by Christopher L. Wood.

Adult male Painted Bunting, Fort Meyers, Lee Co., FL, 25 December.

Image via Birdshare: Cleber Ferreira.

Small, brightly colored cardinalid; length 12–13 cm, mass 13–19 g. Adult males and females differ strongly in plumage. In adult plumage (Definitive Basic and Alternate), male head and nape blue, back bronze-green, rump and underparts (chin through vent) red, contrasting with dark wings and tail. On adult female, upperparts dark greenish, underparts yellow green. Plumages are similar throughout year in adults. Plumages during the first cycle are similar to adult female. Males exhibit delayed plumage maturation and wear female-like plumage until the Second Basic Plumage is acquired during fall of their second calendar year. Prior to this, and after the First Prealternate Molt, about 40% of these second-year males can be distinguished from females in hand by occasional blue feathers on the head. These males are reproductively mature and often attempt to attract mates and breed (CWT). Thus, in the field these males are further distinguished from females during breeding season by behavior (males sing while females do not).

Similar Species

Adult male is distinctive and unlikely to be confused with any other species within its range. Females and immature males are distinguished from most other female and immature Passerina buntings by greenish yellow (not brownish) coloration. However, may be confused with female and immature Orange-breasted Buntings (P. leclancherii) of sw. Mexico, which have similar coloration. Female and immature Orange-breasted Buntings are best distinguished by brighter yellow underparts, yellow (not pale) lores, and bluish (not greenish) rump. Female Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea) of e. Mexico, Central America, and n. South America is similar but paler, and has distinctive facial pattern that is lacking in Painted Bunting.

Detailed Description

Painted Buntings have 9 functional primaries, 9 secondaries (including 3 tertials), and 12 rectrices. Geographic variation in appearance slight, at best; the following molt and plumage descriptions pertain to all North American populations. See Systematics: Geographic Variation for appearance and molecular genetic variation in this species within North America.


Following based primarily on detailed plumage descriptions of Dwight (Dwight 1900c), Ridgway (Ridgway 1901), Storer (Storer 1951), and Oberholser (Oberholser 1974c); see Storer (Storer 1951), Fisk (Fisk 1974), Thompson (Thompson and Ely 1992), and Pyle (1997a) for age/sex-related criteria. Sexes show similar appearance in first-cycle plumages but differ markedly in definitive plumages that are assumed at the Second Basic Plumage.

Color names that follow Ridgway (Ridgway 1901, Ridgway 1912) are capitalized and are equated with Munsell color chip notation (hue, chroma/value) following Hamly 1949, and followed by the closest color number in Smithe 1975 when available (e.g., Pale Drab-Gray 10YR 8.5/0.5; 119C).

Natal Down

Present primarily Apr–Jun, in the nest. Down light Drab (0.9Y, 5.83/2.5; 119C).

Juvenile (First Basic) Plumage

Present primarily May–Aug. Overall uniformly Drab (10YR 5.5/3.0; 27). Upperparts generally Light Brownish Olive (2.5Y 4.6/3.5); crown Buffy Brown (10YR 5.5/4.0; 4.0); uppertail coverts Isabella Color (2.5Y 5.8/4.5); tail dark Hair Brown (10YR 4.4/1.0; 27); upperwing feathers lighter in color, the outer edges of tertials, secondaries, and primaries Light Brownish Olive and the lesser, median, greater, and primary coverts tipped dull Pinkish Buff (1YR 8.0/4.0). Sides of head between Drab and Wood Brown (9YR 6.0/3.0; 25); underparts Cartridge Buff (2.5Y 8.5/3.5; 54) to light Cream Buff (2.5Y 8.0/6.5; 54), obscurely streaked or spotted on sides and lower throat with Drab or Light Drab (10YR 5.8/2.0; 27). Sexes alike in plumage. Juvenile body feathers (especially undertail coverts) filamentous due to lower barb density than feathers of later plumages.

Auxiliary Formative Plumage

"Supplemental Plumage" of Thompson and Leu (1994) and Pyle (1997a); see revision by Howell et al. (2003). Present primarily Jul–Sep. Similar to Juvenile Plumage but body plumage brighter, mostly to entirely Olive-Green (7.5Y 4.0/3.5; 47) dorsally and Yellow-Green (5GY 8.0/10.0; 58) ventrally. Sexes alike in plumage.

Formative Plumage

"First Basic" or "Basic I" plumage of Humphrey and Parkes (1959) and later authors; see revision by Howell et al. (2003). Present primarily Oct–Mar. Body plumage similar to that of Auxiliary Formative Plumage although it may average brighter due to more complete feather replacement and perhaps brighter feathers; rectrices replaced, brighter green, broader, and more truncate than in Juvenile and Auxiliary Formative plumages; molt limits occur among wing feathers, the upperwing secondary coverts, outermost 3–7 primaries, outermost 1–4 primary coverts in many individuals, and innermost 2–5 secondaries replaced, moderate to bright olive green, contrasting with the drabber olive to brownish, retained, juvenile, inner primaries, outer secondaries, and most to all inner primary coverts. Sexes alike in plumage. These molt limits help distinguish Formative Plumage from Definitive Basic female (see below).

First Alternate Plumage

Present primarily Mar–Sep. Similar to Formative Plumage but a variable number of body feathers and upperwing lesser and median coverts, no to 7 inner greater coverts, and sometimes 1–3 tertials replaced, similar in color to formative feathers but contrastingly fresher. Sexes similar in plumage although some Formative males can be distinguished by showing a few colored feathers of Definitive Basic male, usually blue feathers in head (Thompson and Ely 1992, Pyle 1997a). Separation of First from Definitive Alternate Plumages in females accomplished using molt limits among wing feathers (see Formative Plumage).

Definitive Basic Plumage

Present primarily Oct–Mar. Male. Crown and hindneck Dark Diva Blue (7.5PB 4.5/11.0) to bright Navy Blue (8.6PB 2.8/5.0); back and scapulars bright yellowish green; rump and uppertail coverts dark red; tail Dark Mouse Gray (7.5YR 3.5/0.5) to Hair Brown, the central pair of feathers and outer webs of remaining rectrices edged Hay's Brown (10R 4.5/2.0), Buffy Brown, and Vinaceous Brown (7.5R 4.8/2.5). Upperwing lesser coverts dull blue washed Vinaceous Brown; median coverts Vinaceous Brown; greater coverts bright green; primaries and secondaries Hair Brown to dark Hair Brown and margined Vinaceous Brown to bluish green, the tertials green with a Chaetura Drab (10YR 3.6/1.0; 21) to Chaetura Black (10YR 2.4/1.0; 21) stripe along inner margins. Lores Deep Grayish Olive (5Y 4.0/1.0); auriculars and sides of neck same blue as crown; narrow eye-ring, chin, middle of throat, and remainder of underparts scarlet to dark Scarlet Red (5R 4.4/16.0; 11), posteriorly becoming Peach Read (7.5R 5.5/9.4); underwing coverts Light Mouse Gray (7.5YR 6.0/1.0) to Deep Mouse Gray (7.5YR 4.5/0.5) washed dull red and sometimes dull green among the marginal lesser coverts.

Female. Upperparts, sides of head and neck, and upperwing secondary coverts range from Cerro Green (5GY 4.2/3.5) to Yellowish Oil Green (10Y 5.0/6.0), Parrot Green (5GY 5.5/5.5), or Peacock Green (7.5GY 6.2/5.0), the center crown sometimes duller and slightly more brownish, and the lesser coverts brighter and slightly more bluish. Tail dark Hair Brown, the central rectrices (r1) and outer webs of other rectrices (r2–r6) green, similar in color to the uppertail coverts. Wings Hair Brown, the inner edges of primaries and secondaries Light Drab and the primary coverts margined green. Lores, chin, and upper throat Olive Ocher (5Y 6.5/6.5) to greenish Colonial Buff (5Y 8.4/6.0); lower throat between Olive Yellow (7.5Y 6.8/7.0; 52) and Light Yellowish Olive (7.5Y 5.8/6.0; 52); breast and abdomen Amber Yellow (5Y 8.0/8.0) to Straw Yellow (6Y 8.4/6.0; 56); sides and flanks Grayish Olive (5Y 4.8/2.5; 43); underwing coverts Grayish Olive to Mouse Gray (7.5YR 5.0/1.0), washed or tinged Amber Yellow or dull green on marginal lesser coverts and axillars.

Definitive Basic male separated from all other plumages by colorful body feathering. Definitive Basic female separated from Formative Plumage by having wing and tail feathers uniform in quality and freshness, moderate to bright green, without molt limits or contrasts with browner or duller olive feathers; primary coverts uniformly edged green (Pyle 1997a).

Definitive Alternate Plumage

Present primarily Mar–Sep. Male and female similar to respective Definitive Basic Plumages but a variable number of body feathers, upperwing lesser and median coverts, 6 to all 10 inner greater coverts, and sometimes 1–3 tertials replaced, often similar in color to basic feathers (replaced greater coverts and tertials can be with green or dusky bluish in male) but contrastingly fresher. Some females may acquire a few colored feathers of Definitive Basic male. Separation of Definitive from First Alternate Plumages in females accomplished using lack of molt limits among wing feathers (see Definitive Basic Plumage).



Molt and plumage terminology follows Humphrey and Parkes (1959) as modified by Howell et al. (2003, 2004). Painted Bunting exhibits a Complex Alternate Strategy (cf. Howell et al. 2003, Howell 2010), including complete prebasic molts, a probable limited auxiliary preformative molt, an incomplete preformative molt, and limited prealternate molts in both first and definitive cycles (Dwight 1900c; Storer 1951; Sprunt 1968b; Fisk 1974; Oberholser 1974c; Thompson Thompson 1991b, Thompson 1992a; Thompson and Leu 1994; Pyle 1997a, 1997b; Rohwer 2013; Fig. 4). There has been confusion in naming of molts and plumages in Passerina buntings during their first few months of life. Sequence of these molts has been advanced as: prejuvenile molt, first prebasic molt, presupplemental molt (Rohwer 1986, Rohwer et al. 1992; Thompson Thompson 1991b, Thompson 1992a); Young 1991; Willoughby 1992), or as prejuvenile molt, presupplemental molt, first prebasic molt (Thompson and Leu 1994, Pyle 1997a). Comparison of homologous molts with related species (see below) suggests the latter interpretation is correct; thus, we follow the sequence of Thompson and Leu (Thompson and Leu 1994) but use the terminology of Howell (2003): Prejuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt, Auxiliary Preformative Molt, Preformative Molt.

PreJuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt

Complete, May–Jul, in the nest. No information on timing or sequence of pennaceous feather irruption and development. Duration of Prejuvenile Molt among individuals presumably lasts 8-11 d, beginning at day 2–3 and completing or nearly completing rectrix and primary growth shortly after fledging at day 9–12.

Auxiliary Preformative Molt

"Presupplemental Molt" of Thompson and Leu (Thompson and Leu 1994) and Pyle (1997a); see above and revision by Howell et al. (2003) regarding such unique first-cycle molts. Reported to occur primarily at age 15–35 d, in Jun–Aug, and to typically include most to all body plumage but no wing coverts or flight feathers (Thompson Thompson 1991b, Thompson and Ely 1992; Thompson and Leu 1994; Pyle 1997a, 1997b). This extra inserted first-cycle molt and plumage was first recognized and described in sparrows and cardinals by Sutton (1935). Thus, following the Prejuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt that replaces natal down with Juvenile plumage, first-cycle Passerina buntings undergo three inserted molts (Auxiliary Preformative, Preformative, and First Prealternate) before the Second Prebasic Molt at about a year of age. The second post-juvenile molt appears homologous to the Preformative Molt of other Cardinalid and Emberizid birds, indicating that the first post-juvenile molt was inserted later in the evolution of Passerina buntings, and should be considered the Auxiliary Preformative Molt. However, an alternate interpretation is that this molt may simply represent continued activation of follicles during protracted Prejuvenile (First Prebasic) Molt, as a fledgling develops, along with early commencement of the Preformative Molt, rather than a separate molt involving replaced juvenile feathers that are replaced again during the Preformative Molt (cf. Pyle 2008, Howell 2010). Further study is needed on this molt in Painted Buntings and other species.

Preformative Molt

"First Prebasic" or "Prebasic I" Molt of Humphrey and Parkes (1959) and some later authors; see above and revision by Howell et al. (2003). Incomplete, primarily Jul–Nov (Fig. 4). Populations breeding in se. U.S. molt on or near the breeding grounds, whereas western populations initiate body molt near breeding grounds (Thompson 1991b) but molt primaries on "molting grounds" in the Mexican Monsoon region (see Definitive Prebasic Molt). The Preformative Molt includes most to all body feathers, upperwing secondary coverts, and rectrices, the outermost 3–7 primaries, the outermost 1–4 primary coverts in 50–60% of individuals, and the innermost 2–5 secondaries (Thompson Thompson 1991b, Thompson and Ely 1992; Pyle 1997a, 1997b; Rohwer 2013).

Molt of remiges occurs in "eccentric" sequence, including outer but not inner primaries and inner but not outer secondaries; this molt pattern occurs more frequently in migratory passerine species exposed to greater amounts of solar radiation (and/or harsh and xeric vegetation) and includes those feathers more exposed to the elements (Willoughby 1991, Pyle 1998). Sequence of outer primary molt distal as in Definitive Prebasic Molt, and sequences among secondaries and rectrices could parallel those of Definitive Molt as well; however, secondary replacement during eccentric molts may also proceed distally from s6 to terminal feather replaced, opposite (for the most part) to proximal sequence of medial secondaries during Definitive Prebasic Molt; confirmation of secondary replacement sequence during eccentric preformative molts needed.

The eccentric molt of 54 Painted Buntings in the Mexican Monsoon region (Sinaloa) was summarized by Rohwer (2013). These birds initiated the molt at p2 (9%), p3 (39%), p4 (39%), and p5 (13%). Calculated mean dates of molt initiation were 29 Aug (for those initiating at p2), 5 Sep (p3), 7 Sep (p4), and 19 Sep (p5), indicating that the variability of the starting point may be related to the birds age; younger birds beginning the molt later and with a more distal primary. There was no difference between the sexes in the timing or initiation point of this molt. The eccentric Preformative Molt was later than for equivalent primaries during the Definitive Prebasic Molt, but the intervals between molting of adjacent primaries were shorter, suggesting a need to complete the molt of outer primaries faster in younger birds, perhaps due to time constraints before the need to migrate to overwintering grounds (Rohwer 2013).

First And Definitive Prealternate Molts

Limited to partial, primarily Feb–Apr (Fig. 4) on winter grounds. Includes variable number of body feathers and upperwing lesser and median coverts, no to all upperwing greater coverts, and sometimes (in ca. 30% of birds) 1–3 tertials but no other flight feathers. First and Definitive Prealternate Molts similar in timing, as far as known; fewer greater coverts are reportedly replaced, on average, during the First than during the Definitive Prealternate Molt (Pyle 1997a, 1997b), but more study is needed on extents of Prealternate Molts by age. Plumage coloration of replaced coverts and tertials in males (either green or red-and-blue) may relate to the precise timing of molt of these feathers (Pyle 1997a).

Definitive Prebasic Molt

Complete, primarily Jul–Oct (Fig. 4). Populations breeding in se. U.S. reported to molt on or near breeding grounds, but study is needed on the relationship between breeding territories and molting grounds. Western breeding populations molt primarily on "molting grounds" in the Mexican Monsoon region (see below). Similar east-west differences in molt location observed within other North American passerine species (Rohwer and Irwin 2011). Primaries are replaced distally (p1 to p9), secondaries are replaced proximally from s1 and, likely, proximally and distally from the central or innermost tertial (s8 or s9) as typical of passerines, and rectrices are probably replaced distally (r1 to r6) on each side of tail, with some variation in sequence possible.


Both first-cycle and adult Painted Buntings from western populations typically undergo molt migration in Jul–Aug to North American Monsoon region of Arizona, Sonora, and Sinaloa, for Preformative and Definitive Prebasic molts, respectively, in late Jul–Oct or Nov, before continuing to overwintering grounds in Sep–Nov (Thompson 1991b; Rohwer et al. 2005, 2009; Pyle et al. 2009; Bridge et al. 2011; Contina et al. 2013; Rohwer 2013; eBird STEM model). Both age-groups may disperse widely throughout this region to molt, during what appears to be a stochastic process, where choices of timing and location for molt are made at the individual level and on an annual basis (Pyle et al. 2009, Rohwer 2013). On molting grounds in Sinaloa, Definitive Prebasic Molt of primaries initiates from 14 July to after mid-September, averages at least 5 d earlier in males than in females due to breeding constraints and competitive displacement, and occurs very rapidly among individuals, with calculated mean durations of 34.3 d for males and 30.3 d for females (Rohwer 2013).

Stable-isotope ratios in both breeding and molting Painted Buntings indicate that some birds show breeding-ground signals for inner primaries and molting-ground signals for outer primaries whereas others show uniform molting-ground signals (Bridge et al. 2011, Contina et al. 2013). Bimodal signals may result from initiation of inner primary molt immediately upon arriving at molting grounds, before body tissues have equilibrated to the molting-ground isoscape (Bridge et al. 2011), or from a carryover effect from landscapes utilized by buntings during the late breeding and early molting seasons (Contina et al. 2013). Rohwer (2013) noted that some individuals (at least 4.6% of females and 0.8% of males) had suspended molt after 1–3 inner primaries had been replaced, suggesting that these birds initiated molt on the breeding grounds, suspended it for migration, and completed it on molting grounds. Suspension of molt for migration could provide a third explanation for bimodal stable isotope ratios among primaries of some birds.

Bare Parts

Bill And Gape

Dark brown (Oberholser 1974c) or blackish (Ridgway 1901).


Dark brown or hazel (Oberholser 1974c, Ridgway 1901).

Legs And Feet

Dark Plumbeous (7.5PB 4.2/1.0), dull brown (Oberholser 1974c), or dusky brown (Ridgway 1901).

Linear Measurements

See Table 2 . Male slightly larger than female (differences statistically significant; CWT); western population slightly larger than eastern population (statistically significant differences in male and female wing length and male mass; CWT). Eastern population has no pattern of geographic variation in size, at least as demonstrated by male wing length; western populations, however, show clinal increase in wing length from southeast (Mississippi) to northwest (Kansas; Thompson 1991a). Male wing length in western populations shows statistically significant difference (about 0.4 mm) between summer and winter specimens; summer values lower, probably because birds do not molt until during or after migration (CWT).

Mean measurements in North Carolina banding study: multicolored (after-second-year) males, 68.5 mm ± 1.5 SD (range 65–73, n = 13); green (second-year) males, 66.0 mm ± 1.0 (range 63–67, n = 19); females, 64.0 ± 1.7 SD (range 61–67, n = 11); for 8 green males returning as multicolored, wing length increased 2.4 mm ± 1.5 SD on average (range 1–6; Tipton and Tipton 1978).


Table 2 . Females lighter than males; no information on seasonal or regional patterns of variation.

Recommended Citation

Lowther, Peter E., Scott M. Lanyon and Christopher 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, New York, USA.