Painted Bunting

Passerina ciris


Distribution, Migration, and Habitat

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Painted Bunting.
eBird range map for Painted Bunting

Generated from eBird observations (Year-Round, 1900-present)

Figure 5. Relative abundance of the Painted Bunting, 2007-2013; based on Breeding Bird Survey data.

Relative abundance of Painted Bunting in U.S., based on Breeding Bird Survey, 2007-2013. From Sauer et al. 2014, see text for details.

Figure 6. Regional trends in Painted Bunting populations, 1966-2013; data from the Breeding Bird Survey.

Data show best estimates of population change for the species over its range; from Sauer et al. 2014, which provides details.

Distribution in the Americas

Breeding Range

Figure 1. Breeds in two distinct regions: (1) from the s. Mississippi Valley west to Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, and south to n. Mexico; and (2) along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina south to central Florida.

Specific breeding areas are as follows: Coastal (southern) and w. Mississippi, with scattered populations inland and to the east (Turcotte and Watts 1999); Shelby Co. and possibly Tipton Co. in extreme sw. Tennessee (McNair 1997e); Louisiana (primarily coastal) (Lowery 1974); and Arkansas (James and Neal 1986). Also in and around the White River Glades region of sw. Missouri (localized; breeding records from Clay, Barry, Taney, and Oregon Cos.; other sightings south and west of line connecting Clay, Saline, Osage, Dent, Stoddard, and Mississippi Cos. (Robbins and Easterla 1992, Jacobs and Wilson 1997), and se. Kansas north to the Kansas River and west to Comanche Co. (Busby and Zimmerman 2001).

Breeding range continues south through Oklahoma (throughout the state except the panhandle west of Beaver Co) (Bay 2004b); throughout Texas except the western panhandle, portions of w. Texas west of the Pecos River, and portions of southernmost Texas (Oberholser 1974c, Benson and Arnold 2001; see Texas Breeding Bird Atlas); perhaps the lower Pecos River valley of New Mexico north to Carlsbad, Eddy Co. (Hubbard 1978c; eBird data), but note the New Mexico Breeding Bird Atlas does not list this species; and throughout e. Chihuahua, n. and central Coahuila, and n. Nuevo León, Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995).

Has bred in the lower Rio Grande valley of New Mexico north to the Hatch area (Doña Ana Co.) (Hubbard 1978c); Mobile Co. in s. Alabama (Imhof 1976); and the Appalachicola region (Franklin Co.) of w. Florida (Ogden and Chapman 1967, Stevenson and Anderson 1994b), but current breeding status in these locations remains uncertain.

A disjunct population breeds along the immediate Atlantic Coast and on barrier islands from central North Carolina (Beaufort or Carteret Co.) (Potter et al. 1980; eBird data), south to Brevard Co., Florida (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992a, Stevenson and Anderson 1994b, Breeding range extends inland into the sw. coastal plain of South Carolina to Williamsburg, Clarendon, Richland, Lexington, and Aiken Cos., and may also include Kershaw and Chesterfield Cos. in the northeast (Post and Gauthreaux 1989, McNair and Post 1993b; eBird data). In Georgia, found primarily along the mid and south coasts, with breeders increasingly scattered inland, especially along the Savannah River (Schneider and Sykes 2010). Also found inland along the St. Johns River of Florida probably south to Putnam Co.; breeding suspected elsewhere in n. Florida, primarily on the basis of reports of singing males (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992a; eBird data).

Winter Range

Figure 1. Western breeders overwinter in Mexico from central Sinaloa on the Pacific slope, central Veracruz on the Atlantic slope, and the Balsas River drainage in the interior south throughout s. Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995), as well as in Guatemala (common on Pacific slope and lowlands, fairly common in interior to 1,850 m; Land 1970), Belize (passage migrant and occasional winter resident; Jones 2003), Honduras (below 1,400 m; Monroe 1968), El Salvador (Rand and Traylor 1954), and w. Nicaragua (Howell and Webb 1995), although distribution in Nicaragua remains poorly known. In Costa Rica, uncommon, local overwintering resident on Pacific slope, to 1,350 m; occurs chiefly in Tempisque Basin, around the Gulf of Nicoya and in the Térraba region (Stiles and Skutch 1989). In Panama, rare to uncommon overwintering resident on both slopes of w. Panama, but chiefly on the coast of w. Bocas del Toro Province; a few reports east along the Pacific slope to s. Coclé and w. Panama Provinces (Wetmore et al. 1984, Ridgely and Gwynne 1989).

Eastern breeders overwinter in the Florida Keys and throughout much of the Florida peninsula (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992a), in the Bahamas (uncommon) and Cuba (rare; Raffaele et al. 1998).

Small numbers also regularly overwinter on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. (Louisiana and rarely Alabama) and along the southern coast and the Rio Grande delta of Texas (Oberholser 1974c). Casually reported elsewhere in e. North America during winter—e.g., South Carolina (Post and Gauthreaux 1989), Massachusetts (Veit and Petersen 1993).

Other Records

Casual out-of-range reports occur at a low rate, only a few per year. Reports as far as California (first state record in 1962; 17 records between 1962 and 1978, most in Sep [range Aug–Nov]; Roberson 1980, Small 1994); Oregon (4 records, 2 in Jun and 1 each Oct and Nov; Gilligan et al. 1994); Nevada (Kingery 1982b); Colorado (8 in May, 2 in Jun, 1 in Aug; Andrews and Righter 1992), Minnesota (4 in May; Janssen 1987); Wisconsin (9 records Apr–May and Aug–Nov; Robbins 1991); Michigan (5 in Apr–Jun; Granlund et al. 1994); Illinois (1 each in Apr and Oct; Gelman 1994, Willard and Stotz 1997); New Jersey (4 records May–Jun; Sibley 1997); Massachusetts (spring records predominate, but fall records and 3 winter records exist; Veit and Petersen 1993); Maine (1 in Jun; Vickery 1980d); Ontario (2 in May, 1 in Jul, 1 in autumn; Godfrey 1986), Quebec (Gauthier and Aubry 1996b), Nova Scotia (1 in Jul), New Brunswick (1 in May; Godfrey 1986); Bermuda (2 records, in Apr, over 21 yr; Amos 1991); Jamaica and Cayman Is. (Raffaele et al. 1998); and Hispaniola (Dhondt and Dhondt 2008). Some of these reports may have been escaped cage birds (see American Ornithologists' Union 1998a).

Distribution Outside the Americas

In Europe, a vagrant. At least 7 records between 1971 and 1981 in Britain (Evans 1994d), but no record could be ruled out as a possible escaped cage bird. This species is regulated to Category D on the British list, which is defined as suspected of captive origin, but could be true vagrant, includes tideline corpses or those known to have had ship-assisted transport (Dymond et al. 1989).

Nature of Migration

Short- to medium-distance Neotropical migrant (see Figure 1). Most individuals in western populations migrate to molt staging areas, then continue to overwintering ranges; in contrast, individuals in eastern populations molt prior to fall migration (Thompson 1991b; see eBird STEM animation, Appearance: molts and plumages, below).

Timing and Routes of Migration

Lowery (Lowery 1946) suggested that this species migrates across the Gulf of Mexico, from records of individuals stopping aboard ships. Using evidence of wing length and plumage, Storer (Storer 1951) also argued that birds of the Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to overwinter on the Yucatán Peninsula. Given the dearth of observations of Painted Buntings in Cuba, a migration path from Florida through Cuba to Yucatán seems unlikely (Thompson 1991b), contrary to earlier suggestions (e.g., Williams 1945). However, this species occurs on Cuba more frequently than specimen records indicate (O. H. Garrido, personal communication).

Western populations of Painted Buntings interrupt migration to molt at a staging area in s. Arizona and Sonora and n. Sinaloa, Mexico (Phillips et al. 1964a, Thompson 1991b), an area outside both breeding and overwintering ranges. Molt also occurs in northern parts of the overwintering range in Mexico (Thompson 1991b, Bridge et al. 2011; see Appearance: Molts and Plumages).


Recorded as late as 29 Apr in Guatemala (Land 1970), 28 Apr in Honduras (Monroe 1968), 27 Apr in El Salvador (Rand and Traylor 1954), and 30 Apr in Oaxaca, Mexico (Binford 1989a). Arrives Florida Keys late Apr (east coast of mid-Florida sometimes by mid-Apr, west-coast “dates average earlier”; Sprunt 1968b); se. Georgia, 16–24 Apr (F. V. Hebard in Sprunt 1968b); South Carolina, 9–23 Apr (males arrive first, females 7–10 d later; Wayne 1910); North Carolina, mid-Apr (Tipton and Tipton 1978); Mississippi, 8–26 Apr (Burleigh 1944b); Louisiana, early Apr, but as early as 11 Mar (Oberholser 1938); Rockport, Texas, 9–27 Apr on average (G. C. Williams in Sprunt 1968b); Houston, Texas, 22–27 Apr (Sprunt 1968b); Oklahoma, late Apr (Parmelee 1959); in Missouri, first individuals arrive early May, but most arrive mid-May (Robbins and Easterla 1992). See also Thompson 1991a: 990–991.

Species often observed north of regular breeding range (to Colorado, Wisconsin, Quebec, Nova Scotia) during spring and early summer. Far fewer reports from this area during fall and winter. The seasonal pattern of extralimital occurrence suggests that most reports are of wild birds rather than escaped birds. As of 1993, spring reports in Massachusetts ranged from 17 Apr to 30 May (Veit and Petersen 1993), and reports from Cape May, New Jersey ranged from 4 May to 12 Jun (Sibley 1997). For a more complete summary of extralimital reports, see Distribution: the Americas, above.

Sequence of arrival of migrants by age or sex categories not precisely known; in South Carolina, indication that males were present 1 wk before females (Sprunt 1970); in Georgia, first-spring males arrive 1–2 wk after older males (Thompson and Lanyon 1979).


Migration is evident in the western population, late Jul–Oct; for the eastern population, late Sep–late Oct (Thompson 1991a). Average departure (with late dates in parentheses) for breeding locations include late Aug (21 Sep) for Kansas (Thompson and Ely 1992), Sep (26 Oct) for Oklahoma (Baumgartner and Baumgartner 1992), and Aug (19 Sep) for Missouri (Robbins and Easterla 1992). In Florida, earliest and latest tower kills in fall are 1 Sep and 9 Nov, but earliest sight report in fall is 22 Jul (Stevenson and Anderson 1994b). Migrants recorded late Jul–mid-Oct in Texas (Oberholser 1974c), late Jul–Oct in n. Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995). Overwintering residents have been recorded late Oct–late Mar in Costa Rica (Stiles and Skutch 1989), late Oct–late Apr in Panama (Ridgely and Gwynne 1989). In Caribbean, migrants arrive by mid-Oct; most numerous during Nov in the Bahamas (Raffaele et al. 1998).

Regularly reported well north of the breeding range during fall, but far less frequently than during spring and early summer. Fall reports for Massachusetts range from 30 Aug to 14 Dec; also several records of individuals during winter (Veit and Petersen 1993). Also reported annually along the Pacific Coast; most reports from coastal s. California during fall (Aug–Nov; Small 1994). Specific locations of molt-migration of western populations primarily in se. Arizona and Sonora and n. Sinoloa, Mexico. Immature (first-fall) birds arrive as early as mid-Sep and leave by late Sep (CWT; see also Phillips et al. 1964a).

Migratory Behavior

Nocturnal migrant, as indicated by occurrence in collision mortality at communication towers or tall city buildings (Stoddard 1962, Taylor and Anderson 1973, Taylor and Kershner 1986, Willard and Stotz 1997).

Control and Physiology of Migration

No information.

Habitat in Breeding Range

Few data; not well quantified. Partly open situations with scattered brush and trees, riparian thickets and brush, and weedy and shrubby areas (American Ornithologists' Union 1998a).

In Oklahoma, “common in scattered strips of woodland between open or partially overgrown fields, . . . [and] in agricultural areas where some land was feral; in this respect recently abandoned farms provided optimal conditions” (Parmelee 1959: 2). In Texas, semiopen country with scattered bushes and trees, tall roadside or streamside brush and patches of grasses (especially bristle grass [Setaria spp.]), weeds, and wildflowers; becomes scarce when trees are too scarce or too dense (Oberholser 1974c). In Taney Co., Missouri, pasture or fallow fields bordered by woodlots; measured territories included an old-field component (82%) and a woodland component (18%, n = 19; Norris 1982, Norris and Elder 1982b).

Along Atlantic coast, scrub communities and edges of maritime hammocks likely are key natural habitats, but now found also in hedges and yards, roadside thickets, fallow fields and shrubby areas (Cox 1996). Along northeast coast of Florida, “beach scrub, thickets and disused citrus groves” and on shores of St. Johns River estuary (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992a). On St. Catherines I., Liberty Co., Georgia, occupied habitat typical of Coastal Plain, vegetation dominated by oaks (Quercus spp.) and pines (Pinus spp.), with scattered hickories (Carya spp.), cabbage palmetto (Sabel palmetto), and saw palmetto (Serenoa repens); dominant ground cover broadleaf litter, pine needle litter, grass, and herbaceous plants; bordering salt marsh with lush growth of marsh cordgrasses (Spartina spp.) also used (Finke 1979, Lanyon and Thompson 1984). On Sapelo I., McIntosh Co., Georgia, preferred habitat was shrub-scrub in primary succession (extending from beach dunes to patches of pine trees and pine forest), and managed pine-oak habitat with open canopy; few birds in maritime old-growth live oak (Quercus virgiana) (J. M. Meyers, E. G. Springborn, and L. K. Duncan unpubl.).

Habitat in Migration

A variety of open weedy, grassy, and scrub habitats and in open woodland (American Ornithologists' Union 1998a).

Habitat in the Overwintering Range

Not quantified. Found in dense cover of high grass, overgrown shrubby pasture, and other “similar low, crowded vegetation” (A. F. Skutch in Sprunt 1968b). In Oaxaca, Mexico, found in brushy clearings, cultivated land and grazed land, 0–2,200 m elevation (Binford 1989a). In Veracruz, Mexico, found in savanna or pastures with scattered clumps of trees (Rappole and Warner 1980). In Guatemala, in scrubby undergrowth and thickets of open woodlands, forest edges, clearings, and roadsides (Smithe 1966, Land 1970). In Honduras, in scrub, forest edge, second growth, and open areas with brush or trees below 1,400 m (Monroe 1968). In Costa Rica, in dense cover of second-growth, pastures, and “riverside stands of wild cane” (Stiles and Skutch 1989: 447). In Panama, in overgrown fields, shrubby areas, and woodland borders (Ridgely and Gwynne 1989).

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Range appears to have diminished in the Southwest. Species now rare in se. Arizona in late summer and fall, where formerly, at least until 1884, considered “fairly common” (Monson and Phillips 1964). Apparent decline of this species in New Mexico has been attributed to habitat destruction (Hubbard 1978c). Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data show decline in numbers for both eastern and western populations (see Demography and Populations: population status, below).

Along the Atlantic Coast, apparent range expansion northward and westward in the Carolinas (to Edgecombe Co., North Carolina), but only nonbreeders recorded (Potter et al. 1980); singing males recorded near the boundary between Kershaw and Chesterfield Cos., South Carolina during 1986, and breeding reported at Lugoff, South Carolina in 1990 (McNair and Post 1993b). Has also expanded west (inland) in Georgia since the 1970s (Schneider and Sykes 2010). In Florida before 1960, bred only in the northeast (Duval Co.), but breeding recorded as far south as Brevard Co. in 1973, and later – with scattered records south of there in recent decades (Taylor et al. 1989b, Stevenson and Anderson 1994b,; eBird data).

Fossil History

Pliocene fossil from Chihuahua, Mexico, attributed to Passerina, but not identified to any extant species with certainty (see Steadman and McKitrick 1982).

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.