Only when male Painted Buntings acquire Second Basic Plumage in their second fall do they achieve the dramatic combination of blue, green, and red colors that make this species one of the most visually spectacular songbirds in North America. Indeed, its French name, nonpareil, means “without an equal.” In contrast to the male, the plumage of the female is cryptic green and yellow-green. Males in their first year of life exhibit a female-like plumage, and can be distinguished from females only through close inspection.
Painted Buntings have two geographically disjunct breeding populations: a western population primarily in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana; and an eastern population limited to coastal portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. Western and eastern populations have different patterns of molt and migration.
Western populations migrate to staging areas in southern Arizona, Sonora, and northern Sinaloa, Mexico, to undergo the Prebasic Molt, and then continue to migrate farther south to overwintering areas. This molt-migration phenomenon is fairly common in nonpasserine species, especially waterfowl, but has been documented in up to 19 species of western passerines (Pyle et al. 2009). Eastern populations, by contrast, are reported to undergo Prebasic molt on the breeding grounds before migration, though study is needed on molt location relative to breeding territories.
Another unusual feature of this species' molt cycle is that young birds appear to undergo two inserted molts during their first fall, each resulting in plumages similar to that of adult females. The first molt begins within a few days of fledging and replaces Juvenile Plumage with an Auxiliary Formative Plumage; the second molt typically occurs a month or more later and results in the Formative Plumage.
In recent decades, Breeding Bird Survey results have documented significant regional declines, especially for eastern populations along the Atlantic coast—a major reason why the Painted Bunting is listed as a Species of Special Concern by Partners in Flight. The eastern population faces loss and degradation of breeding habitat owing to development of swampy thickets and woodland edges, its preferred habitat. The habitat requirements of the western population, which is also declining, are less well understood. Conservation concerns for the western population must also consider molt staging areas, an important component in the annual cycle.
Most aspects of the Painted Bunting's life history have been little studied. The only intensive studies of this bunting have dealt with song (e.g., Forsythe 1974, Thompson 1976a, Norris 1982) and molts and plumages (e.g., Thompson 1991b, Thompson 1992a, Thompson and Leu 1994, Bridge et al. 2011, Contina et al. 2013, Rohwer 2013).