Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Painted Bunting - Passerina ciris
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General Comments The adult male Painted Bunting is certainly the gaudiest-colored of North American songbirds. Thankfully, the species breeds as far north as coastal North Carolina, and it also ranges as far north as Missouri and Kansas. The subspecies that nests along and near the South Atlantic coast has been slowly declining, owing to long-term development of the maritime forests and thickets on the barrier islands and adjacent mainland. Fortunately, the buntings are somewhat adaptable, do not require but a few acres of habitat for a given pair of birds, and nest in wooded edges often close to man. Thus, birds are still fairly numerous along the southern coast. Oddly, a few birds are present in winter in coastal areas north to Buxton (Dare), typically at feeders. No other bird in the East likely has a "wintering" range that extends farther north than its breeding range. Also, despite a seeming decline in the breeding population, the number of birds being seen in the state in winter has been growing at a rapid rate, for unknown reasons. Breeding birds favor maritime thickets, edges of maritime forests, and other wooded edges, always close to salt or brackish water. Wintering birds occur mostly in dense evergreen thickets, such as in residential yards, maritime thickets, and other dense cover, at times mixing with sparrows. Unlike in South Carolina, where buntings nest well inland to the Fall Line, just below Columbia and other sites, the species in North Carolina had not been found nesting farther inland than about Orton Plantation in eastern Brunswick, until a rash of summer records of singing males and a juvenile were noted in Robeson in 2022-23. Thus, the species seems to be spreading inland close to the South Carolina border in recent years. There have also been isolated instances of singing males far inland, even to Raleigh (Wake), often for a few weeks, but there is no evidence of breeding yet.
Breeding Status Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status SC
U.S. Status
State Rank S3B
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Summer resident along the southern coast, and sparingly near the South Carolina border at least inland to Robeson; also a sparse winter resident/visitor along the coast, even to the Outer Banks. In summer, fairly common to locally common, along the coast and the adjacent mainland, as far north as Marshallberg (Carteret). [Despite seemingly "perfect" habitat, and global warming, it is surprising that the species has not spread northward to nest at places like Ocracoke and Hatteras islands.] A rare and recent breeder in southern Robeson, as singing birds were found at a handful of sites in summer 2023 and a juvenile was photographed; may also breed in neighboring southern Scotland and Columbus. Only one or two known far inland records of a potential breeder: an adult male was singing [a song similar to that of an Indigo Bunting] as if on territory at the Wilson Educational Forest (Wilson) from 27 Apr into late summer 2015; no female or nesting evidence was seen. In addition, the same adult male was singing on territory in summer 2016 and 2017, and an adult female was seen there from 29 Jun - 1 Jul 2016, but no evidence of breeding was noted. In winter, rare along the coast and nearby mainland, sparingly as far north as Buxton; often at feeders. Formerly not considered as a regular winter "resident", but as there are now well over 100 such records, and they span the entire period, it is clear that it can now be called a winter resident. Away from coastal/tidal areas, essentially a casual (but increasing) visitor, with about 11 records, mainly in winter. Mainly mid-Apr to mid-Oct, but numerous winter records. Peak counts: winter -- 10+, in a yard in Straits (Carteret), in Feb 2018; 8 (7 of which were banded) at a feeder in Manteo (Dare), throughout the winter 2015-16. Note that at least 60 individuals were reported in Carteret during the winter of 2020-21, most at feeders -- including counts of 9 in two yards around Morehead City.
Piedmont Very rare (but increasing) visitor, scattered over the year; a few reports of males singing on territory but without reports of an accompanying female. About 35 records, nearly all of single birds. A number of these are from feeders, even in winter. Most unusual was an adult male singing as if on territory in Guilford from 18-20 May 2018; presumably it did not find a mate. Similarly, an adult male was singing on territory at Raleigh (Wake) from 17 Jul into mid-Aug 2022; no female was ever seen, but an immature male was seen and noted singing at the same site on 18 Jul. This adult male returned to the Raleigh site in spring 2023, first noted on 25 Apr, remaining to 10 Aug; no female was ever reported. An immature male was noted singing at Mineral Springs (Union) on 13 May 2022. Peak counts: 2, Raleigh, 18 Jul 2022.
Mountains Casual visitor. The only known records are one at a feeder in Asheville, 9-12 Mar 2004; a female or immature male photographed at a feeder at Snowbird Mountain Lodge (Graham) on 13 May 2021* [Chat 85:130 link]; and an adult male photographed at a feeder in Asheville from 1-5 Apr 2022* [Chat 86:87-88 link].
Finding Tips Should be easily found along the southern coast in late Apr, May, and Jun, at places such as Fort Macon SP, the Fort Fisher Aquarium area, around the Carolina Beach SP marina, at Bald Head Island, and other places on southern islands.
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Attribution LeGrand[2023-10-20], LeGrand[2023-08-10], LeGrand[2023-06-29]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.