Winged Rainbows

The Lowcountry’s colorful painted buntings are ‘without equal’
April 4, 2023

By Clay Bonnyman Evans

Widely recognized as the most colorful bird in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, the painted bunting is also known as “nonpareil,” a French word meaning “without equal.” In Spanish, this rainbow-hued relative of cardinals and tanagers is known as the “sietecolores,” or “seven colors.”

Male painted buntings sport a flashy array of blue, green, red, yellow, red, purple and orange feathers, while females are bright green and yellow. Yet despite its eye-catching plumage, they have a reputation for being elusive and difficult to spot. But here’s a tip from one local bird expert: if you want to see painted buntings … use your ears.

“Listen for their call, find them by ear, then track them,” says Carlos Chacon, Field Trip Coordinator for the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society and Manager of Natural History at the Coastal Discovery Museum. “The call is easy to learn. You can download it from a birding app and memorize it.”

Though not always easy to spot, painted buntings are actually somewhat common around the island and Bluffton from mid-March through mid-September, says Chacon, who spotted his first one of the year on March 7 in the maritime forest adjacent to Mitchelville Beach.

They favor dense cover but can be found searching for seeds and insects in a wide variety of habitats, from semi-open areas to woodland edges, yards and gardens. In early spring, males can be seen perching high branches as they call to attract females and establish mating territories. Females weave nests from grass, roots, leaves and animal hair in dense vegetation, including large clumps of Spanish moss.  

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge “is one of the best locations, but you can find them in a lot of places,” Chacon says, even parking lots. “They like grassy areas, where they find seed, and they are attracted to millet feeders in backyards. Scrubby vegetation in maritime forest with a lot of Spanish moss is ideal for their nests.”

In recent years, painted buntings have been sighted in the Lowcountry in colder months, delighting “surprised homeowners when they spot a glorious splash of color in their yards on bleak winter days,” according to Jennifer McCarthey Tyrrell, Engagement Manager and self-described “Master Bird Bander” for the South Carolina Audubon Society.

But typically they begin migration to winter habitats in south Florida, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean and Central America in September and October.  

“They are one of the songbirds that fly over the Gulf of Mexico. They gather at the coasts from Florida to Louisiana and fly across 600 miles of open water to land in Central America,” says Chacon, who spots them while leading birding tours in his native Costa Rica.

The precise location of the local population’s wintering grounds is not known. But in 2016 the South Carolina Audubon Society began trying to solve the mystery by capturing a few birds and attaching tiny, $200 “backpacks” that use light sensors to record sunrise and sunset times.

“The trickiest part is recapturing these now trap-shy individuals a year or later when they return to South Carolina,” according to Tyrrell.

Though not officially threatened, the painted-bunting population has been declining in the Lowcountry in recent years, due primarily to loss of habitat from development and landscaping.

Humans “tend to remove the birds’ preferred scrubby-edge habitat in favor of clean lines, manicured lawns, and non-native landscaping,” according to Tyrrell. “We swap out wax myrtles for crepe myrtles, and unwittingly evict these winged rainbows from our yards in the process.”

Painted buntings also are threatened by practices in their wintering habitats, such as capturing and keeping them as caged birds. In addition, traditional coffee plantations are destroying habitat.

To help local populations thrive, the Audubon Society suggests:
•  Planting native plants and simulating “natural vegetative structures” in your yard;
•  Buying bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee;
•  Using high-quality white millet (“their favorite,” according to Tyrrell) in a caged tube feeder in your yard;
•  Supporting Audubon’s research efforts.

Painted buntings are, after all, an iconic local species.

“They are really cool, super beautiful,” Chacon says. “I feel like they should be the emblem of Hilton Head.”