How Not to Get a Life Bird

Painted Bunting - Texas Hills_H8O3305-Edit-2
Image by fveronesi1 via Flickr

I’ve been really, really, really wanting to see a Painted Bunting before I leave Georgia for a colder climate.  Last fall when I helped out with the island’s banding station, we caught a couple in the nets, but there were two problems with those.  First of all, technically you can’t count a bird you pull out of a mist net for your life list; listed birds must be “alive, wild, and unrestrained,” and while I’m hardly planning on submitting my list to the ABA anytime soon, I still tend to follow the rules just for my own personal satisfaction.  Second, all the Painted Buntings in the nets while I was there were either females or juveniles, which are solid olive green in color.  This, you see, is the bird that Audubon famously called the most colorful in North America, and when people say they want to see a Painted Bunting what they really mean (whether they admit it or not)  is they want to see an adult male Painted Bunting.  They look like they belong in a lost tropical jungle.  They look, well, you can see for yourself above.

So today after work I set out with two coworkers to get my life Painted Bunting.  I’d heard them singing a few times, but always when I was busy teaching and couldn’t drop what I was doing to track them down, and we were determined that I would finally lay eyes on one.  If we happened to find a Blue Grosbeak, another local breeder I needed for my life list, so much the better.  Clutching our binoculars, we made our way across the parking lot by the dock, where we could hear a bunting’s lispy song from the nearby trees.  What the guys messing with their boats made of three young people standing in the parking lot and staring intensely at the bushes, I don’t know.

Turns out Painted Buntings are sneaky little bastards.  Time and again, we would hear him singing close by and start scrutinizing the trees where the sound was coming from, only to have him start up again further away without us having seen him move.  Argh!  And then finally we saw a perfect bird silhouette against the sky at the very top of a small tree… we lifted our binoculars… and…

Hey wait a sec, where are the colors?

Only males sing, so we’d been operating under the assumption that this bird, when we found it, would be the blaze of color you can see above.  Instead he was solid dull green.  Green green green.  We’d found ourselves a juvenile.

I stood there feeling a peculiar sense of frustration.  Yes, this meant I could add it to my life list, but… but… I couldn’t help but feel like I still hadn’t really seen a Painted Bunting.  And then, to add insult to injury, a dull rusty-colored non-blue female Blue Grosbeak appeared a moment later.  Two life birds in as many minutes, but come on, really?

Why is it that we humans are so fixated on bright colors and pretty things?  I know it was ridiculous to be angry at those birds simply for being young and female, but I have to admit I kind of was.  This was simply not what I’d had in mind when I’d imagined finally getting my life Painted Bunting, a bird I’d been daydreaming about for months.

Anyway, Mike, this is the story I was referring to on Twitter:

And it has a happy ending, too.  Later, closer to dusk, I went back to the nature center where we’d parked earlier with the intention of checking out its feeders.  As soon as I’d gotten out of my car an adult male Painted Bunting zoomed into the feeder, to be joined a few minutes later by an adult male Blue Grosbeak.  Life birds #554 and #555 for Rebecca.

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8 thoughts on “How Not to Get a Life Bird”

  1. We are fortunate in East Texas to have a what appears to be a breeding pair almost every year. The male comes to our windows to challenge his reflection and the female feeds on millet at the feeder. They found us the first time by appearing at our window together when we first relocated to Texas 18 years ago. We needed a reality check with our bird books. The male is amazing; you notice the blue and red first and then see yellow, green and maroon.
    I think what helped was a field of native weeds, many bushes and water in the bird baths.

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