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Pittsfield Welcomes Unexpected Guest: The Painted Bunting

Kent McFarland
The painted bunting has been hanging out in Pittsfield

A rare celebrity guest has been attracting a lot of attention and admirers this past week: a painted bunting. The small and very festively colored bird has been hanging out in Pittsfield, and many Vermont birders have been making the trek to see the bird in person.

Vermont Edition spoke with Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist and co-host of VPR’s Outdoor Radio. He's one of the people who's seen this rare bird. 

Audio for this piece will be available by approximately 11 a.m. Thursday, March 24.

On the traditional characteristics of the painted bunting: 

"The best description I've heard is it's actually a rainbow on wings. The thing is unbelievable. It's almost gaudy looking. It’s got a blue head – a blue that you can’t imagine. A really bright red breast and belly, and then it's got these sort of yellow and green tinges on its back. I mean, it really is a rainbow on wings." 

On what it was like to see the bird in Vermont: 

"It's so brown out right now, there's no snow. And as soon as that bird hopped up on a fence at a bird feeder, it was just in your face and everybody was oohing and ahhing. It was really remarkable."

On the painted bunting's usual home:

"There's two populations. Two breeding populations. One of them is in the southeastern United States along the coast – South Carolina, Georgia, Florida area. 

"And then there's a larger population in Texas, Oklahoma region out west. And right now, most of those are probably wintering in Mexico and Central America and down in the Caribbean, so you know, they're far from here. They're in much more pleasurable weather."

On how the bird could have made its way to Pittsfield:

"This is actually the sixth record for Vermont. We found them here five other times. The first one was in 1993 down in Danby, and then there's been other occasions, including one near Burlington. All of them have been at bird feeders. 

"The best guess is that they just take little trips northward for some reason. Maybe their compass is a little off. Sometimes they might regret it when they get here when it’s too cold. For example, there was one in January on a Christmas Bird Count in western Maine, of all places. 

"And there was a famous one of Brooklyn this winter that everyone went and saw. So, this is one of those species that just for some reason loves to wander northward occasionally."

But with only six recent sightings, McFarland says birders in the area are excited about the opportunity to see the painted bunting.

"When Judith Holly found this at her bird feeder in Pittsfield, the bird watchers flocked there literally. On Saturday, there were literally 150 bird watchers there watching this bird. And she was such a sweetheart to let everybody have access to this bird and see it. It was really quite amazing." 

On concern that the bird could become stressed by all the attention: 

"When I was there, the bird watchers were really good about that. We all stayed far back away from the bird feeder. The bird was sunning itself on a fence and it was going to the bird feeder to get food to stay warm and healthy.

"And nobody ever really approached that quickly. Most bird watchers are really careful about that. They don't want to disturb the bird. They want to be able to enjoy it without making it feel frightened or anything. So I don't think that in this case, that was an issue whatsoever. Everyone was really respectful."

McFarland says high-powered cameras make it easy for birders to keep a respectful distance.  

"Everybody that had big lenses had them out and they were trying to get good shots. And that's the great thing about bird watchers. For the most part, they really are very more concerned about the bird than they really are about the great shot."

On injuries the bird might have: 

"I did notice right away when it was sitting there that it was hanging its right leg down a little bit and favored its left leg. It didn’t like to land on his right leg. It looked like there was some sort of prior injury to his foot. [It] didn't have mobility of its foot at all. 

"I've seen birds carry on for years like that. There's actually a painted bunting in Connecticut, in southern Connecticut right now, that's been coming to a bird feeder for two years with its left foot injured. 

"So sometimes, as long as her wings are doing well, sometimes you can really get by with a hurt or injured leg, as long as it doesn't get infected or anything. It didn't look like this leg was infected or anything. The thing the bird looked was cold, to be quite honest. It sat on that bird feeder in the sun with its feathers all puffed up and just looked kind of miserable. Like, gosh, why did I come this far north."

On the bird's typical spring climate: 

"He should be in a much warmer climate. In fact, the first morning that a bird watcher was there, Sarah Carline, who's a great bird watcher in Vermont, she actually was the first one to photograph it, and she heard it singing on Thursday morning. So, you know, it is getting ready for spring. It was tuning up. It hasn't been seen since Sunday night now, so hopefully, it's turned around and headed back southward, and then will find a fine female to mate with."

On the painted bunting's Vermont relative, the indigo bunting: 

"We do have a closer relative – the indigo bunting, which is a pretty common bird in Vermont. They're not back yet. They're still on their wintering grounds, but they'll be arriving this spring. 

"For those of you that haven't seen an indigo bunting, you really want to get your eyes on this bird. It's one of our more common native birds here, and it really is indigo. It's a blue that just makes you want to cry, it's unbelievably gorgeous. So if you want to set your eyes on a bunting, you're liable to see an indigo bunting come May."

McFarland does say the indigo bunting's blue is a little different from the painted bunting: 

"The painted bunting is a little bit darker blue. Indigo bunting is a little, sort of a sky blue almost. Not quite like a bluebird, but you know, it's indigo. It's really amazing."

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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