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This print by John James Audubon shows colorful Painted Buntings.

Through the years many different species of birds have visited the Earth Lady’s garden, but sometimes one must travel to encounter that sought-after, elusive bird. Such was the case with the Painted Bunting.

It had been decades since a sighting, but on a recent trip to coastal South Carolina, a beautiful Painted Bunting perched atop a shrub and serenaded the Earth Lady with its lilting song. Actually, this usually evasive bird was probably singing or showing off to attract an avian female, not a human one, but regardless, it was a joyous occasion, indeed. Although a migrant and summer resident of Mississippi, this colorful bird is more likely to be seen on the Gulf Coast or along the Mississippi River in the western part of the state. Also, the Painted Bunting is very shy and secretive and hides in dense thickets. Like Brer Rabbit, this bird is quite fond of a brier patch. As a result, a sighting can be rare, even though it is arrayed in a veritable rainbow of colors.

As with most bird species, it is the male Painted Bunting that wears the colorful finery, and it is unmistakable. It has a bright blue head, a red eye ring, a red breast, and a splash of green and yellow on its back, and, unlike many other neo-tropical birds whose colors fade in the fall, the Painted Bunting sports its dazzling colors year-round. The female Painted Bunting is a parrot green.

Painted Buntings nest in dense, low vegetation and usually have two broods per year. Most of the time, Painted Buntings are seed eaters, except when they are feeding insects to their young. Some bird watchers have been successful in attracting Painted Buntings to their bird feeders, especially late in the summer after the youngsters have fledged.

Painted Buntings have an Eastern population and a Western (South Central) population. The Eastern population winters in South Florida and the Bahamas. The Western population winters in Mexico and Central America. Painted Buntings breed in North America, and their numbers are declining, due primarily to habitat loss. It is now listed as a near-threatened species.

In Louisiana, the Painted Bunting is known as “nonpareil,” which means that it has no equal. In his journals, John James Audubon, who was of French descent, used this Gallic word to describe the Painted Bunting. Audubon also reported that thousands of these birds were trapped in Louisiana and shipped to Europe where, sadly, they were treasured as caged birds. Now, of course, trapping songbirds is illegal, but the practice still continues in Mexico.

On April 26, 1821, Audubon wielded a few deft brush stokes to capture the beauty of the Painted Bunting, a print that is included in “The Birds of America,” a weighty tome but definitely worth the heft. Audubon and the Earth Lady have both been held spellbound by the Painted Bunting. Whatever the century or place, nonpareil best describes this beautiful bird.

THE EARTH LADY by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.

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