UNT Research Team Collaborates to Solve the Painted Bunting Mystery | College of Science

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August 14, 2019

UNT Research Team Collaborates to Solve the Painted Bunting Mystery

This summer, an intrepid research team undertook the challenge of studying the mysterious nesting habits of the Painted Bunting at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA). Though this species of bird is popular for its brilliant "nonpareil" color pattern exhibited by the adult males, its breeding ecology remains an enigma even to ornithologists. UNT Ecology graduate student Christine Gurley and UNT Biology undergraduate students Tessa Boucher, Tate Gregory, and Drew Porter were determined to uncover answers regarding the birds' lesser-known characteristics.

Every morning since mid-May the team, led by UNT Biological Sciences Professor Dr. Jim Bednarz, met at LLELA in the dark predawn hours with binoculars, field scopes, nets, and marking equipment in their quest to study the activities and life history of the Painted Bunting.

"Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the lack of knowledge available on this bird species is that it is extremely difficult to study in the mix of savannah-like and open-spiny woodland habitat of Texas, where temperatures often exceed triple digits," said Dr. Bednarz of the task. "In fact, few biologists have even been able to find and study the nests of Painted Buntings, and some experts have suggested that such a study may be a near-impossible endeavor!"

To further add to the perplexity surrounding this species, young, reproductively-mature males sport a cryptic green plumage essentially identical to that of female Painted Buntings. Why young males seem to mimic female Painted Buntings in their appearance has been a subject of vigorous debate in the scientific literature for over sixty years.

Despite thorny vegetation, chiggers, ticks, mosquitoes, and an abundance of spider webs, over the course of this summer the UNT research crew succeeded in finding and monitoring a total of nineteen Painted Bunting nests. Although many of these nests were destroyed by predators, the team managed to band and collect blood samples for paternity analysis from 8 broods (21 nestlings) of Painted Buntings. In addition, the UNT students and Dr. Bednarz captured, marked, and tracked the activities of forty-seven adult birds.

Each undergraduate student collected data on their own independent research project. Tessa measured the microhabitat (e.g., the density of grass, shrub, and tree vegetation) around each nest. She collected the same data at forty-nine random locations at LLELA and will compare these data to that of the nests sites to determine the habitat characteristics that buntings may be selecting when deciding where to locate their nests. Meanwhile, Tate completed systematic walking surveys and mapped the locations of singing male Painted Buntings. She is in the process of assessing the data to determine the density of territorial males and how their abundance may be changing over time. Drew worked with Christine and Dr. Bednarz to tag eleven birds with nanotag radio transmitters weighing less than 0.5 grams to tracked the movements of "green" males and colorful adult males. Drew is testing the hypothesis that green males move much more widely than the territorial adult male buntings.

By early August, many of the Painted Buntings nesting at LLELA had already embarked on their post-breeding migration and departed. The data collected this summer by the research team will contribute to developing conservation plans for the Painted Bunting, which has been experiencing a population decline over the past several decades. The students are currently busy analyzing and interpreting the data that they collected over the course of an exciting and challenging summer of field research. To complete their experiences, each student will write up their results in scientific paper format and present their results at scientific meetings over the coming year.

To learn more about the Tier One research happening at UNT or to apply for our outstanding undergrad or gradute programs in Biological Sciences, visit biology.unt.edu.