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#06-119 May 8, 2006

Painted Bunting Observer Team seeks help from citizen scientists

The Painted Bunting Observer Team at the University of North Carolina Wilmington is seeking help from volunteer citizens to support a research study in South Carolina and North Carolina to develop strategies to sustain and increase the numbers of these brightly colored migratory birds.

To become a Painted Bunting Observer Team volunteer member or to learn more about the project, contact: Dr. Jamie Rotenberg, University of North Carolina Wilmington ornithologist, at pbot@uncw.edu. Rotenberg can also be reached at (910) 962-7675 in Wilmington, N.C.

Rotenberg and colleague Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator for the S.C. Department ofPainted bunting Natural Resources (DNR), will evaluate whether backyard bird feeders help breeding buntings as compared to their cousins that only use natural areas for their food supply, such as state parks and reserves. Barnhill and Rotenberg hope that their efforts, along with the help of hundreds of citizen scientists, will begin the foundations of recovery for one of our area's most beautiful birds.

Sadly, the painted bunting population is declining in the coastal areas of South Carolina and North Carolina, according to Rotenberg. Painted buntings arrive in the Carolinas usually in April and stay throughout the summer, migrating south during the month of August.

They live and breed in scrubby shrub areas mixed with trees. In North Carolina, their breeding habitats are found only near salt water, in a narrow range along coasts and waterways. In South Carolina, painted buntings also favor the coast, but breed well inland in low country agricultural shrub. As coastal habitats continue to be developed at unprecedented levels, and as more inland shrub is cleared, these spectacular birds are losing their homes.

Breeding Bird Survey data reveal that Eastern painted bunting populations declined at least 3.5 percent annually over a 30-year period from 1966 to 1995. Scientists are especially concerned about painted buntings, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently raised the painted bunting to "Focal Species" status. The new status allows funding to develop means of bringing painted bunting populations back up to healthy and sustainable levels.

Last spring, Rotenberg began a small, grass-roots citizen-science project to examine distribution and feeding habits of painted buntings in North Carolina. Since painted buntings readily visit backyard bird feeders, citizens, acting as scientists, assisted Rotenberg in the collection of vital data. These Painted Buntings Observer Team volunteers recorded bunting locations and monitored the bird's use of their backyard bird feeders. The small pilot project grew to include more than 65 volunteers from New Bern and Sneed's Ferry in the north to Supply and Oak and Bald Head islands in the south.

Building on last year's work, the University of North Carolina Wilmington will receive a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a pilot study to develop strategies for sustaining the painted bunting populations in these areas. The volunteer Painted Bunting Observer Teams are a crucial part of the study as citizen scientists monitor and collect behavioral data in the field.

This year, Rotenberg would like to recruit volunteers covering an area as far north as Morehead City, N.C., the northern-most breeding area for painted buntings, and south throughout the coastal plain of South Carolina.

"Volunteer Painted Bunting Observer Teams are a crucial part of the study as citizen scientists can help us monitor and collect behavioral data in the field," said Rotenberg. "Our goal is to have hundreds of Painted Bunting Observer Teams throughout the painted bunting breeding grounds in North and South Carolina."


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