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May 23, 2008

Painted bunting observer team seeks help from citizen scientists

The Painted Bunting Observer Team Project is seeking help from citizen volunteers to assist with a monitoring and research study in South Carolina and North Carolina to develop strategies to sustain and increase the numbers of these brightly colored migratory birds.

"Unfortunately, painted bunting populations are declining," said Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Eastern population of painted buntings breeds in the spring and summer in a restricted range within the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from North and South Carolina to Georgia and Florida. Breeding Bird Survey data collected since 1966 show a 3.2 percent decline per year for painted buntings in the Southeast region. The painted bunting's decline may be due to a variety of factors, principally increased coastal development and new agricultural practices, both of which tend to clear shrub-scrub brush that is vital to breeding painted buntings that use early successional habitats.
           
One of the objectives of the painted bunting project is to recruit and maintain an active group of citizen volunteers who can make observations and collect data at backyard bird feeders in suburban/rural areas and in designated private and/or protected areas. Since painted buntings readily visit backyard bird feeders, citizen scientists can easily participate in a variety of ways that can aid the project in comparing painted bunting populations breeding in suburban, rural and natural habitats, from the coast to more inland areas.

The project needs volunteers throughout the coastal plain of South Carolina. To become a Painted Bunting Observer Team volunteer or to learn more about the project, sign up online or e-mail the project coordinator at pbot.mns@ncmail.net at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

"We hope to determine the abundance and distribution of painted buntings at backyard feeders and to attempt to detect population patterns across the coastal-inland and suburban-rural landscapes," said Barnhill. "We hope to find out if there are differences in how males and females use feeders, and to determine how important backyard feeders are as a food resource for painted buntings. Ultimately, we want to find out why the species is in decline and do something about it."

In South Carolina, painted buntings favor the coast, but breed well inland in low country agricultural shrub and young pine stands. South Carolina is the only Southeastern state where painted bunting comes well inlandit breeds in the Columbia area fairly regularly and last year there were reports just north of Columbia in Newberry and Fairfield counties. In North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, painted buntings breed in habitats found only near saltwater, in a narrow range along coasts and waterways. As coastal habitats continue to be developed at unprecedented levels, and as more inland shrub is cleared, these spectacular birds are losing their homes. Scientists are especially concerned about painted buntings, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 year, the painted bunting project had more than 4,000 data hits to the Painted Bunting Observer Team Web site from Painted Bunting Observer Team citizen volunteers in the Carolinas, and the team captured and banded 1,500 individual painted buntings. "When we began, most of our citizen volunteers wanted to know if the same birds were returning to their feeders after migration every year," said Barnhill. "With the bands, our volunteers can actually identify individual birds and know if the same ones are still visiting." Each painted bunting receives three pre-determined colors and one silver band with inscribed numbers. This silver band is a federal band from the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory. The bands are easily viewed with binoculars.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina's natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state's natural resources and its people.


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