Female Painted Buntings (Male vs Female Identification)

The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) is a brightly colored songbird from the cardinal family. These migratory birds occur in two isolated populations in Mexico and the southern United States. Male Painted Buntings are splendid birds, adorned with every color of the rainbow. They are known in french as nonpareil, or the bird with no equal.

But what do female Painted Buntings look like, and how do they differ from males?

Female Painted Buntings are very distinct from mature males. They are greenish above and yellowish below, lacking the bright colors the species is so well known for. Females are also less vocal and aggressive than males during the nesting season.

Female Painted Buntings can be confused with a few similar North American birds. They are also difficult to distinguish from immature males of their own species. However, behaviors differ quite starkly between the sexes so observant birdwatchers can differentiate between them.

Females are devoted parents in the nesting season and do the lion’s share of the work in raising their young to independence.

This article covers the looks and behavior of the female Painted Bunting. Read along to learn more about these attractive but understated American songbirds.

Female Painted Bunting perched on the side of a bird bath

Female Painted Bunting perched on the side of a bird bath

How can you tell if a Painted Bunting is male or female?

Painted Buntings show marked sexual dimorphism, which means there are obvious visible differences between males and females. Put simply, male Painted Buntings are multicolored, while the females appear all-green.

However, distinguishing between the sexes becomes confusing when you include immature birds in the comparison. Male Painted Buntings don’t achieve their full splendor until their second year. Before then, they are almost indistinguishable from females in the field by looks alone.

Continue reading to learn how to tell them apart.

Female painted bunting

Female Painted Bunting

Male painted bunting

Male Painted Bunting

Female vs immature male Painted Buntings

Painted Buntings in their first year have the same greenish upperparts and yellowfish underparts as adult females. Young males gradually develop their colors, so look for hints of red and blue in their green plumage to help you tell them apart.

However, females have very different behavior from young males, which is a great way to identify them. Males become sexually mature before they develop their adult plumage, so look out for their typical aggressive behaviors and singing.

Similar species

Female Painted Buntings are fairly distinctive among North American birds and are easy to identify with some practice. They are most likely to be confused with the following birds:

Female Varied Bunting (Passerina versicolor) & female Indigo Bunting (P. cyanea)

These closely related birds are very similar in size and general appearance to the female Painted Bunting. Birders can identify female Varied and Indigo Buntings by their overall browner coloration.

Female Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)

These birds can cause some confusion in southern Texas and Mexico. The female has a similar color but is easily identified by her black and white wing bars. Look out for the distinctive black and yellow male to confirm your identification.

Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus)

A number of Vireo species bear a superficial resemblance to the female Painted Bunting in color and size. These tiny birds are generally smaller and have longer, lighter bills.

Male (left) and female (right) Painted Buntings perched on a branch

Male (left) and female (right) Painted Buntings perched on a branch

What does a female Painted Bunting look like?

Female Painted Buntings are small songbirds from the cardinal family. They are slightly smaller than the House Sparrow, with a slimmer build but a similar conical bill. Female Painted Buntings are greenish overall, an unusual color among American songbirds.

Female Painted Buntings are green above, including the sides of the head and neck and the flight feathers of the wings. The underparts are yellowish, and their legs, eyes, and bills are dark brown or blackish. Female Painted Buntings also have a pale ring around their eyes.

Close up of a female Painted Bunting

Close up of a female Painted Bunting

Are female Painted Buntings bigger than males?

On average, female Painted Buntings are about four grams lighter and slightly shorter than males. The difference will not help you tell the sexes apart in the field, although it is statistically significant.

Behavior differences

Mature male and female Painted Buntings are easy to identify by their looks. They also show very different behaviors, which can make for some fascinating observations. Read on to learn how to tell these birds apart by their various behaviors.

Movements

Painted Buntings are migratory songbirds that overwinter in Mexico, Central America, and the south of Florida. Female Painted Buntings generally arrive at their spring breeding grounds a week later than males.

Courtship & Display

Male Painted Buntings are very expressive birds during the breeding season. They can be highly aggressive toward other males, even engaging in fatal fights. Males also pin females to the floor before pulling at their feathers.

Not all of their behaviors are violent, however. Males also make elaborate displays in the air and on the ground while courting females.

Female Painted Buntings are relatively quiet and docile, which can be helpful when distinguishing them from immature males. They perform a solicitation display, however, which involves crouching down with the head tilted up, and the tail lifted and held forward.

Female Painted Bunting gathering nesting material

Female Painted Bunting gathering nesting material

Singing and calls

Male Painted Buntings are highly vocal in the spring breeding season and their sweet song belies an aggressive nature. Look out for these colorful birds singing from prominent perches to proclaim their territories.

Birdwatchers could spot two or more singing males because they often get into ‘shouting matches’ with their neighbors!

Female Painted Buntings are generally quiet and do not sing. However, they do produce a chip or tsick call when alarmed. Females also call softly to their chicks while feeding, although this is only audible at very close range.

Female Painted Bunting perched on a cedar post

Female Painted Bunting perched on a cedar post

Nesting and feeding

Nest construction

Painted Buntings are generally monogamous during the breeding season. The female builds the nest alone, although both partners are involved in choosing the site. The female builds a small cup-shaped nest in low vegetation, and construction takes just a few days.

Egg-laying, incubating, and brooding

Female Painted Buntings lay three or four eggs per clutch. They usually lay one egg per day in the early morning. She alone sits on the eggs and develops a brood patch to assist in heat transfer to the developing embryos. The eggs hatch after about eleven days, and she will remove the shells from the nest to avoid attracting predators. She then broods the chicks alone.

Feeding

Female Painted Buntings feed themselves and their chicks alone in the nesting season. The young grow fast on a diet of protein-rich insects like caterpillars and beetles. She will continue to feed them after they fledge the nest but will hand this responsibility over to the male if they attempt a second brood.

Female (left) and male (right) Painted Buntings at a feeder

Female (left) and male (right) Painted Buntings at a feeder

Can female Painted Buntings raise young alone?

Female Painted Buntings do almost all of the work in raising their young. They build the nest, incubate the eggs, brood the chicks, and feed themselves and their young. They can raise their first brood alone but need help for the second.

Successful pairs will attempt a second and even third brood during the breeding season. The male Painted Bunting takes over the care of the current brood to allow the females to lay and incubate the next clutch.

Female Painted Bunting flying off after bathing, Southern Texas

Female Painted Bunting flying off after bathing, Southern Texas

FAQs

What color are female Painted Buntings?

Female Painted Buntings appear greenish overall. Their underparts are a lighter, yellowish shade. Their large eyes appear black, and their bills and feet are dark.

Do female Painted Buntings call?

Female Painted Buntings are relatively quiet. They make very soft calls when feeding their chicks and are likely to make alarm calls when captured or threatened.

Do female Painted Buntings sing?

Female Painted Buntings do not sing. Singing Painted Buntings that appear to be females are likely to be immature males.

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