The Danger of Beauty
Thousands of Painted Buntings are trapped each year for Mexico's international caged bird trade

In this market in Mexico City, a "pajarero," or registered bird dealer, can legally sell wild-caught birds such as Green Parakeet (top cage) and Northern Cardinal (second cage from top). Selling birds of prey, such as the young Roadside Hawk perched on top of the cages, is illegal.
Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias
As early as 1841, John James Audubon described how thousands of male Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) were trapped in the southeastern United States. These strikingly beautiful birds were shipped from New Orleans to supply the caged bird trade in Europe, where they were sold for more than 100 times the price they garnered in the United States.

Today, the story is not very different. Although trapping native birds in the United States is illegal, Painted Buntings, with their brilliant blue, green, and red hues, are still trapped by the thousands on their wintering grounds in several Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Mexico and Cuba. They are sold in local markets as well as internationally, where buyers in the Asian and European markets pay $70 a pair.

The Conservation Science Program at the Lab of Ornithology and Audubon's science department are working together to assess the impact of the live bird trade on declining wild populations of Painted Buntings shared by the United States and Mexico. We are also helping biologists and decision makers in both countries to understand the conservation status of Painted Buntings.

Our preliminary data analysis shows that for the domestic trade in Mexico alone, more than 100,000 Painted Buntings were trapped from 1984 through 2000, an average of 5,800 birds per year. This does not include any information on the illegal trade, which is commonplace but very difficult to document.

The international trade in live-caught birds was banned in Mexico from 1982 through 1999. However, after the ban was lifted, Mexico exported more than 6,000 Painted Buntings to Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, and Japan during 2000 and 2001.

The Mexican government regulated the harvesting of Painted Buntings from 1984 until 2000, under the "Song and Ornate Bird Harvesting Calendar," a system that set the trapping dates and numbers of birds that could be harvested in each state every season. However, those harvesting quotas were set without sound scientific data, such as demographic and productivity parameters. Current harvesting quotas are not based on reliable data either.

The Painted Bunting is protected in the United States, but elsewhere it is still trapped, then sold as a caged bird.
Tom Vezo/CLO
Breeding Bird Survey data show that Painted Buntings declined by 2.7 percent per year in the United States from 1966 to 2000 (see Figure 1). The species is on the Partners in Flight and National Audubon Society WatchList, an early-warning system that focuses attention on at-risk North American bird species.

Because male Painted Buntings are so colorful, they are trapped more often than females for the caged bird trade. Males are also easier to trap because they are very territorial. Both breeders and migrants are captured year-round using traps with as many as eight compartments and a lure bird in a central or lower compartment. Trappers use mist nets during migration and winter, when adult males, females, and juveniles are trapped indiscriminately.

The Lab and Audubon have notified the United States and Mexican governments of the need to assess the potential impact of harvesting Painted Buntings for domestic and international trade. At the 2002 meeting of the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystems Conservation and Management, governments from both countries discussed setting up a joint assessment task force.

The Lab, with the support of Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC North America), is assessing the bird trade in Mexico and the potential implications for resident and Neotropical migrants. The work involves collaborating with academic institutions and government agencies in both countries.

We are also working to permanently establish the Breeding Bird Survey in Mexico to monitor populations of Painted Buntings and other birds. This work involves collaboration with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Mexican partners such as the Mexican program of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative at the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO). Finally, with anticipated funding, we plan to initiate a new citizen-science project similar to the Cerulean and Golden-winged Warbler Atlas projects that will help identify important bird habitats for Painted Buntings throughout their range.

Figure 1. Painted Bunting population trends 1966-1996, from the U.S. Breeding Bird Survey. Note significant declines in regions such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

"Without an Equal"
Two populations in need of protection
To the French, the Painted Bunting is known as "non-pareil"-"without an equal"-referring to the bright blue, green, and scarlet colors of the male. Females are primarily yellowish-green.

The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) is a Neotropical migrant that breeds in two distinct geographic regions in the United States and Mexico (see Figure 1). Although individuals from the larger western population (P. c. pallidior) and smaller eastern population (P. c. ciris) are not distinguishable in the field, the differences in molt timing, migration routes, and morphology have led to suggestions that the two isolated populations may actually represent two distinct species.

Both males and females in the western population are longer, weigh more, and have longer wings and tails than the eastern birds. The eastern population molts on the breeding grounds just before migrating to south Florida and the Caribbean islands. The western population migrates first to "staging areas" in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico before continuing farther south to wintering grounds in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This is a peculiar molt-migration pattern that is more common in nonpasserines but poorly documented in passerine birds such as the Painted Bunting.

The eastern population has declined precipitously since 1966, according to the Breeding Bird Survey, and the species is listed as one of the highest priorities for conservation in Florida and the southeastern coastal plain. The larger western population is less threatened. It is this western population, however, that is subject to trapping for the bird trade in Mexico, and declines have been noted in recent years close to the Mexican border in Texas. Whether trapping in Mexico has a direct effect on migratory buntings from Texas is a critical focus of our current research efforts.
- Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias, Kenneth V. Rosenberg,
and Jeffrey V. Wells
How you can help
Get involved in citizen science. Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor Painted Buntings and other bird species. For example, changes in the numbers and distribution of wintering Painted Buntings can be followed using data from the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. Percentage of FeederWatchers reporting Painted Buntings at feeders: Florida, 6 percent (n=135); Georgia, 0.6 percent (n=175), Louisiana 2.9 percent (n=35), South Carolina 1 percent (n=93). To join Project FeederWatch, see page 12.

Help identify important bird habitats in your region.
National Audubon's Important Bird Area program is identifying and conserving key areas that support Painted Buntings and other species.

Support our work at the Lab and habitat conservation efforts through state agencies or conservation groups such as Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund.

Follow Audubon guidelines for a healthy backyard.

Suggested citation: Iñigo-Elias, Eduardo E.,Kenneth V. Rosenberg, and Jefferey V. Wells. The Danger of Beauty. Birdscope, newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Summer 2002. <>

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Miyoko Chu, Editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, New York. Phone (607) 254-2451. Email