In the cover story of our November-December 2016 issue, science writer Cheryl Lyn Dybas describes why North America’s most beautiful songbird, the Painted Bunting, is also its most surprising. In this excerpt, she tells how the bunting’s vivid colors make the bird a target of illegal trapping and black-market trading today – even in Florida.
Audubon reported the trapping and sale of Painted Buntings in the early 1800s, but the practice probably dates back to the early 1700s. Trapping was banned in the United States in the early 20th century but remains legal in several Latin American countries, including Mexico and Cuba, and a black market cage-bird trade is widespread in southeastern Florida.
According to the Tropical Audubon Society, buntings are sold openly at flea markets, gas stations, and other high-traffic areas. The birds typically cost $50 to $100, but a nicely feathered male can fetch upward of $200. Many end up in clandestine gambling competitions, or races, that pit one bird against another. The first to sing an agreed-upon number of songs, or the bird that sings the longest song, wins.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, buntings are normally captured in large, elaborate, wooden traps that use a live bird as a decoy to attract other males. Trappers suspend the devices two to five feet off the ground in high grasses or brushy corridors, where buntings like to seek cover.
The traps are devilishly effective. Cornell Lab biologist Eduardo Iñigo-Elias watched trappers use the devices to capture 700 adult males over a single weekend in May 2004.
The November-December 2016 issue of BirdWatching containing Cheryl Lyn Dybas’s cover story about the Painted Bunting is on sale at Barnes & Noble and other newsstands now.