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The Amazing Mating Ritual of the Painted Bunting

article and photos by Charly Mann

I have become enamored with observing perhaps the most beautiful and least studied bird in the world – the Painted Bunting. As its population declines and it remains especially elusive because it spends most of its time high in densely leaved trees, thickets, hedgerows, or submerged in thick ground cover, I have been focused on getting close to, and discovering, as much as I can about their lives in their natural habitat in Oklahoma.


© Charly Mann

Male Painted Bunting moments after landing in open area before flattening himself in first step of mating ritual 

The most amazing thing I have witnessed with these unique birds is their mating ritual. It is almost as astounding as the courtship dance of the Birds of paradise which are found in the rainforests of Indonesia and New Guinea, yet is much more rare to be seen in its entirety. In fact I found dozens of videos of the extravagant dance of various species of birds of paradise on the Internet, but I could find none of the Painted Bunting. Luckily I have witnessed and photographed the elaborate and colorful mating ceremony of the Painted Bunting which I will describe and share photos of in this article.


© Charly Mann

Female Painted Bunting arriving after hearing male's mating sounds

The first step in the union is the return of the brightly colored male Painted Buntings from their wintering grounds along the east coast of Mexico and Panama to Oklahoma in mid to late April. They usually come back to the same area they lived in the year before. Each male claims an area of about three acres which he bravely defends against other males.


© Charly Mann

Painted Bunting couple beginning their mating dance

The majority of female Painted Buntings return to their nesting grounds in Oklahoma in mid-May. When they arrive the males are anxious to begin courting their potential mates. In some areas there are two or more females for each male, but in others where there are no females a male will invade another male's territory looking for a partner. This usually results in fierce battles between the defender and the invader male Painted Bunting.

The mating ceremony begins when a male flies down from the forest canopy onto a clear flat area of at least ten feet by ten feet. He then almost disappears into the ground as he flattens himself by compressing his torso and spreading out his wings and tail. As he does this he begins making a pulsating sound that inspires a female bunting to come out into the open and land within five feet of him.

At this time the male raises himself slightly off the ground and points his head directly at the sky and begins proudly crouching toward the female without ever looking directly at her. This performance so enraptures the female that she raises both her head and rump at a 45-degree angle signaling to the male that his theatrics are beginning to turn her on.


© Charly Mann

Male Painted Bunting gracefully moves with his head up high during first movement of mating routine

Next the female hurriedly rushes toward her approaching partner until she abruptly stops right before colliding.  The male's head is still at a 90-degree angle, while the female's head is positioned directly over the male's neck. This has all been beautifully choreographed and now the love dance gets more serious.


© Charly Mann

The male and female end the first phase of their mating dance with this pose

The male now comes up from his crouch and brings his head down and turned to the right like a tango dancer. He then gracefully dances more than a foot away from the female. At the same time the female moves forward by a few steps and lifts her rear even higher.

© Charly Mann


© Charly Mann

The second part of the mating dance has the male and female rhythmically moving apart and together again 

Abruptly now the male becomes fully upright raising his tail and extending his feathers into a red, green, and blue fan that almost immediately starts flapping rapidly as he moves toward the backside of the female. At the same time the female's cloaca swells and protrudes outside her body. The male then rhythmically bobs and weaves closer with his feathers vibrating until he raised himself about two inches in the air and mounts himself on the female for about twenty seconds of joyous copulation. After witnessing this event I knew I had seen something remarkable that I would probably never see again.


© Charly Mann

The female stops and displays her sex organ as her last step in the mating dance

© Charly Mann

The final act of the mating dance

In the last six years there has been a large decline in painted buntings population. One key factor for this has been the rise of wind turbine farms that can decimate migrating bird populations. Another key factor is that the beautiful males are being captured by the thousands in Mexico every year and shipped to Europe where they are sold as pets. The painted bunting is perhaps too beautiful to survive much longer in the wild.


© Charly Mann

A happy male soon after mating

 

All photos and this article are copyrighted by Charly Mann 2013 and may not be used without permission. 

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Mississippi Kite information and pictures

Photos and article by Kathryn Mann

I have been enjoying the outdoors of Oklahoma for many years and have found that many birds return to the same area every year. There is a Mississippi Kite that loves to perch on the same branch of the same tree every Spring and Summer. As we have become more familiar with one another he actually lets me come within 20 feet without feeling threatened or disturbed. This is a good thing because these birds are very protective and will often swoop down and attack people they feel are potential threats. They are a very quiet bird and rarely make a sound except when frightened.

Mississippi Kite perching
Mississippi Kite perching on his favorite spot in northeast Oklahoma 

Even though Mississippi Kites often live in colonies, I have only once seen another Kite within even a quarter mile of this one's roost. In the wild Misssippi Kites often live 10 years.

Mississippi Kite grea tpicture
Mississippi Kite staring at me as I come very close to his lookout

The Mississippi Kite is a raptor like a hawk or falcon. Their wingspan is three feet long and they are typically a foot and half long at maturity. They have dark red eyes with a light grey head that appears to be white in bright sun. The rest of their body is battleship grey and their wing feathers are black.

Mississippi Kite hunting
This Mississippi Kite has just spotted a meal and is about to take to the air

Despite their size Mississippi Kites rarely weigh more than 12 ounces which makes their bodies especially buoyant as they glide through the air capturing insects. It is not unusual for them to stay aloft looking for prey for several hours at a time. Besides insects they sometimes eat rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, and even fish that reside in shallow water. Farmers like these birds because they especially love eating grasshoppers and cicadas, both of which they capture in the air.

Mississippi Kites have one of the longest migrations of any bird. They spend the Fall and Winter in South America as far down as Argentina and then return in late April or May to the central part of the United States, usually no further north than where I live in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. That is a distance of about 5,500 miles in each direction.

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Red-tailed Hawk Basic Facts and Photos

by Charly Mann

Red-Tailed Hawk in flight over a beautiful field of grain

The average red-tailed hawk lives twenty years in the wild. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human’s. Like the song Oklahoma says these birds do "make lazy circles in the sky." They soar very high, and use their great vision to spot rodents, rabbits and snakes below.

They usually weigh between 3 and 5 pounds. Females are nearly 1/3 larger than males. Their wingspan is 56 inches. They can carry almost half their body weight in flight. It is not unusual, for example, for one to lift a duck out of a pond.

Red-Tailed Hawk in a stately pose

Red-tailed hawks are great at reducing rat populations. Almost 90% of their diet is small rodents.

These birds are classified as raptors. This means they are part of the family of birds that eat meat, and use their feet, instead of their beak, to capture prey. Red-tailed hawks, like all raptors, have a sharp, hooked beak, and powerful feet with curved, sharp talons. Their talons are their main weapon for capturing and killing animals.

Red-Tailed Hawk in flight

The Red-tailed hawk is very intelligent and is one of the easier raptors to tame. Throughout the United States and much of the world hawking or falconry is a popular sport in which trained hawks capture game. Red-tailed hawks actually train their falconers as much as their falconers train them.

The female (hen) Red-tailed Hawk is the most desirable in falconry because of its larger size, which allows it to take medium sized animals including ducks and pheasant. They are a very relaxed and friendly bird in captivity, and love to go hunting. They need to be played with (trained) or taken hunting every couple of weeks or they will revert to their wild state. They can fairly effortlessly be returned to the wild before breeding season.

photos by Kathryn Mann

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European Starling - The Beautiful Bird Nobody Wants to See

Article and photos by Kathryn Mann

Shakespeare's Hamlet says the question is, "to be or not to be", but the answer for most of us about the European Starling is "not to be." This is a bird that we can actually blame Shakespeare for. It was American Shakespeare fanatic Eugene Scheiffelin, who had the terrible idea of introducing the European Starling to the United States because it was mentioned in Shakespeare's play Henry IV. Scheiffliein had 16 pairs of European Starlings released in New York City's Central Park in 1890, and their offspring have now increased to over 160 million and spread to every state except for Hawaii.

European Starling close up
The European Starling - a beautiful bird that we wish would go back to where it came from

European Starlings are about 9 1/2 inches in length. They are a short-tailed black bird with greenish and purple iridescence. They have a long pointed bill and cream-tipped feathers that look like they were painted by Gustav Klimt.

European Starling up close
European Starling enjoying an Oklahoma afternoon

European Starlings are disliked for many reasons. They often take over the nesting area of many native birds including Eastern Bluebirds, woodpeckers, and Purple Martins. Fruit growers hate them because they consume large amounts of grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, figs, apples, and cherries. Corn farmers want to get rid of them because they eat ripening corn on the stalk. They also destroy large amounts of wheat.

European Starling detail
The elegantly attired European Starling

Some European Starlings have lived as long as 20 years.

European Starlings often mimic the songs of other Oklahoma birds including the Killdeer and the Eastern Meadowlark.

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Blue Grosbeak - A Bluer Blue Bird

Article and photos by Charly Mann 

Blue Grosbeaks usually live in thickets near fenced-in pasture land. Unless you are very close they can easily be mistaken for the more common Indigo Bunting. However the Grosbeak is at least 20% larger and has brown wing bars.

Blue Grosbeak close-up
Blue Grosbeak in northeast Oklahoma five miles south of Kansas

There is something especially wonderful about seeing a bird that is blue. There are many songs, stories, and poems that feature a blue bird, and it is usually the Eastern Bluebird that we think is being mentioned, yet that bird is less than 40% blue. To me the real blue birds are the male Indigo Bunting and the male Blue Grosbeak.

Blue Grosbeak fron view
Blue Grosbeak enjoying a beautiful Oklahoma morning

It takes three years for male Blue Grosbeaks to become essentially blue all over. At maturity most of the body of these birds is a rich blue color. Their tail and wings are black as well as a small mask around their eyes. They have two brown wing bars and a silver bill. Female Blue Grosbeaks are primarily brown with some blue coloring in the rear.

Blue Grosbeak back side
Blue Grosbeak view of black tail and wings

Blue Grosbeaks usually place their nest on the ground concealed by surrounding grass.

Like Indigo and Painting Buntings, the Blue Grosbeak is a member of the finch family.

Blue Grosbeak's diet consists of grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas and seeds of wild grasses.  I often see them foraging for food in fields in northeast Oklahoma.

Blue Grosbeak detail
Male Blue Grosbeak showing his brown wing bars

Young Blue Grosbeaks of both sexes are primarily brown. As the male ages it develops blue areas on its body.

Juvenile Blue Grosbeak
I took over two dozen pictures of this bird. Only its face was blue. I am fairly certain it is a juvenile male Blue Grosbeak or a UFO.

Blue Grosbeaks spend late Spring and most of the Summer in the lower half of the United States including Oklahoma, but spend the majority of the year in southern Mexico and Central America.

Blue Grosbeaks often live as long as six years.

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The Upside-Down Bird - The White-breasted Nuthatch

Article and photos by Charly Mann

White Breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch in northeast Oklahoma

White-breasted Nuthatches are found in mature groves of deciduous trees such as oak, hickory, and maple in Oklahoma.

The most distinguishing feature of the White-breasted Nuthatch is its habit of creeping head first down trees as they search for food. They have extra long rear claws that provide the balance they need to do this.

White-breasted Nuthatch upside down
White-breasted Nuthatches are usually seen like this, going head-first down a tree

White-breasted Nuthatches have a bluish gray back, and a snow white face, belly, and chest. They have a large head and virtually no neck. They have a long narrow bill and a very short tail. Males have a glossy black forehead and crown, while these features are gray on females. Nuthatches are a small bird, only 5 inches in length, but they have a loud nasal voice that will direct you to the tree they are doing their acrobatic foraging in.

White-breasted Nuthatch up-close
White-breasted Nuthatch outside of Tulsa (this picture is actually upside-down)

The White-breasted nuthatch is a close relative of the Tufted Titmouse and the Carolina Chickadee, and they are all often seen together searching for food in the fall and winter.

White-breasted Nuthatch profile
White-breasted Nuthatch outside of the ranger's office in Osage State Park

They got the name nuthatch from the expression "nuthack" which describes the way they wedge seeds and nuts in the crevices of trees and then hack them open.

The lifespan of most of these birds is two years, though some have lived as long as ten.


This Nuthatch is storing food in the crevice of a tree

White-breasted Nuthatches usually nest in natural tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes. 

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Oklahoma Birds Listed by Color

Red
House Finch - male (carpodacus mexicanus)
Purple Finch - male (carpodacus purpureus)
Northern Cardinal - male (cardinalis cardinalis)
Painted Bunting - male (passerina ciris)
Summer Tanager - male (piranga rubra)

Orange
Baltimore Oriole - male (icterus galbula)
Orchard Oriole - male (icterus spurius)

Yellow
Yellow Warbler (dendroica petechia )
Baltimore Oriole - female (icterus galbula)
Orchard Oriole - female (icterus spurius)
Summer Tanager - female (piranga rubra)
Yellow Goldfinch - male (carduelis tristis)
Western Kingbird (tyrannus verticalis)
Eastern Meadowlark (sturnella magna)

Green
Malard - male (anas platyrhynchos)
Dark-eyed Junco - female (junco hyemalis)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (archilochus colubris)
Painted Bunting - female (passerina ciris)
Green Heron (butorides virescens)

Blue
Barn Swallow (hirundo rustica)
Belted Kingfisher (ceryle alcyon)
Blue Jay (cyanocitta cristata)
Blue Grosbeak - male (guiraca caerulea)
Eastern Bluebird (sailia sialis)
Indigo Bunting - male (passerina cyanea)
Purple Martin - male (progne subis)

Grey
Great Blue Heron (ardea herodias)
Carolina Chickadee (poecile carolinensis)
Eastern Screech-Owl (otus asio)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (sitta canadensis)
Grey Catbird (dumetella carolinensis)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (regulus calendula)
Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher (tyrannus forficatus)
White-breasted Nuthatch (sitta carolinensis)
Tufted Titmouse (baelophus bicolor)
American Robin (turdus migratorius)
Northern Mockingbird (mimus polyglottos)
Mississippi Kite (ictinia mississippiensis)
Dickcissel (spiza americana)

Black
American Crow (corvus brachyrhynchos)
Brown-headed Cowbird - male (molothrus ater)
European Starling (sturnus vulgaris)
Common Grackle (quiscalus quiscula)
Red-winged Blackbird - male (agelaius phoeniceus)
Spotted Towhee (pipilo maculatus)
Turkey Vulture (cathartes aura)

Black & White
American Bald Eagle (haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Black-billed Magpie (pica hudsonia)
Downey Woodpecker (picoides pubescens)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (melanerpes carolinus)
Purple Martin - female (progne subis)
Eastern Kingbird (tyrannus tyrannus)
Dark-eyed Junco - male (junco hyemalis)
Loggerhead Shrike (lanius ludovicianus)

Brown
American Kestrel (falco sparverius)
Blue Grosbeak - female (guiraca caerulea)
Brown-headed Cowbird - female (molothrus ater)
Brown Thrasher (toxostoma rufum)
Common Nighthawk (chordeiles minor)
Carolina Wren (thryothorus ludovicianus)
Cedar Waxwing (bombycilla cedrorum)
Greater Roadrunner (geococcyx californianus)
Killdeer (charadrius vociferus)
Northern Bobwhite (colinus virginianus)
Red-tailed Hawk (buteo jamaicensis)
Cliff Swallow (petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
Horned Lark (eremophila alpestris)
House Finch - female (carpodacus mexicanus)
Northern Flicker (colaptes auratus)
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (coccyzus americanus)
Mourning Dove (zenaida macroura)
Malard - female (anas platyrhynchos)
Purple Finch - female (carpodacus purpureus)
House Sparrow (passer domesticus)
Indigo Bunting - female (passerina cyanea)
Red-winged Blackbird - female (agelaius phoeniceus)
Spotted Sandpiper (actitis macularia)
Upland Sandpiper (bartramia longicauda)
Northern Cardinal - female (cardinalis cardinalis)
Eastern Screech-Owl (otus asio)
Yellow Goldfinch - female (carduelis tristis)
Canada Goose (branta canadensis)

Various
Wild Birds of Northeast OK


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