WHAT DO WE KNOW?
Habitat Changes -
In some areas, nesting Painted Buntings use abandoned farmland, open woodlands adjacent to pastures, and hedges associated with farming. Land use and the landscape of Georgia, however, have changed drastically in the last 50 years. Approximately half of the land in coastal Georgia that was farmed in the 1960's is now occupied by dense forests, some of which is intensively managed pine forests. More recently, hedgerows have also been eliminated in favor of large open fields for farming. These landscape changes have changed the amount of nesting habitat for the Painted Bunting in Georgia and South Carolina.
Humans affect Painted Bunting habitat by how we use the land. The type of use can either create or destroy nesting habitat of the bunting. In Coastal Plain sites where Painted Buntings were commonly found during the 1960s, pine plantation habitat has increased from 25% to 35% of the land coverage, while agricultural land use has declined from 18% to 9%. At the same time, developed land more than doubled in area from 4% to 9% while emergent wetland habitats have remained constant (6%). These combined land use changes reduced the amount of habitat available for nesting Painted Buntings by as much as 40%.
Scientists know that in the 1960s and 1970s the amount of agricultural land, shrub-scrub land, emergent wetlands, and developed area could predict 40% of total Painted Bunting's abundance (based on ongoing research currently unpublished). By the early 1990s, however, only the amount of emergent wetlands and developed area could predict 35% of its total abundance. Agricultural land, in the areas studied in Georgia and South Carolina, had declined so much that it no longer provided important habitat for breeding and nesting Painted Buntings. Currently, emergent wetlands provide what is believed to be a last refuge for Painted Buntings, especially near developed areas. Governments usually protect wetlands and this landscape element should remain relatively constant. Recent developments that reduce protection of small wetlands, however, may affect the future of the Painted Bunting. Another danger in this situation is that developed areas may be "ecological traps" where Painted Buntings may subsist, but are not able to raise young because of increased predation and nest parasitism. We need further research to understand the effect of loss of small wetlands and developed land use on nesting Painted Buntings.
Management Guidelines for homeowner associations, public land mangers, managers of beach-dune habitat, and forest land managers-
Painted Bunting populations will respond readily to land management practices such as timber thinning (especially when the canopy is opened to 50% cover or less), prescribed fire, and maintenance of shrub-scrub grasslands in transition areas (ecotones), such as beach dune habitats. Buntings will use beach dune shrub-scrub-grassland, old growth maritime forest, and open pine forests for nesting and feeding habitat. They successfully produce young in all of these habitats on Sapelo Island in coastal Georgia.
Active management enhances nesting habitat for Painted Bunting in some forests. In younger hardwood forests, such as maritime live oak, the canopy should be opened for more sunlight to promote growth of grasses and shrubs. Canopy openings are prominent features of thinned older pine forests (also called saw timber), which require only prescribed burning every six years to maintain these forests for nesting Painted Buntings. Burning should encourage a patchwork of shrubs, especially waxed myrtle (scientific name: Myrica cerifera), and native grasses in the understory for bunting nesting and feeding habitat. Painted Buntings use some forest regeneration cuts for nesting for a few years if grasses and shrub-scrub habitat are allowed to cover the area for four to five years after the timber is removed.
Natural beach dunes (shrub-scrub and grassy habitat) should be protected from fire, because storms, salt spray, and drought maintain this habitat in grasses and shrubs, the ideal nesting area for Painted Buntings. It's possible that fire could be used but no research has been done; effects of erosion and loss of nesting shrubs after the fires may create poor habitat for the species.
In developed areas near coastal marshes, managers and homeowners should maintain as much of the natural habitat as possible, especially grasses and shrubs, in open savannah-like forests. Mowed lawns should be discouraged. Maintained grassy areas should be mowed only every one to two years during early March. Wetlands, even those less than 1/2 acre (0.2 ha) in size, should be protected as important feeding areas for nesting buntings and their young. Cats should also be kept indoors.
Old growth maritime forests (150-250 yrs) need little management for Painted Buntings, especially if the habitat is adjacent to marshes. Natural openings in these woods - created by storms, fires and dying trees - provide nesting and feeding habitat in combination with feeding habitat in adjacent marshes. These older forests need protection only from habitat destruction and assurances that oak trees that are dying are being replaced in the understory. Painted Buntings are very successful nesters in old growth forests but are not as abundant as in beach dune shrub-scrub or open-canopy, managed pine forests.
Painted Buntings will nest successfully if populations of white-tailed deer are managed to prevent loss of the understory because of overbrowsing. Overabundant wild horses and hogs severely damage and destroy forests by trampling and uprooting understory shrubs and by clipping grasses so short that grassland feeding habitat is lost for Painted Buntings. In many places along the coast of Georgia, feral (released domestic) animals have damaged forest understory habitat. Feral animals must be controlled or eliminated to manage and restore Painted Bunting populations successfully.
Ideally buntings require large areas from 1,200 to 2,500 acres (500 to 1,000 hectares) to maintain a population of about 100 to 200 breeding pairs. Since Painted Buntings use many different habitats, it's possible to have this amount of suitable habitat in close proximity. Public land mangers may easily incorporate management of large tracts of land into their plans for breeding habitat of buntings. Areas with wetlands and marshes nearby are extremely valuable habitat for Painted Buntings. It is also possible for landowners (owning >1,200 acres) or cooperative associations (in developed areas) to provide enough acres for managing 100 pairs of Painted Buntings. Further research on effects of developed land on success and survival of bunting eggs and nestlings is needed before the spending of funds for management of Painted Buntings in our coastal subdivisions.
In the next 20 years, major threats to the Painted Bunting population in Georgia may be the large influx of retired persons to our coastal habitats. Living places for these persons will require careful planning and management. Fortunately, many retired persons are interested in wildlife resources, especially birds, and will probably recognize quality land use planning for both themselves and our wildlife resources.