19 July 2014 – Painted Bunting

In a stroke of tragic irony, I had tried to begin this weekend what I hope to develop into a new citizen science survey aimed at Painted Buntings, but my very first one on my very first “Bunting Hunting” weekend was a window-kill at the Noble Research Center.

As I rounded the curve from the east and got my first look at the main north entrance, I could see a bright red bird on its back, right in front of the door. As I drew nearer, this bird that I had at first assumed to be a Northern Cardinal resolved into a spectacular male ASY Painted Bunting.

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It was still alive, on its back, with eyes shut, and its breathing was deep and rapid. The only thing I’d dislike more than sticking a Painted Bunting in the freezer today would be having to euthanize a Painted Bunting before sticking it in said freezer. I picked up the bird and carried it with me as I finished my survey. I was sure the bird would be a goner. In fact, I actually thought it had died in my hand while I walked along, and I felt glad that I at least might have helped it feel less “exposed” in its final moments, despite whatever terror it might have had at the thought of being scooped up by a giant.

I took my camera from the car and noticed the bird perk up a bit. I walked with it to a spot with trees and grass and decided to see if it could perch on its own, as it was showing signs of life. I set it down for a moment and it flew from me for about 10m before landing in the grass. The flying was a good sign – maybe this one might make it after all!
He’s beautiful, but this Painted Bunting is very near death, sadly.

Alas, in seconds, the exertion of that flight was evident, and he was losing consciousness again:

The clinical, “scientific” thing to do would be to have euthanized the bird and popped him in the freezer at that point. After all, he was an outstanding specimen. I decided, though, that this one deserved to be returned to a suitable place to give him one last shot to survive and, if so, to not have any stupid buildings in his way if I could help it. So I drove with him to the OSU Botanic Garden, with its dappled sunlight, abundant flowers and trees, and even some other Painted Buntings. He rode in a nest I made for him from my chamois field shirt:

Again, he didn’t look at all good. Certainly, riding for a couple of miles in my car just laying down and panting was a sign that death was imminent, and the most humane thing I could do for this bird would be to euthanize it as quickly and painlessly as possible. But I didn’t. Something compelled me to give him a little more time before making that decision.

I found a nice spot for the bird; there was a male Painted Bunting singing about 100m away. The bird seemed perkier in my hand as I walked with him. My goal was to see if he could perch on his own. If he could, I’d leave him there and hope for the best. If he couldn’t, I’d euthanize him.

I selected a nice, low branch where he would be protected from the sun and safe from the local Botanic Garden cat. (Why they let their cat wander about the gardens is beyond me.) I placed the bird on the branch and . . . he flew! He didn’t go far – just a few meters from what I could tell, and I’m pretty sure that he ended up on the ground. I don’t know, because I never saw him again. How did I lose sight of a dying Painted Bunting that was at my feet? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that, despite our plans, Nature does what Nature does.

One of the things I like so much about our little songbirds is that while we might characterize them as cute or think of them as needing our help in situations like these, they see themselves as gritty, fierce survivors. I thought I needed to be the one to dictate the end-of-life plan for that Painted Bunting; I was responsible for his welfare. If he had such a plan, I certainly wasn’t part of it. I was just one more threat for which his instinct was to escape.

I’m sure he died in whatever tangle he ended up. He was the 178th healthy, vigorous bird to make a split-second fatal error in judgment and perception at the Noble Research Center.