Even with all the celebrities constantly popping up in New York City, it is hard to forget one particularly well-dressed guy—well, bird. When a Painted Bunting turned up in late November, he brought a media frenzy with him. The rainbow vagrant—a bird outside its typical migration range—spent most of his time near the newly restored green roof of the Lefrak Center in Prospect Park, munching on native plants and seeds.
His splendid plumage drew in so many people—birders, locals, media crews—that the Prospect Park Alliance had to put up a protective rope boundary around the bird’s self-proclaimed territory to keep eager viewers at a safe distance. And it wasn’t just people who threatened the bird—a cat was seen lurking nearby, but was quickly apprehended and brought to a local animal rehabilitation and adoption center. (For his part, the bunting mainly ignored his fan club.)
But, the colorful bird couldn’t stay forever—the last recorded sighting was on January 3rd. So did this wayward migrator regain his sense of direction and head home? It’s hard to know exactly where the bunting went, but here are our best guesses.
Soaking Up Sun in Florida
It’s possible the directionally challenged finch finally completed his winter migration and is relaxing amid the weedy habitats of Florida or Mexico. That’s where Painted Buntings—which breed in the central southern and southeastern United States—typically go for the cold months.
“The bright male Painted Bunting was last seen just before a cold front moved in,” says Rob Bate, president of the Brooklyn Bird Club who closely monitored the visiting bird. “So he presumably took that as a cue and headed south to warmer weather”—it helps that birds can sense when foul weather is approaching.
Hanging out in the Mid-Atlantic
Or, maybe he didn’t make it that far south. There have been quite a few reports of Painted Buntings in and around the mid-Atlantic region, including northern New Jersey, central Maryland, and eastern Virginia. But so far, these sightings were either of females—which lack the rainbow-colored plumage—or of males too young to be a match (seems like a lot of buntings got off track this year). And numerous sightings have been made in North Carolina, particularly near the coast. But because buntings regularly hang out there in the winter in small numbers, it would be nearly impossible to prove one of them was our Brooklynite.
Because the little bird ended up in New York City in the first place, it’s possible his navigational instincts are so screwed up he doesn’t have the ability to right his wrong turn. In fact, he might even continue to go further north. There’s currently an adult male Painted Bunting (Adult, check! Male, check!) in Stamford, Connecticut. The only problem: This one is missing part of two toes (definitely not a check). Thanks to the hundreds of images plastering social media, we know for sure the Brooklyn bird had all of his toes. A second strike is that this toe-less bunting has been spotted in Connecticut before.
Off the Grid for Good
That leaves us with the most likely possibility: We’ll never know where the bird went because we probably won’t see him again. Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman explains the hard truth:
North America is a big continent and even if there are a few million birders out there, they don’t go everywhere. On any Saturday in May, birders might see just about every bird in Central Park. But if you go only 50 miles west into the woods of New Jersey, or 100 miles north into upstate New York, there are many, many square miles of habitat that birders never visit at all. The majority of birds in the wild can go through their whole lives without ever being seen by someone who could identify them.
In other words, we’re lucky the rainbow bird ended up in such a visible spot in the first place—and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be spotted again. If he is, “it would be a bizarre coincidence,” says Kaufman. There is, however, a remote chance that he may return to his Prospect Park haven again next year. Vagrant birds sometimes show up in the same place several winters in a row (even if it’s 2,000 miles out of range) simply because it worked well for them the first time around, says Geoff LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. At least we can hope!
A final answer in the missing bunting speculation game is that the little bird succumbed to the cold weather, the lack of food, or perhaps an untrapped feral cat. But given his plump appearance throughout his stay, and lack of evidence (or remains), we prefer to theorize that he simply returned to his rural roots.
Wherever he is, he definitely made his mark in Brooklyn—a feat for anyone striving to make a name for himself in the big city.