A stunning, rainbow-coated bird has been hanging out in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for over a week now, a rare occurrence that has New Yorkers, birders, and the media gaga. And rightly so: The Painted Bunting is well outside its normal range, and its tropical feathers look amazingly out-of-place in the drab early winter foliage.
These colorful finches typically spend the summer breeding in the Southeastern and south-central United States before migrating to Florida, Mexico, and the northern Caribbean to pass the winter months. But this particular bird ended up in a New York City borough—a phenomenon known as vagrancy. (The Brooklyn bunting itself is called a vagrant.)
How the Bunting Got to Brooklyn
It's not uncommon for this migrating species (and migrating birds in general) to get a little off-course from time to time, says Kenn Kaufman, bird expert and Audubon’s field editor.
”Part of the excitement of birding is the possibility of seeing these birds that have strayed outside their normal ranges,” says Kaufman, adding that other vagrants spotted this year include a Pacific Loon in Pennsylvania and Gray Kingbird in Virginia. “Such rarities may turn up practically anywhere and any time,” he says.
It was likely a series of robust south-southwest winds that propelled the bird off course and to Brooklyn in the first place. Elsewhere this year, buntings have been spotted in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and even Ontario.
"Painted Buntings stray outside their normal range about as often as any other migratory bird," Kaufman says.
So what's causing this little guy to get so much attention? It's likely a combination of the bird's amazing plumage and the fact that he touched down in one of the media capitals of the world. The multicolored male (which is exceedingly flashier than its mostly green female counterpart) seems to have found a hospitable habitat—even a home—amid Prospect Park’s native grasses near the LeFrak Center since November 29. It’s been seen frolicking and foraging for seeds in the same area so reliably that birders and bunting enthusiasts have been having great luck spotting the bird, as long as they're a little patient.
"If the same bird had plopped down 50 miles away in Connecticut, local birders would go to see it, but there would be no media frenzy," Kaufman says, adding that the "gorgeous" bunting's presence is a great opportunity for people to get into birding.
Will it Weather the Winter?
So now that the bunting is here, what will he do?
There are basically two possible outcomes: The bunting will stay, or he will go. (Okay, he could also die from predation—with his red body, blue head, and yellow back, he’s a pretty easy target—but let’s stay positive.)
"If it flew north instead of south this fall, as some individual birds do,” says Kaufman, “then its navigational instincts are malfunctioning and it may not have the instinct to fly south as winter sets in.”
If the bird stays put throughout the winter, he’s expected to survive the chilly northern temperatures thanks to the abundance of food in the park—in fact, the bird is already looking rather fat, so even if his directional instincts are amiss, his consumption ones certainly aren’t.
The famed finch may also snap into migration mode and finish his journey, albeit a bit late. A drop in the temperature could help the bird realize that it’s time to take off.
“It could stay until things start to freeze up,” says Geoff LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. “If we suddenly start to get a lot of snow then that will be an issue because it won’t be able to find any food.” The weather looks warm through the rest of the week, so it looks like we'll just have to wait and see.
LeBaron says that sightings of such oddities might become more frequent in future decades due to climate change—warming temperatures make new locations more hospitable to birds from farther afield (learn more about that here).
Whatever the bird decides to do for the upcoming months, it eventually will head back to its breeding grounds when summer comes around, says LeBaron.
Until then, the small bird seems to be completely indifferent to the crowds showing up with all variety of spotting scopes and camera lens to get a glimpse and snapshot of it—just like any other celebrity in the big city.