Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published April 16, 2013 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Painted Bunting, male

The male Painted Bunting is perhaps the most beautiful bird found in Florida, if not North America.

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Painted Bunting, MaleJohn Keats said it exquisitely: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

Have you ever watched a beauty pageant and wondered how the judges can select one contestant from all the truly gorgeous beauties competing, keeping in mind that every one of the participants has won a prior pageant at the local, regional or state level before appearing on the final stage? The winner will undoubtedly have many fans who agree with the judges’ decision, but many more fans will wonder why some other beauty didn’t win, as they would have preferred. The same wonderment applies to birds.

As birders, we are often asked, “What is the most beautiful bird you have seen?” OK, do you mean, “Ever?” or “in North America?” or “at home?” or “on one of our trips?” The answer might be different, depending on the circumstances. If the criterion is “ever,” I have always thought the Flame-colored Tanager, a Mexican species that we saw at the Mile High Ranch in southern most Arizona, was the one that I found most striking. We saw the male high-lighted in the sun, and the bright orange of the bird seemed to burst into flame in the tree before our eyes. I have never seen a depiction in a field guide or a photograph of the bird that did it justice as I remember the sighting. But, then again, maybe it was all the surrounding circumstances of seeing the bird that made the difference, or maybe my memory has only improved the recollection with age. In any event, I don’t have a photo, as the bird appeared in my pre-photography days.

Painted Bunting, maleThe “most beautiful” bird at home is easy: the fanned out Wild Turkeys vying for the favors of one of the female turkeys watching and evaluating their display … in our front yard, no less. Their photo appeared in an earlier HartBeat article entitled “Displaying.”  

The “most beautiful” bird seen on one of our trips is much more problematic, as we have taken several trips to South and Central America where there are so many colorful, and even gaudy birds, to choose from. Keep in mind that of the approximately 10,000 species of birds in the world, almost half are found in these two regions. It’s like watching the Miss America or Miss Universe Pageant of birds. Mixed flocks of spectacular tanagers, or the big-billed aracaris or toucans, brightly colored mot-mots, trogons, parrots, manakins, and splendid macaws parade before you on a stage of green foliage. Just Google the images for any one of these families of birds and glory in the splash of color that spreads before you on your computer screen.  And virtually none of them are included in the just over 700 species of breeding birds in North America. If pressed at knife-point to name a “most beautiful bird from a trip” I would probably anoint the Scarlet Macaw. For a sample of “color splash” in this bird family, go to Google, search “macaw,” and click “Images.”

Painted Bunting, femaleBut for “most beautiful North American bird” the decision for me is really easy. The Painted Bunting wins, hands down. Others might argue for the “Hoodie” or the “Woodie” – the Hooded Merganser, or the Wood Duck, both strong contenders. And I’m sure one of the several species of North American tanagers, or orioles, or hawks, (think Swallow-tailed Kite), or even the Northern Cardinal, will have their fans, but to me, none is as beautiful as the Painted Bunting. Not the female (left), only the male, and I support my argument with their portraits.

Yes, birding and beauty fans, the birding beauty pageant in North America is much easier to judge than in some other parts of the world. Maybe with global warming, North America will develop its own jungle habitat and we can then begin seeing some of these more colorful birds right here. Probably not in our lifetimes though, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

(Click photos for larger versions)