Photo: During the breeding season, male yellowhammers have vibrant plumage; bright yellow on the head and belly, as well as red-brown feathers streaked with black
Few native birds are as cheering to the eye or the ear as the cock yellowhammer. And these classic buntings are just as delightful when kept in captivity, reckons Bill Naylor
AMONG seedeaters, British finches deservedly get the limelight, yet we also have a variety of interesting buntings in the UK and 14 species in Europe. Most are similar in appearance and sparrow-like, but one species – the male yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) – is as colourful as some exotic seedeaters. The species is usually easily identified, although there is some variation between males. The bright yellow-gold plumage is present for most of the year, though it turns slightly more drab in winter. The winter plumage is lost by abrasion exposing a brighter gold plumage. As is usual among buntings, the hen yellowhammer is duller than the male and more heavily streaked. She resembles the female cirl bunting (E. cirlus) but, at any age and in any season, she has the telltale chestnut rump rather than the olive rump of the cirl bunting. Its closest relative is the pine bunting (E. leucocephalos), which has a closely similar song and with which it readily hybridises in the wild.
The yellowhammer was once a common bird of open British countryside, preferring hedgerows, fields and railway embankments rather than woodlands. Its numbers have fallen in recent decades due to habitat loss and a decline in invertebrates.
Contributing factors may be the removal of hedgerows and farming practices such as weeds being cleared from field edges and the late-summer removal of plant stubble, which used to be a haven for insect grubs through the winter. To be fair, some farmers have reversed these practices, providing birds like yellowhammers with insects and seeds during winter. Yellowhammers often frequent newly sown fields or those where crops have gone to seed. In countries like South Africa and New Zealand, where they were introduced, they are considered an agricultural pest. For some decades now, the reed bunting has moved into similar areas in the UK preferred by yellowhammers. Reed buntings are pugnacious birds and it has been suggested without hard evidence that they could compete against them.
Thirty years ago in early summer there wasn’t a hedgerow without its population of these bright songsters. They would be stationed at regular intervals on podiums of the highest twigs, trying to outdo each other with their vocal prowess. Sometimes vocalists would ascend, angrily twittering face to face before resuming their performance. After the song is delivered, the male flies above the hedgerow fanning his white outer tail feathers. Combined with the song, this is used to attract a female. The rendition “A little bit of bread and no cheese,” made famous by Enid Blyton, is supposed to sound like the main five to eight notes of the yellowhammer’s song. Its singing ability led to its popularity as a cage bird in the 18th century. Captive-bred strains of yellowhammers are now well established among British bird breeders. According to Dave Coles’s First Breedings the first UK captive breeding of the yellowhammer was in 1911 by H. Willford.
Yellowhammers feed mainly on the ground on a wide variety of seeds, such as chickweed nettle and dock seeds, and insects. Buntings will overpower large insects; grasshoppers, now scarce, were once a favourite food. In captivity, buntings eat a variety of seeds, softfood and mealworms. Males start to sing in February. The warmer the weather the earlier they sing, even though they may still be in flocks. As the breeding season approaches, the males start to chase the females.
As a rule, buntings require a larger aviary than finches because they are more nervous. In the breeding season, an aviary some 3m (10ft) long, planted with shrubs, will give the hen some respite. Housing similar species such as green singing finches (Serinus mozambicus) in neighbouring flights is best avoided.
As hormones rage, the male sings and chases the hen while singing. When he catches up with her, he raises his crest and sings all the more, sometimes stretching or raising/fluttering his wings. If the hen is interested she’ll adopt the infant bird’s begging posture of cowering, head raised while fluttering her wings. Sometimes the hen inspects potential nest sites prior to mating. In captivity, the nest is almost always built on the ground. Providing an area with ornamental long grass or turfs with overgrown native grasses will create an ideal nest site. Dead grass, coconut fibre and hair (dog, sheep or horse) will all be appreciated for nest construction, which is undertaken by the hen in May.
Although a bird of open country, the greatest density of breeding yellowhammers is often in forestry plantations of young conifers, where nests are built low in the young trees. One hundred yellowhammers have been recorded to every square kilometre of conifers. Broom, blackthorn, other low shrubs and even plants 46cm (18in) high are popular nesting sites, as with most northern buntings. Less than half of nests are on the ground, with the rest usually about 90cm (3ft) high and a few as high as 2m (6ft 6in).
The three to five eggs are incubated for 12-14 days, mainly by the hen, with some help from the male. The eggs have an unusual pattern with scribbled markings, which in more superstitious times was reputed to be writings of the devil. This gave rise to the names “scribbling lark” or “writing lark” and in some counties extremist clergy urged the destruction of the birds and their nests. Two clutches, sometimes three, are raised, and the birds have been known to breed into October. Caterpillars, spiders, beetles, flies and their larvae are the main rearing foods, while in captivity, waxmoth larvae are favoured. The young birds fledge at 11-14 days. When the dark-plumaged youngsters are independent they undergo a partial moult. They also copy their parents and eat softfood and insects.
After breeding, the adults moult their wing and tail feathers, the male’s yellow plumage improving with every moult. Reed beds are a common roosting location after the breeding season, affording the birds shelter as the weather gets colder. Even in bad winters British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) research shows 97 per cent of yellowhammers survive, forming flocks often with other seedeaters. Farming practices are thought to be the key to increasing the yellowhammer population. Buntings can be quite long lived in captivity (seven to eight years.) In the wild, ringing records reveal a 13-year-old yellowhammer was killed by a car in the UK, while in Germany another bird the same age was killed by a sparrowhawk.
Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.
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