‘A little bit of bread and no cheese’ is one of the best-known British bird song mnemonics. It seems slightly ironic that such a beautiful bird is remembered mostly for its rather repetitive song but spring might be the best time to remedy that situation and put a face to that voice.
The yellowhammer is a type of bunting. It is probably the most familiar bird in its family which also includes the less colourful reed and corn buntings and the much rarer snow and cirl buntings. It is a bird most associated with farmland, in particular with arable farming due to its diet which consists mostly of seed, but it also lives in coastal areas where it shows a preference for maritime heath rich in gorse, particularly where there is also farmland nearby.
Yellowhammer numbers in the UK
Like most farmland birds yellowhammers have been badly affected by the development of a more intensive approach to farming including the use of chemicals to control insects, which yellowhammers rely upon in the spring and summer as a source of easily digested, high-energy food for their chicks. The removal of hedgerows means fewer nest sites are available and a reduction in the number of fields left in stubble over winter has reduced their chances of finding seed through the winter.
These changes have had quite an impact on the population of yellowhammers. According to the British Trust for Ornithology the population of yellowhammers in the UK has dropped by about 58% in the last fifty years. Scotland has bucked the trend slightly with a small increase in number over the last twenty-five years but even there it seems that the situation is now going into reverse.
In England and Wales yellowhammers continue a downward trend which has led to them being ‘red-listed’ as a species of the highest conservation concern, in need of immediate action to help them recover. Nonetheless there are still about 800,000 pairs of this delightful bird breeding in the UK so most of us have a reasonable chance of catching up with one and the spring is a great time to do this, for two reasons.
Spotting yellowhammers in the garden
In spring the beautiful male birds, complete with their striking yellow faces and ginger-streaked backs and flanks, love to sit on top of trees, hedgerows and fenceposts to proclaim their territories with their familiar little ditty. Their nasal voices carry huge distances because they sing from on high. The long, drawn out ‘cheese’ is probably the most distinctive note of the phrase but sometimes the cheese is left out if the bird is distracted.
It is also in spring that most of our buntings struggle to find food. Gone are the heady days of the arable harvest when seed was scattered all around. The yellowhammers have been searching farm fields for the ever-decreasing supply of spent seed ever since then, supplementing their diets with the smaller seed of wildflowers. It is still a little too early in the year for a bountiful supply of insects or for the majority of wildflowers to be setting seed so it is now that buntings, most frequently yellowhammers and reed buntings, fall upon hard times and might be seen in our gardens.
If you have a garden near a wetland area you are more likely to see reed buntings but if you live near arable farmland look out for yellowhammers. Buntings search for food on the ground so they will be seen underneath our bird feeders. We can help them by deliberately scattering seed on an area of bare ground or short grass if we see them feeding. Unlike our chaffinches and goldfinches which can become quite tame, buntings tend to remain wary and when they are alarmed yellowhammers usually fly to the tree-tops revealing their larger size and longer tail as they go.
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Don’t rely on all yellowhammers being bright yellow. Females are not as colourful as males, their plumage is dominated by a streaky pattern of ginger and brown with a subtle yellow suffusion on the underside and around the face. Even the males are less colourful in the winter, but in spring they should be looking at their best.
Even when not proclaiming their territories yellowhammers are quite chatty birds, in fact it is often their ‘chee-chee’ contact calls which give us the first sign that they are close by. As with most birds the more familiar we become with their ways the more we see them.
So, during spring we should all make an effort to see if we have yellowhammers in our gardens, it would be a great shame for them to be visiting without us knowing. In fact it’s time to stop reading this article, get the binoculars out and have a look under your bird feeders immediately.