A Farmland Bird

PUBLISHED: 11:02 19 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:27 20 February 2013

The male cirl bunting is a striking bird with a colourful stripy head. Photo: David Chapman

The male cirl bunting is a striking bird with a colourful stripy head. Photo: David Chapman

In this October issue we find out what exactly a bunting is

Cornwall is quite a special county for its buntings. We have one species, the corn bunting, which isn't commonly found in other parts of the South West, and another, the cirl bunting, which is found only in Cornwall and Devon. To make up this month's quintet of birds we have the yellowhammer, a common but declining bird of farmland, the reed bunting, a bird commonly found throughout Cornwall and the UK, and the snow bunting, which is an uncommon visitor to Cornwall but which is usually spotted somewhere around the coast during October.

What exactly is a bunting? This is difficult to say precisely, but buntings are similar to finches in that they are seed-eaters and have triangular-shaped beaks. Look closely at the beak of a bunting and you will see that its upper mandible is much less substantial than its lower mandible. Whilst finches, such as the chaffinch, bullfinch and greenfinch, are often very cleanly marked with large expanses of colour, buntings are much streakier in appearance, though they can also be very colourful. Unlike finches, they don't tend to spend much time in gardens and are unusual visitors to bird feeders; instead the bunting is much more a bird of farmland.

CORN BUNTING (Miliaria calandra)

This is one of the plainest of the bunting family. Its breast is creamy-white with brown spotting and its back is streaky brown. It is the largest of the buntings featured here, a little larger than a chaffinch, and can look quite plump. Male and female corn buntings are similar.

The corn bunting has one of the most distinctive of songs, which is often likened to a bunch of jangling keys. Fortunately, this bird, like most buntings, tends to sing from obvious perches, so look for them on gate and fence posts and the tops of bushes.

This bird is found only on the north coast of Cornwall and the population of about 50 pairs is located in an area between Trevose Head and Pentire Point. The survival of our corn buntings is quite important - if we lose them we may never get them back - so the RSPB is working with farmers in the areas where corn buntings breed to monitor and support these birds.

CIRL BUNTING (Emberiza cirlus)

This is slightly smaller than the corn bunting. The female cirl bunting is fairly plain and quite similar in appearance to a corn bunting or a female yellowhammer. The male, though, is striking with a black throat and eye stripe, yellow face and belly, an olive-green breast band and a streaky ginger back. The song of the male cirl bunting is a bit like a yellowhammer but not as elaborate or drawn out.

This is a topical bird in Cornwall at the moment. The cirl bunting is a Mediterranean species and within Britain it has long been found only along Devon's south coast. A few pairs have bred in Cornwall and though we have plenty of suitable habitats for them, they have failed to spread successfully in the county. Things are changing, though, because cirl buntings have recently been released at a secret location in the south of the county and seem to have settled there.

YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)

The yellowhammer is similar in size to the cirl bunting but has a noticeably longer tail. The male is extremely colourful, with a yellow head and belly and a ginger back. The female is less colourful, having a brown back and yellowish wash on a streaky cream belly.

The yellowhammer is well known for having a song which sounds like the phrase 'a little bit of bread and no cheese'. This is a fairly good representation and is certainly a good way of remembering its song. Like cirl and corn buntings, the yellowhammer often sits in the tops of trees to sing, and also, like these other species, it is most commonly found on farmland. Unlike the others, the yellowhammer can be found throughout the county, but it is most frequently seen around the arable farmland of north Cornwall, particularly near to the coast.

REED BUNTING (Emberiza schoeniclus)

The reed bunting is slightly smaller and slimmer than the other species. The male is distinctive: its black head and throat contrast with a white collar and moustache. His back is streaky brown and his belly creamy-white. The female is less well marked, with a streaky brown back and white belly with dark streaks, particularly along her flanks. Her head does not show the same level of contrast as seen in the male but she does have a distinct white moustache and creamy-brown supercilium (a stripe over the eye).

These birds live in reed beds but can be found breeding in bushes near to marshy ground and even on damp heathland. During winter they can be found just about anywhere, including farmland and moorland. The song of the male is the plainest of all the buntings. His metallic notes consist of just a few 'shrip-shrip' notes.

SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis)

This is certainly the least common of these buntings to be found in Cornwall. The snow bunting breeds in the Arctic and some parts of northern Scotland and migrates southwards for the winter. This is a hardy bird and rarely needs to seek out the mild weather associated with Cornwall; however, we always get a few birds during the autumn when they are undergoing their migration. Coastal locations are the best for this species since they enjoy feeding on the strandlines of beaches.

It has the characteristic bunting-shaped beak but apart from that it is quite different from the other species found in Cornwall. Males, females and juveniles are all slightly different but they all have a fair amount of soft, smooth, pure white in their plumage. Their bellies and throats are white and when they fly there is a flash of white in the wing.


For the corn bunting it is best to go to Trevose Head; they are commonly seen along the side of the toll road out to the lighthouse. Yellowhammers are also fairly numerous here. For reed buntings it is best to look around a substantial reed bed such as the one at Marazion Marsh, though in winter they can be quite numerous at moorland locations such as Goss Moor and Tregonetha Downs. Snow buntings are never predictable but could be found at any coastal location. Godrevy Head is a favoured site for them, as is St Gothian Sands near Godrevy.

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