Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Emberiza citrinella – yellowhammer

 

Distribution map

Click here to view an interactive map of the Northern Ireland dataset as currently collated by CEDaR.
The map is generated through the NBN Gateway using their Interactive Mapping Tool.

 

Emberiza citrinella L.
Family: Emberizidae

The yellowhammer is resident all year round in open countryside, typically where a mixture of arable and livestock farming occurs. It is also known to many country dwellers as the yellow bunting or yellow yorling - the bright yellow plumage of the male is not seen in any other resident Irish bird. It was once a widespread and familiar farmland bird, but is now scarce and localised in Northern Ireland, where its remaining stronghold is eastern County Down.

In brief

  • Best looked for in County Down farmland

  • Can be observed all year round

  • Has undergone a major decline throughout Ireland and the UK

  • Changes in agricultural practice and loss of mixed farming regimes threaten yellowhammers.

Species description
The yellowhammer is one of the larger buntings, which is a family of plump sparrow-sized birds with triangular bills, which are perfectly designed for eating both seeds and insect food. The males in summer are readily identified by their bright yellow head and underparts, with a chestnut wash over the breast. The tail is long and edged with white and, in flight, the rich chestnut rump is noticeable. Females and young birds are duller and more streaked.

Its presence in the hedgerows is often given away by frequently uttered, low ticking calls, while in spring the male issues his distinctive staccato song from a prominent vantage point. It has often been likened to "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese".

Life cycle
The yellowhammer builds its nest on or close to the ground in dense vegetation, often at the base of a thick hedge, bank or gorse bush. The nest is made of grasses, leaves, moss and straw and lined with fine grasses. Breeding starts in early April when the first clutch of three to four eggs is laid, and a pair can lay up to three broods each season. The eggs are covered with fine black scribbles, which has given rise to yet another country nickname for the bird — 'scribbling lark'. The young are fed on insect food such as caterpillars, but throughout the rest of the year, yellowhammers feed extensively on grass and weed seeds or spilt grains from stubble fields. In winter, birds tend to gather in flocks, often with other seed-eating birds, scouring the countryside for suitable sources of food.

Similar species
The male is unmistakable in Northern Ireland as it is the only predominantly yellow, small perching bird to be found in farmland habitats. The female still shows yellow tones, though subdued and a chestnut rump, distinguishing it from all other buntings.

How to see this species
In Britain and Ireland the bird is found in suitable countryside, especially where mixed arable and livestock farming is practised. While a few yellowhammers do migrate through Britain and Ireland from further north, they are largely sedentary, only moving around locally in winter to find new sources of food. In Northern Ireland, mixed farmland with good hedgerows in County Down offer the best chance of success.

Current status
Across the whole of Europe the yellowhammer population is considered to be stable. However, despite being particularly common in the east of Europe, it has suffered significant decline in many western and northern European countries in recent years, including the UK and Ireland. In Ireland, a major contraction in its range was detected by the late 1980s and this decline and contraction of range has continued. In Northern Ireland few yellowhammers are now found outside the arable and mixed farming areas of eastern County Down.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Listed as both a UK and All-Ireland Priority species

  • 70 per cent decline in Northern Ireland.

Threats/Causes of decline
This decline is due to changes in land management in recent decades, which have seen a move from mixed farming to livestock production and, consequently, a major reduction in the area of arable land in Ireland. In Britain, other factors such as the intensification of arable production and the use of pesticides, are more relevant. There is growing evidence that this extra food provision can help to support declining populations of seed-eating farmland birds. In all areas, management of hedgerows is important for yellowhammers, since hedges which are cut too frequently or which are full of gaps are not suitable for nesting.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Retention of winter stubbles to provide grain can be funded under Agri-Environment schemes

  • The RSPB has developed winter feeding programmes for yellowhammers and other seed-eating birds through the provision of sacrificial crops or wild bird cover, to supplement winter food supplies

  • The Countryside Management Scheme (administered by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD)) contains measures which are beneficial to yellowhammers, including the provision of wild bird cover.

Proposed objectives/actions
The following targets are taken from the Northern Ireland Action Plan (see links below)

  • Maintain population size at 5000 breeding pairs

  • Maintain current breeding range in Northern Ireland

  • By 2015, increase the population size to 11,400 breeding pairs

  • By 2020, increase the breeding population range to 6610km2 squares.

What you can do

  • If you are a landowner, contact DARDNI to find out about applying to join an agri-environment scheme, or seek advice on yellowhammer management from RSPB NI

  • Report all sightings to the Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association (Flightline Tel: 028 9146 7408) – all records form part of a Northern Ireland database managed by CEDaR

  • Participate as a volunteer in any future surveys

  • Manage your garden, especially in rural areas, to provide an extra seed source for wintering birds by leaving appropriate seed heads in situ.

Further information

Links
The NI BAP for Yellowhammer

DARDNI website with information on agri-environment schemes.

A simple identification web page.

How to manage your garden for wildlife including advice on seed provision.

The importance of mixed farming regimes explained in simple terms.

A webpage explaining the importance of wildbird cover.

Literature
A wide variety of leaflets on sacrificial crops, farming practices and the species are available free from RSPB and DARD.

Birdlife International (2004). Birds in Europe: population trends and conservation status. Cambridge, UK: Birdlife International Conservation Series No.12.

Olsson, U., Curson, J. and Byers, C. (1995). A Guide to the Buntings and North American Sparrows, PICA Press.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.