The Yellowhammer Eberiza citrinella is one of my favourite birds; I have many. Very often my favourite birds boil down to those I have grown to admire and respect after witnessing their decline over many years of birdwatching. Readers of this blog will be familiar with other species I mention frequently here - Lapwing and Corn Bunting to name but two. These three, plus a number of others are British species which dangle by a population thread thanks to the horrors of modern farming, increased disturbance from an expanding human population and uncontrolled predators. Our once green and pleasant land is being trashed like never before in the name of the of “economic progress”.
I recently watched a Yellowhammer on top of a fence post singing its melancholic “little bit of bread and no cheese”. It carried on singing until fatherly duties drew it back to the rough field where the female would be sat tight on her second lot of eggs. Yellowhammers nest low down in a bush, but sometimes on the ground. Yellowhammers are known to sing quite late in the year, sometimes into September. Also the male sings more frequently when the female is actually incubating.
The sight and sound was a “blast from the past”, welcome for sure as I don’t see or hear the Yellowhammer much these days after a more than 30% decline in 25 years. Those aren’t my figures but highly optimistic and nationally calculated ones. The decline in our local farmland is more like 80%, and still plunging downwards, observations based on many years of field work, bird ringing and generally being an inquisitive but sceptical bugger about statistics offered up by experts. This is especially so where localised factors come into play that are not picked up by overall trends.
The Yellowhammer population was pretty stable until the late 1980’s when the present decline began until it is now “red listed” as an endangered species within the UK. The reasons for the decline are many faceted with the major culprit being agricultural intensification:
- the mismanagement/destruction of hedgerows and associated field margins
- a decrease in late summer cereal crops/substitution with grass/silage crops and subsequent loss of winter stubble
- more efficient grain collection with less “spillage” and less grain left on the ground for seed eating birds
- increased use of pesticides to remove weeds and insects
- woodland planting along fringe habitats and the resulting decrease in suitable breeding sites for an open-area species
- increased predation from corvids and others
- urbanisation/fragmentation of habitat
It's an all too familiar story I'm afraid.
And here’s tale number two, also concering the Yellowhammer.
The Yellowhammer, a bird native to the British Isles was many years ago introduced to a set of islands on the other side of the world - New Zealand. As so often happens there follows a familiar tale of man interfering with the laws of nature established during millions of years of evolution of species.
The population of New Zealand settlers in the middle 19th century grew fast. The same was true for insect crop pests, particularly caterpillars and black field crickets. Normally, pests like these would be kept under control by insectivorous birds. However, New Zealand had none available for the job.
The settlers cleared away New Zealand's forests and native birds disappeared with them. In the circumstances introducing insectivorous birds from England seemed to make sense. Yet, the bird species chosen by the Acclimatisation Societies (organisations founded specifically to introduce new animals and plants to New Zealand) for the task included some surprises, with the Yellowhammer one of the biggest. It is well known to us today that this heavy-billed bunting is primarily a consumer of seeds rather than insects, but it seems it was not so evident back then.
During the 1860's and 1870's, 25 ships set out from London to various ports around New Zealand with these birds on board. Some were ordered by Acclimatisation Societies, some were sent for privately. A quarter of these shipments were organised by one family, Bills & sons from Brighton, and many of the Yellowhammers came from the area around this English coastal town.
A scientific journal (NeoBiota) used newspapers and documents from the 19th century to reconstruct the history of how the Yellowhammer went from hero to villain in New Zealand in just 15 years. The detective work by the scientists not only identified where the Yellowhammers came from, but also where they ended up. They were able to pinpoint localities of release, and sometimes even how many birds were liberated there.
Yellowhammers were initially warmly welcomed by the Kiwis but soon local farmers started to complain about the Yellowhammers’ taste for their cereal crops. The complaints fell on deaf ears as the Acclimatisation Societies with Government support continued to promote the introduction of Yellowhammers. In 1880 the last shipment of Yellowhammers arrived but these birds were never set free. Public pressure forced the Acclimatisation Society to get rid of them, and they were sent to Australia.
From then on, Yellowhammers became the target of shooting, egg-collection, and poisoning. All means were allowed to rid the countryside of this now unwelcome guest. By then it was too late: Yellowhammers were well and truly Kiwis, and they remain common and widespread in New Zealand to this day.
Who knows, pretty soon we may be asking our Kiwi cousins to return some of our Yellowhammers? If we as a nation continue down the route of destroying our wildlife heritage we sure as hell won’t have any of our own Yellowhammers left to sing of their "little bit of bread and no cheese".
Linking today to World Bird Wednesday.