Monday, August 8, 2016

Two Cautionary Tales

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.


Tim James said...

Fabulous shots.

David Gascoigne said...

A wonderful post, Phil, although a tad gloomy. Sadly, the world over we have interfered with our native fauna and flora and the results have always been detrimental. We never seem to learn, do we? The historical perspective you give provides information of which I was previously unaware. I am filled with admiration for your blog. I look forward to a new post from you more than any other blog that I follow. Furthermore, it is well written and grammatically correct, a rare fact these days. Thanks for the truly fine job you do.

Terri @ Coloring Outside the Lines said...

Thanks for sharing your knowledge about the yellowhammer. I wish people would wake up about the damage being done before it is truly too late.

Stuart Price said...

I've only seen Yellowhammers a handful of times, they were never common around South Ribble at least.

eileeninmd said...

Hello Phil, I always enjoy your post and bird images. The Yellowhammer is a beautiful bird. Thanks for sharing the info. Happy Monday, enjoy your new week!

Linda said...

Phil, gorgeous photos and the Yellowhammer is absolutely precious. And what a beautiful song it has!

Liplatus said...

Beautiful pictures of the beautiful bird.
Thanks for the interesting information.

The sad thing is a decrease of birds.

Janice / Dancing with Sunflowers said...

What fantastic close-up shots. Especially love the one you chose for the thumbnail on Our World - beautiful. I listened to the clip but couldn't hear 'little bit of bread and no cheese'! :)


It's always so disheartening to know that we humans are creating a huge list of birds [and other animals] that soon will no longer exist.

I liked the part you shared about the male singing as the female in he's telling the world "Look what I did!!"

Beautiful images, sad tale today.

NC Sue said...

His whole body shakes when he sings - he's singing his heart out!
Thanks for sharing at

Fun60 said...

What an interesting post about their introduction into NZ. I suppose their reasons for doing so were sound just unfortunate they chose the wrong bird. Where's Darwin when you need him!

Joyful said...

Your post was very informative. It is very sad to hear of what is happening to this bird species and other species around the globe. The statistics are dismal for sure. Your first photo is a beautifully captured image of your favourite bird.

Sharon said...

The yellowhammer is new to me! What a lovely bird!

Valerie said...

A pretty creature - great captures.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

It's all so sad Phil. people can't seem to stop interfering. it's awful of me and probably unpatriotic but I had sort of thought that the USA was the only country who had made these mistakes. -- I had hoped countries older than we are would have learned better farming practices; I am sorry to know that is not true.

Margaret Adamson said...

I ecko th words of David the commentator above and your photographs are excellent. I do not ssee these birs nowadays often enough and it is always special when I do see them Sad about the decline. Will we ever learn!!!!

Purfylle said...

Economic progress has a lot to answer for in regards to declining bird populations here as wels. It's a sad tale repeated all over the planet.

Breathtaking said...

Hello Phil!:) Beautiful pictures of the Yellowhammer, but so called progress has had a devastating effect on the decline of wildlife, and I'm sorry to learn about these pretty little birds are so rarely seen in there native home these days.

Maria Gagliano said...

What a sweet little bird!

likeschocolate said...

What a gorgeous bird! Have a great week!

Gayle venturesinphotos said...

A new bird for me and a pretty one.

Judy Biggerstaff said...

I see why you like the yellowhammer. Gorgeous bird, love his coloring and as always beautiful pics. Thanks for sharing.

Christian Perrin said...

Very interesting but sad read, Phil. Surprised to hear this bird has ended up on the Endangered species list in the UK. If the situation is anything like here in Australia, governments will wring their hands, set aside money to "fully understand the situation", and stall while the population continues to crash. So aggravating!

Apparently NZ has quite a few European birds (that Acclimatisation Society must have been VERY busy back in the day!). Good to know that should I want to see any of these birds, I don't have to actually go all the way back to England :)

Adam Jones said...

A great write up Phil and very interesting indeed. A super bird, and like you, one I am seeing less and less regularly. A very sad state of affairs.

Lowcarb team member said...

Such an informative post Phil, thank you.

All the best Jan

Chris Rohrer said...

Great story and history lesson. It pisses me off. Sorry. I just get so angry. Britain? Do they not care at all about their wildlife? And I can't say much over here in the US because population growth and farming are also threatening our waterways, BUT there seems to be many eyes overseeing birds here and making sure that spaces are protected. And people do care if they are educated about what birds are around the area. I was just talking about this the other day with the staff at my job. People think our desert is empty and void of life. But after putting in new roads, buildings and now SOLAR panels, my work area has disrupted the nesting of several important birds like the hesperia subspecies of Purple Martins that only nest in our Saguaro Cactus. I came back to work and saw this gigantic solar panel nearly knocking over a saguaro nesting site. They have been there for years but do people do any research or put any thought into what they do??!!!! Oh man!

So here's the deal. When everything goes extinct in Britain and nothing is left, I will gladly return your House Sparrows, European Starlings and other introduced birds that have done QUITE well here. House Sparrows breed everyday near my house. They are at my feeders and chowing down on that food. Another one I'll send you is the Eurasian Collared-Dove:) I wish people would care more and educate themselves. We have to share this planet. I am conscious of this every day I leave my house.

Prunella Pepperpot said...

A lovely post with beautiful pictures.
I am very saddened to hear of the large decline of the Yellowhammer, when will we learn to look after what we have got.
Have a wonderful week.

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