Female Reed Buntings: A Complete Guide

Reed buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus) are beautiful little birds. Long considered part of the finch family, buntings are now considered a species in their own right. With reed bunting numbers on the rise in the UK and Europe, we thought we would have a look at the female reed bunting below. Is there a difference between a female and male reed bunting? And, if so, what are the differences?

Female reed buntings are often mostly brown in colour, with a few streaks of black and dark brown throughout their plumage. The males have flecks of red on their wing feathers and striking black hats. The female's plumage is much duller than the males. They also lack the black cap of the males, which is a good indicator of the sexes.

It can be tricky to tell a female reed bunting apart from a male just by their feathers alone as they are very close in colour. As we'll see, though, the females have certain differences that can help us tell the sexes apart.

Female reed buntings make the nests by themselves. This is very common with birds. So, if you see a reed bunting with nesting material in its beak, it is highly likely that it is a female.

Female Common Reed Bunting on the ground

Female Common Reed Bunting on the ground

What is the difference between a male and female Reed Bunting?

The most apparent difference between male and female reed buntings is that females lack the black cap on the top of the head. The back and wing feathers are generally also duller than those of the male.

A male reed bunting has a black cap and chin that the female doesn't. The male also has brighter feathers across its back and wings than the female. They have a slightly red, orange, brown colour going on. The females have much duller feathers, with a few streaks of darker browns running through them.

There are also behavioural differences between female and male reed buntings. For example, the female reed bunting will make the nest alone. So, during the breeding season, they'll often be seen with twigs, moss, hair and feathers in their mouth.

Male reed bunting

Male Reed Bunting

Female reed bunting perched

Female Reed Bunting

What does a female Reed Bunting look like?

A female reed bunting has a much duller plumage than a male. The male also sports a black cap and chin, which the female doesn't. While the female reed bunting does have some flecks of dark brown running through their feathers, their colourings are not as pronounced as the males.

Close up of a perched female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Close up of a perched female Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

What does the female Reed Bunting winter plumage look like?

The female reed bunting is quite similar to the male in the winter. Still, the female has a much more defined eye stripe than the male. This strip is a lighter brown than the rest of the feathers on her head. Her back is also a more creamy colour than the males.

So, when you see a reed bunting in the winter, look out for the eye stripe. It is a clear indicator of whether it is female or male.

Male Reed Buntings in winter plumage look much more similar to females

Male Reed Buntings in winter plumage look much more similar to females

Behaviour differences

During the nesting season of the reed bunting, the females will build the nest. This is because the males are keen to establish a breeding territory and has many other females to attract. So, each female will construct their nest alone. You will often see females carrying nesting material during this time.

The female reed bunting also sits on the eggs by herself, with the males bringing food back to the nest as often as they can. So, during the breeding season, female reed buntings don't venture out of the nest too often. Once the eggs have hatched, though, both parents will bring food back to the nest, so females will become more visible as the breeding season moves along.

Female Reed Bunting feeding on seeds

Female Reed Bunting feeding on seeds

Singing and calls

Female and male reed buntings have very similar songs and calls. However, the males are much noisier than the females. This is particularly true during the breeding season when the male is establishing a breeding territory. He will sing and call to attract females and keep males away.

For much of the breeding season, if you hear a reed bunting call, it is most likely to be a male.

Common Reed Bunting female with spread wings

Common Reed Bunting female with spread wings

Nesting and feeding

When it comes to nesting, reed buntings split the duties. The female goes off and builds a nest, and the male establishes a breeding territory. During this time, you'll often see female reed buntings with nesting materials in their beaks, and the males will be singing their song, attracting more females and keeping other males away.

Once the egg-laying begins (in early May), you won't see much of the female. This is because she is keeping her eggs warm and protecting them. The male will often visit the nest and provide food for the female and likely ask how everything is going. Once the chicks hatch, both parents come together again to provide food for the young.

Female Reed Bunting sat on her nest

Female Reed Bunting sat on her nest

Can female Reed Buntings raise young alone?

Female reed buntings do build their nests alone, while the male is off having a pint with his friends. They also protect their eggs and keep the eggs warm by themselves. However, the male does bring food to the female during this time. The egg-laying process takes a lot of energy out of the female reed bunting, and they do need the male to provide them with food throughout the early days of protecting the eggs.

While the male reed bunting doesn't play too much of a role in building the nest or caring for the unhatched chicks, he does help the female with food during the early days.

While it wouldn't be impossible for a female to raise young alone, it would be difficult with the male providing her with food while she kept the eggs warm. If there was a good food source close to the nest, though, a solo female would stand a fair chance of raising young by herself, should anything happen to the male.

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