Reed buntings are resident birds found throughout much of the UK. They breed at wetlands, nesting in waterside vegetation, but sightings during the rest of the year are increasingly common on farmland and even in back gardens in winter months.
Female Reed bunting on the ground
Reed Bunting (male) perched on a reed
Common Reed Bunting
Common Reed Bunting, Reed Sparrow, Fen Sparrow
15cm to 16.5cm
21cm to 28cm
16g to 25g
During the breeding season, male reed buntings have a distinctive black head, which makes them fairly easy to give a confident positive identification. They are sparrow-sized birds, and have mid-brown upperparts, and a lighter breast and belly, streaked along the flanks with brown speckles.
The breeding male reed bunting’s black head is punctuated by a bold, white moustache stripe, and a partial white band is visible between the black head markings and the brown nape and back. A small black bib is present below the black bill. The tail is black with white edges visible in flight.
Outside of the breeding season, males become less conspicuous, with their glossy black head feathers replaced with a streaky grey-brown plumage, with some dark facial stripes, a grey-brown nape, and an altogether paler overall appearance.
Reed bunting in breeding plumage
Reed bunting in non-breeding plumage
Female Reed Buntings resemble non-breeding males all year round, but have a white-grey nape, a broader, pale eye-stripe and dark cheek stripe, and are more heavily streaked on their breast and belly.
Juvenile reed buntings are similar to adult females, but have a chestnut-brown crown that is marked by wide dark streaking and a dark facial stripe. Their upperparts are mottled shades of yellow and buff, streaked with darker markings. Their breast, belly and flanks are paler, and spotted heavily with dark brown.
Female reed bunting
Reed buntings are roughly the same size as house sparrows, and there is little or no difference between the average measurement range for males and females for this species.
Reed buntings are a similar size to House sparrows
Male reed buntings can be heard in song, perched at the top of reeds or bushes. Songs consist of a series of repeated simple buzzing notes that sound like “srrit srrit srrit srrururu”.
Reed buntings forage on the ground and also in low vegetation. Their diet varies according to the season, with insects and invertebrates being of chief importance when breeding, and seeds and other plant matter dominating for the rest of the year.
Invertebrates commonly foraged for include spiders, caterpillars, beetles, larvae, dragonflies, mayflies, ticks and crustaceans.Most popular seeds are those from birch, spruce, alder and nettle.
Until they fledge, the diet of a young reed bunting is solely made up of spiders and small insects. Both parents feed young until they leave the nest, between 9 and 12 days after hatching.
Female Reed Bunting gathering insects for hungry chicks in the nest
Reed buntings are mostly found in lowland areas, breeding at marshlands, wetlands, bogs, riverbanks, and floodplains. They nest in wetland landscapes with rich and dense vegetation.
In winter months, close proximity to water is less of a necessity, and reed buntings spread to farmlands, cultivated fields, open pastures and weedy scrubland. They may also occasionally visit gardens in winter.
There are 19 recognized subspecies of reed bunting, and their collective distribution range spreads across the whole of northern and central Europe and much of Asia, except extreme north-eastern Russia and South Asia.
Wintering grounds for migratory reed buntings that breed in the far north, for example Norway, Sweden and Finland, are located along the coast of North Africa and into south-west Turkey.
The European population of reed buntings was estimated at nearly 5 million pairs at the end of the 20th century. Countries with the largest numbers of reed buntings include Sweden, Poland, Norway, Germany and European Russia. Up to 275,000 pairs are estimated to live in the UK.
Reed bunting in its natural habitat
Reed bunting numbers have declined in the UK since the 1970s, although there are around 275,000 breeding pairs resident all year round.
Sightings in wetland landscapes, particularly in southern lowland regions, are not especially rare, and their distinctive black head markings makes them easier to pick out among the marshland vegetation than many other bird species that share their habitat.
Reed buntings are present throughout the UK all year round, with the exception of the most remote Scottish highlands, where they are occasional spring and summer visitors.
Open farmlands offer a good chance of a sighting in winter months, where reed buntings can be seen foraging for seeds on the ground of cultivated and overgrown fields.
Reed bunting in flight
Reed buntings have a typical life expectancy of around 3 years, breeding for the first time at one year. The oldest recorded reed bunting was a ringed individual of 9 years 11 months.
The low-level nest sites used by breeding reed buntings leave them vulnerable to predation by crows, magpies, jays, foxes, sparrowhawks and marsh harriers.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, offers protection to wild reed buntings, meaning it’s an offence to knowingly kill, injure or capture one. Reed buntings have also been named as a priority species in the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework legislation.
The UK population of reed buntings fell by over 30 percent between 1970 and 2007, but has since experienced a slight recovery.
This decline, caused by loss of wetland habitats and a decline in the availability of farmland food sources, led to the species being added to the Amber category on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Across the wider European distribution range of the species, further decline has been noted, but reed buntings continue to be rated as Least Concern species.
Close up of a juvenile Reed Bunting
Female reed buntings build neatly woven cup-shaped nests close to or on the ground, using grasses, twigs, sedge, mosses, and lined with softer grasses and sometimes animal fur.
Nests are concealed at the bases of a clump of vegetation, shrubbery or behind a reedy tussock, or less frequently off the ground in a bush or shrub.
Reed buntings raise up to two broods per season, each consisting of 4 to 5 olive-grey eggs, marked with dark brown scrawlings. Eggs measure around 20 mm to 15 mm (0.7 in to 0.6 in) and are incubated by both the male and the female for between 12 and 15 days.
Observations indicate that most reed buntings are monogamous for the duration of a breeding season, but find a new mate each year. However, some evidence of polygamous pairings do exist.
Reed bunting nest with eggs inside
Reed bunting feeding young chicks in the nest
Rather than being physically aggressive, reed buntings rely on vocally defending their territories and nest sites from intruders, using a three-note call to assert their claim to a particular patch.
During winter months, large communal roosts of reed buntings may gather in some areas and also forage as part of mixed species flocks, which also may include yellowhammers and corn buntings.
Female reed bunting
Reed buntings that breed in the northernmost regions of their range are likely to migrate further south once they have raised their broods, returning to the same nesting territories the following year.
In regions where temperatures fall below 0 degrees, it’s likely that migration will occur in the autumn. Where a region’s minimum average temperatures are 5 degrees C or above, most populations of reed buntings remain there all year round.
With the exception of the extreme rocky highlands of northern Scotland, reed buntings are a resident species across the UK and can be seen all year round. In winter, resident populations may be joined by migrant reed buntings from northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
Close up of a male Reed Bunting, perched on a reed
Reed Buntings are relatively rare visitors to gardens, but still do visit them from time to time, particularly towards the end of March.
Once arable fields have been prepared for the season ahead, they become less important as a food source for foraging reed buntings, who need to find alternative feeding grounds and some back gardens stocked with a variety of seeds temporarily become an attractive prospect.
Farmland with crops such as oilseed rape, kale and quinoa will attract foraging reed buntings during winter months. A diverse range of insect life is also important, particularly during the breeding season.
Reed buntings may occasionally show up in a back garden, particularly in spring, where they will take black sunflower seeds and white millet.
Although the name would suggest otherwise, reed buntings can be found across a whole host of habitats. These birds have recently utilised drier habitats like farm hedgerows and grassy sand dunes, and it's thought to be potentially down to the loss of some of their more ideal damper habitats.
The full scientific name given is Emberiza schoeniclus.
The specific part of the name, schoeniclus, is derived from the ancient Greek word skhoiniklos, which was a word used by Greek authors for an unidentified bird.
The genus, Emberiza, which has more than 40 different seed-eating species is confined to the Old World.
A large member of the bunting family, the Yellowhammer is best known as a farmland bird. The bright yellow head of the male, combined with its high-pitched twittering whistle, makes it stand out against countryside hedgerows and freshly ploughed fields.
Lapland longspurs, known as Lapland buntings in the UK, breed on Arctic tundras, and head south in search of milder habitats in winter months, settling temporarily across much of the United States, around the coasts of England and Scotland, and throughout Europe.
There are forty five different species of Old World Buntings, which are predominantly European seed eating birds similar to finches and are related to American Sparrows. Of the forty five different species, forty fall within the genus of Emberiza. The corn bunting is generally classed within this genus and is monotypic.
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