Reed Bunting

Emberiza schoeniclus

Sparrow-sized and common in wetlands with reedbeds. Males are highly distinctive in their breeding plumage.

Other names:

Common Reed Bunting, Reed Sparrow, Fen Sparrow

Reed Bunting

Family:

Buntings

Length:

15cm to 16.5cm

Wingspan:

21cm to 28cm

Weight:

16g to 25g

What does a Reed Bunting look like?

The adult male in breeding plumage is straightforward to identify, with a distinctive blackish throat and head. Both the neck collar and sub-moustachial stripe are white and stand out against the dark head and throat. Underparts are mainly a dirty white colour but can be highly variable and sometimes have variable streaking on the breast and flanks. The back is brown and has dark streaking. The tails are deeply notched and are mainly blackish-brown and have white on the tail edges.

Adult males in non-breeding plumage has a buff coloured chin and whiteish throat and a grey-ish brown head with a pattern that is hidden due to the fringes of these new feathers. The tail and wings are mainly the same as in the breeding plumage, with all other upperparts being slightly paler. The eyebrow or supercilium is buffy white.

Female reed buntings in breeding plumage are extremely similar to the non-breeding plumage of males but have paler napes. The flanks and breasts have dark streaking. Bills are a dark colour.

Females in breeding plumage are similar to their breeding plumage but tend to have some differences in the pattern of the crown.

The sturdy, seed-eater bill of a reed bunting is small and mainly a dark colour. The eyes are a deep reddish-brown and the legs and feet pinkish-brown.

Juveniles are very similar to the plumage of female birds, although the crown has harsher dark streaking and is more of a chestnut colour. Upperparts have dark spotting and streaking and are mainly buff coloured. The flanks are spotted and the breast has high streaking.

Reed bunting in breeding plumage

Reed bunting in breeding plumage

Reed bunting in non-breeding plumage

Reed bunting in non-breeding plumage

How big is a Reed Bunting?

Reed buntings are a similar size to sparrows, although they can have a quite varied body and bill sizes. For a bunting, they are considered to be fairly large.

They are usually between 14 and 16.5cm (5.5 - 6.5 inches) in length. On average, the wingspan is 24cm (9.4 inches).

How much does a Reed Bunting weigh?

In central Europe, the average weight for the common reed bunting is between 10 and 28g (0.35 - 1 ounces).

How many subspecies of Reed Buntings are there?

There are 19 different sub-species recognised of the reed bunting, which mostly occur across Europe.

There is some variation between the subspecies, mainly the size and bill size of the bird. The plumages do vary slightly too, but little is known about the full extent of the variation.

Female reed bunting

Female reed bunting

What is the scientific name of a Reed Bunting?

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.

How long do Reed Buntings live for?

The average lifespan is around 3 years. The maximum age recorded from ringing was 9 years, 11 months and 18 days (set in 1978).

Are Reed Buntings rare or endangered?

Reed Buntings are fairly common throughout their range. There is an estimated minimum of 4,800,000 pairs across the population in Europe. They are currently listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN List which means they are not globally threatened. Back in 2004, there was thought to be a total population of between 29,400,000 and 106,000,000 individuals.

In the UK, there is estimated to be a breeding population of over 275,000 birds, but they are on the amber list for conservation. This is because there has been a decline in the recent breeding population, recent winter population decline, recent breeding range decline and recent winter range decline. They have historically been listed on the red list in the UK, but there has been data in recent years to suggest that numbers are slightly improving and stabilising.

There have also been declines reported in Norway, Germany and Sweden, but nothing for great concern at this current time. Other populations throughout Europe are currently stable.

The slight decline is thought to be down to be a mixture of the drainage of wetlands and the increased use of pesticides in cultivated areas - this is where birds will feed after the breeding season.

Estimated populations by key range countries:

  • 650,000 in Sweden
  • 530,000 in Poland
  • 420,000 in Norway
  • 400,000 in Germany
  • 316,000 in European Russia
  • 275,000 in the UK
Reed bunting in flight

Reed bunting in flight

What do Reed Buntings eat?

The diet varies depending on the time of year. During the breeding season, mainly invertebrates are consumed, which mostly are spiders and beetles, but also including grasshoppers, flies, ticks, snails, dragonflies, mayflies. This does vary across the range. Outside of the breeding season, mainly seeds and other plant material is consumed.

During the cold season, Reed Buntings will often be seen in gardens at seed feeders as the lack of natural seeds can become sparse. This is because, after the breeding season in late summer, they switch to mainly a seed diet.

Most of the foraging is done on the ground and in low vegetation. Whilst breeding, they tend to forage on their own or in pairs. Outside of the breeding season, they will forage in small groups and occasionally form flocks of up to 200 individuals - sometimes even more.

Do Reed Buntings mate for life?

Reed Buntings are mainly monogamous, although polygyny has been reported in some areas.

Where do Reed Buntings nest?

Nests are usually built on either the ground or on the base of a shrub (sometimes up to 4m high in the shrub). Females build the nests on their own out of a mixture of twigs, grass, reed stems and moss. They are then lined with moss, hair, finer stems of plants and reed flowers.

The breeding season is usually between April and the end of August but varied depending on the latitude and altitude.

Reed bunting feeding young in nest

Reed bunting feeding young in nest

How many eggs does a Reed Bunting lay?

One to three clutches of 4-5 eggs are laid each year.

Incubation duties are shared between both parents for a period of usually 13 days. Once hatched, the chicks are fed by both parents. The fledgling period is between 12 and 14 days.

What do Reed Bunting eggs look like?

The eggs are anywhere from olive-grey to light purple colour and have occasional fine lines and dark spotting. On average, the eggs are 20 x 15mm and weigh 2.2g.

The eggs of a reed bunting in a nest

The eggs of a reed bunting in a nest

What does a Reed Bunting sound like?

The song is usually a short, repetitive succession of either 'sripp srip sriia srrissriisrii' or 'zrrit zrrit zrrit zrrururu' notes. The song is mainly sung from the top of bushes and reeds and usually displays vibrating wings and flicking of the tail.

The standard contact call is a falling pitched 'siuu'.

Singing usually starts anywhere from mid-March to establish territories.

Common Reed Bunting Song

Irish Wildlife Sounds, XC667910. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/667910.

What is the habitat of a Reed Bunting?

Reed buntings predominately prefer marshy areas with scrubby growth around reeds. They can also be found in wetlands, fens, bogs, inland waters and riversides - any of these places with tall herbage is preferred.

The generally preferred habitat is anywhere with dense vegetation growth and humid soil. The habitat is mostly similar during the winter but can also be found on farmland and woody areas (sometimes away from water).

In some parts of the UK and Europe, they can be found in gardens and can become resident visitors if plenty of seed is available.

After the breeding season, reed buntings become quite gregarious and form small groups or flocks where they will roost together at night. This is usually in an extensive stand of rushes nearby to water.

Female reed bunting

Female reed bunting

Do Reed Buntings only live in reedbeds?

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.

Where do Reed Buntings live?

Reed Buntings are mostly common across most parts of Europe and notably in places like the UK, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Poland and European Russia.

Juvenile reed bunting

Juvenile reed bunting

Where can I see Reed Buntings in the UK?

Reed Buntings are residents in the UK and can be found all over the country all year round. They are mainly farmland and wetland birds and are typically found in wet vegetation.

Do Reed Buntings migrate?

Birds in the southern range are mainly resident or will only make short movements. Birds in the northern part of their range (Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, Northern Japan, China and Ukraine) are mostly migratory. The only time they tend to stay within their range is when winters are less harsh.

It is thought that birds in breeding territories that are mostly above 5 degrees Celcius are mainly residents, and birds in areas below freezing are migratory.

Similar birds to a Reed Bunting

Other birds in the Buntings family