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.
Yellowhammer perched at the top of a tree
A pair of Yellowhammers perched on a branch
Yellowhammer in the snow
Scribble Larks, Scribblers
16cm to 16.5cm
23cm to 29.5cm
25g to 36g
Male yellowhammers have a distinctive bright yellow head and belly, contrasted against a streaky olive-brown body and chestnut rump. Their tail is dark, lined with white outer feathers, which are visible in flight. Black facial markings are present around the eye and on the crown.
As summer progresses, the colouring of the male becomes more subdued, although the head remains yellow, and the reddish-brown rump is still visible.
Close up of a perched Yellowhammer
Female yellowhammers are similar to males but lack the vibrant yellow colouring on their head and belly, instead displaying a more muted streaked appearance. Tinges of yellow can be seen on the head, rather than the distinct blocks of colour seen in the male. Like males, females have a chestnut rump and black and white tails.
Juvenile yellowhammers are similar in appearance to adult females, but their plumage is duller, with heavy dark brown streaks on the belly, back and upper wings.
Yellowhammers are sparrow-sized birds. There is no real difference in body length between males and females, although males have longer wings and tails.
Yellowhammers are sometimes also referred to as scribblers or scribble larks due to the squiggly lines on their legs.
The iconic call of a yellowhammer is often likened to the phrase ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, although in males this is usually abbreviated to ‘a little bit of bread’.
Males can be heard singing from rural treetops, fence posts and other vantage points, with a series of between 5 and 12 twittering ‘zi-zi-zi-zi-zi-ziiiiiii’ notes.
Samuel Jones, XC568308. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/568308.
Seeds and grains are the most important foods in a yellowhammer’s diet, with some insects also eaten during the breeding season, to provide extra protein.
In autumn, agricultural fields offer a supply of cereal grains, particularly wheat and oats. Pine, spruce and beech seeds are eaten, as well as grapes and mistletoe berries.
Insects, particularly mayflies, springtails, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and earwigs, may also be caught, with yellowhammers almost exclusively foraging on the ground. Earthworms, woodlice, millipedes and snails are also eaten.
Baby yellowhammers are fed insects by both parents for the first week after hatching, and, after this, are introduced to seeds.
Grasslands and edges of pastureland are a good source of insect life, and busy, foraging yellowhammer parents are a common sight during the breeding season.
Seeds and grains are the most important foods to Yellowhammers
Yellowhammers thrive in mixed farming landscapes, interspersed with hedgerows, ditches and scrubland. In winter months they favour winter stubbles, overgrown scrubland and pastureland, as well as areas around livestock grain feeding stations, where they opportunistically feed on spilled animal feed.
Yellowhammers are found across a wide geographical range throughout central and Northern Europe.
The main distribution range of breeding yellowhammers extends from Spain and the UK in the west, to Greece and the Balkan states in the south, and into parts of Turkey and western Russia to the east, and throughout the Baltic states in the north.
Yellowhammers prefer rural landscapes and open countryside to built-up urban areas, and the species is less likely to be found in upland regions.
Yellowhammers are less common in northern and western England, for example in the Pennines and Highlands of Scotland, or on Scotland’s offshore islands.
Close up portrait of a Yellowhammer
Yellowhammers are on the UK’s red list as a species of concern due to the sharp decline in population numbers in recent decades.
In 2020 they were estimated to be around 700,000 breeding territories in the UK, so there are plenty of them around in the wild, but they certainly aren’t as common or widespread as they once were.
As arable farmland is the most popular habitat of yellowhammers, they are most common in regions where this is the dominant landscape, with areas such as eastern England traditionally having high concentrations.
Any areas of open countryside and fields planted with cereal crops could offer foraging opportunities for yellowhammers, so head to this kind of setting to improve your chance of a sighting.
Arable farmland is one of the best places to see Yellowhammers
The typical lifespan of a yellowhammer is approximately 3 years. However, much older yellowhammers have been reported through ringing records, including one individual that reached 11 years and 9 months.
Sparrowhawks, goshawks and hobbies are among the chief predators of yellowhammers. Their nest sites are also frequently raided by crows, jays and magpies, as well as mice, rats and other small rodents.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, offers protection to yellowhammers against being killed, injured or taken into captivity. The same Act makes it a criminal offence to knowingly damage or destroy their nest and their eggs.
Yellowhammers were placed on the Red List as a severely declining species in 2002, due to concerns over a steep decline in population.
This fall in numbers is linked to change in land use, with differing farming practices leading to a loss in suitable habitat.
Yellowhammers went extinct in the Isle of Man in 2016. Within their wider European range, yellowhammers are considered a species of least concern.
Yellowhammers are extremely vocal, and their distinctive song is familiar to many
Yellowhammers build their nests at or near to ground level, hidden in hedgerow vegetation or tucked against the base of a tree or thorny shrubbery, camouflaged by clumps of grass.
Boundary hedgerows near to ditches are preferred to woodlands. Females are primarily in charge of nest building, but males may bring additional material. Nests are made from grasses, leaves and moss, and lined with rootlets and animal hair.
Yellowhammer eggs are usually white but may be tinged with blue, purple or grey. Eggs are smooth and glossy and marked with dark violet specks. A typical yellowhammer clutch contains 3 to 5 eggs, which are incubated for 12 to 14 days by the female alone.
Yellowhammers are a monogamous species, mating for life and raising two or three broods together each year. Breeding begins in April and may continue until September.
Yellowhammer nest with eggs
At the outset of the breeding season, male yellowhammers are observed to put on aggressive displays while establishing their territories. Aggressive behaviour is most commonly observed between two males than between mixed sex pairs.
Outside of the breeding season, yellowhammers are a sociable, gregarious species, integrating into large, loose flocks with finches, sparrows and buntings and feeding on arable fields and ditches alongside farmland.
European yellowhammers usually remain in the same territories all year round, travelling short distances from their breeding grounds in winter to form larger mixed species flocks to forage together on open farmlands.
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.
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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