Saturday, 4 March 2017

Bird of the week - Yellowhammer

Here is a bird to gladden the heart in late winter.  Male yellowhammers are now starting to come into their glorious breeding plumage.  These males have very yellow breast feathers.

These males illustrate the variation in colouring.

The females and first winter males are much more subtly coloured.

The yellowhammer is Emberiza citrinella, meaning yellow bunting.  Thomas Bewick knew it as the yellow bunting - here is his engraving for A History of British Birds (1797).

Bewick wrote of the variability in colour of the yellowhammer:

He also wrote

In his day the yellowhammer was a common bird.

Like so many birds of arable farmland the yellowhammer is now in trouble and is red-listed.  It is found in lowland areas of England, eastern Wales, eastern Scotland and eastern Ireland.

But it is in decline across most of its range.

Yellowhammers are native to Europe and northern Asia.
By Jimfbleak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In the 1860s and 1870s yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand, supposedly to control insects eating crops planted by the settlers.  They were carried by ship and almost all survived the journey.  They cost 7/6 each (that's seven shillings and sixpence, or 37.5p if you are too young to know).  That's about £32 each in today's money!  Here is part of the receipt for 130 Yellow Hammers.  (They cost £48 15s 0d at the time and £4,160 in today's money so someone was obviously very keen on yellowhammers).  The shipment also included partridges, thrushes, blackbirds, goldfinches, redpolls, linnets  and starlings.

Not surprisingly the yellowhammers preferred to eat the crops and for a while were considered a pest.  You can read the story here.  Ironically yellowhammers are now faring better in New Zealand than they are in England.

Archibald Thorburn painted a pair of yellowhammers (the female looks a bit glum)

and a reed bunting with a yellowhammer.

Listen to the song of a yellowhammer here.  Listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day here.

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