Black-headed bunting (Emberiza melanocephala)

GenusEmberiza (1)
SizeLength: 16 - 18 cm (2)
Male wingspan: 89 - 102 cm (2)
Female wingspan: 82 - 94 cm (2)
Weight24 - 33 g (3)

The black-headed bunting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The breeding plumage of the male black-headed bunting (Emberiza melanocephala) makes it a very distinctive bird, with a uniformly black head and tail that contrasts with its bright yellow throat and underside (3) (4). The upperparts are red-brown and the wings are black with pale buff margins (4). The non-breeding male is much duller, with the feather fringes around the head and upperparts suffused grey-brown (3). The male always retains darker feathers over the ears and on the lores between the eyes and bill, which are not as prominent in the female (2) (3).

The female black-headed bunting is more indistinct than the male. The head and upperparts of the female are sandy-brown, with a dark streaked pattern (2) which continues onto the sides of the body (3). The upperparts may sometimes have a slightly red-brown tint, which is most vivid on the rump (4). The underparts are unstreaked (4) and vary in colour between white, buff and yellow, with a yellow area under the tail (2), while the throat, breast and belly are also tinged yellow (3). The eyes of the black-headed bunting are brown in both sexes and the dark grey bill is fairly straight and bulbous with a sharp tip (3).

The juvenile black-headed bunting is not dissimilar to the female in appearance, with a buff-coloured crown, suffused with dark spots at the back of the head. The throat, rump and mantle are golden-buff, with heavy streaking on the upperparts. The belly and sides of the juvenile are paler in colouration, contrasting with yellow on the underside of the tail (2).

The black-headed bunting produces a wide range of vocalisations, especially on its breeding grounds (2). The male sings throughout the day in breeding season, usually from an elevated area (5). The rather pleasurable song is a musical ‘chit’ or ‘sitt’, developing into a ‘siit siit siiteree-siit-siiteeray’ (4).

The black-headed bunting is migratory and has an extremely large range. Its breeding grounds are situated along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, including Slovenia in the north and Albania and Italy in the south, as well as the Middle East and Iran in the east. The northern-most areas for breeding include Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia (2) (6).

The black-headed bunting’s wintering grounds are located in central and western India (2) (5).

The black-headed bunting is found in open areas with scattered vegetation, such as wooded steppe, fields, orchards and other cultivated areas, where there is low vegetation to nest in (2) (4) (5). It is usually found at low elevations, although it has been known to occur up to elevations of 2,000 metres (2) (5). 

Breeding typically begins around mid-May, with the black-headed bunting laying a clutch of three to five, occasionally up to seven, pale green-blue eggs. The incubation of the eggs takes between 10 and 16 days, with the young fledging the nest after 14 to 16 days. The black-headed bunting usually constructs its nest less than one metre from the ground in a shrub, vine or against thistle stems, or occasionally on the ground. The nest is made of stalks, grass and leaves, sometimes decorated with bright flower heads, and is lined with fine grass, hair and sheep’s wool (2) (5).

While in the nest, the young are fed a diet of invertebrates such as crickets and beetles (2), and are usually cared for by the female (5). The diet of the adult black-headed bunting consists primarily of grass seeds and cereal grains, although during the breeding season invertebrates such as beetles, wasps, crickets and insect larvae may also be taken (2) (5).

A strong flier (5), the black-headed bunting migrates from the breeding grounds between late July and early August, arriving on its Indian wintering grounds around late August and September. During this period, adults undergo a partial moult of breeding plumage. A complete moult occurs on arrival at the wintering grounds. A gregarious species, the black-headed bunting migrates in flocks that can contain anywhere between 10 and 50 individuals (2).

There has been a decline in black-headed bunting populations in areas where land has been converted for agricultural purposes. The hedges and scrub used for nesting and roosting are often destroyed, leaving very little suitable habitat. Pesticide use is also linked to reduced black-headed bunting populations in certain areas. Despite being under threat, this species is still common and not thought to be at any risk of extinction (2).

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the black-headed bunting.

Find out more about the black-headed bunting:

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  1.  IUCN Red List (January, 2011)
  2. Byers, C., Olsson, U. and Curson, J. (1995) Buntings and Sparrows: A Guide to the Buntings and North American Sparrows. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  3. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  4. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  5. Cramp, S. and Perrins, C.M. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Volume IX: Buntings and New World Warblers. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. BirdLife International - Black-headed bunting (January, 2012)