Cinereous bunting (Emberiza cineracea)

French: Bruant cendré
GenusEmberiza (1)
SizeLength: 16 - 17 cm (2)
Weight20 - 25 g (2) (3)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of the least known bunting species in its range (4), the cinereous bunting is a rather drab, greyish to brownish bird with a white outer tail (2) (3) (5). Although described as a relatively featureless species, its main distinguishing character is the olive to yellow head of the male, together with the pale yellow chin and conspicuous white eye ring (2) (3). The beak is pale grey, and the legs brown (2). The female cinereous bunting is similar to the male, but darker and duller in colour, with more streaked plumage, and a trace of yellow on the throat. The juvenile has slightly browner plumage, and is even more streaked than the female (2) (3) (5).

Two subspecies of cinereous bunting are recognised, which differ mainly in the colour of the underparts, with Emberiza cineracea cineracea having a more white or grey belly, and Emberiza cineracea semenowi a brighter yellow one (2) (4). The song of the cinereous bunting is a simple, ringing, tuneful phrase of five to six notes, while the most common call is a short, metallic kjip (2) (3) (5).

E. c. cineracea breeds on the Greek islands of Skyros, Lesbos and Chios, as well as in western Turkey, while E. c. semenowi breeds in southeast Turkey and southwest Iran, as well as potentially in northern Syria and Iraq (2) (4) (6) (7). A migratory species, its winter range is poorly known, but is thought to include Yemen, Eritrea, and possibly also Ethiopia, Sudan and southwest Saudi Arabia (2) (4) (6) (8). It has also been recorded during migration through parts of the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula and Egypt (6) (7).

The cinereous bunting usually breeds on dry, rocky slopes and uplands with shrubby vegetation and sometimes scattered conifers, although it usually avoids arid areas, and has also been recorded using more lushly vegetated slopes at lower elevations. Migrating individuals may use lowland desert or agricultural land, and in its winter range the species is found in dry, open country, such as semi-desert or coastal plains (2) (4) (6) (8).

The cinereous bunting is reported to migrate at night, usually arriving in its breeding grounds in early April, and breeding from April to May. The nest is built on the ground, often positioned against a rock and partially concealed by overhanging vegetation, and is constructed from stalks, leaves and grass-heads, and lined with rootlets and hair. The male may use trees, rocks or even powerlines as regular posts from which to sing (2) (4).

Little else is known about the biology of the cinereous bunting. Around three eggs are laid, which are white to pale greyish-blue, with darker streaks. The species is thought to feed mainly on small seeds, as well as small invertebrates such as insects, spiders and snails, with invertebrates probably making up more of the diet during the breeding season (2) (3) (4). After breeding, the cinereous bunting leaves for its wintering grounds from July onwards (4).

The cinereous bunting has a small and declining population with a fairly limited range, with over 90 percent of the population thought to breed in Turkey. The main threat to the species is habitat conversion and degradation, as a result of changes in grazing pressure by sheep and goats, flooding due to dam construction, development and urbanisation, increasing tourism development, and agricultural intensification (4) (6) (7). Climate change may also result in further habitat changes in the future (4).

The cinereous bunting is legally protected in Greece and Turkey (4) (6), and one of the breeding sites on Lesbos is partially protected as a Natural Monument and Wildlife Refuge (6). The cinereous bunting is also listed under various European legislation (9) (10), and in 2003 an international action plan was published for the species, which aimed to improve knowledge of its population and distribution, and to conserve its habitats (4). The cinereous bunting’s potential winter distribution has been modelled, providing a starting point for further field surveys (7) (8), and other recommended conservation measures for this bunting include developing a monitoring programme to assess population trends, and working to raise public awareness and support (4) (6).

To find out more about the cinereous bunting see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2009)
  2. 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.
  3. Perrins, C. (1987) New Generation Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  4. Albayrak, T., Gursoy, A. and Kirwan, G.M. (2003) International Action Plan for the Cinereous Bunting (Emberiza cineracea). BirdLife International and Council of Europe, Strasbourg.
  5. Jonsson, L. (1982) Birds of the Mediterranean and Alps. Croom Helm, London.
  6. BirdLife International (July, 2009)
  7. Walther, B.A. (2006) The winter distribution and habitat use of the near-threatened cinereous bunting Emberiza cineracea. Sandgrouse, 28: 52 - 57.
  8. Walther, B.A., Wisz, M.S. and Rahbek, C. (2004) Known and predicted African winter distributions and habitat use of the endangered Basra reed warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) and the near-threatened cinereous bunting (Emberiza cineracea). Journal of Ornithology, 145: 287 - 299.
  9. EC Birds Directive (July, 2009)
  10. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (July, 2009)