The cirl bunting (Emberiza cirlus) is slightly smaller than the more familiar yellowhammer, having a smaller bill and shorter, more rounded wings. Male birds have chestnut brown upperparts and a distinctive black and yellow facial mask. Females are rather drab in comparison, and can easily be overlooked. The song is a monotonous jingle, usually delivered from an exposed perch.
In March cirl buntings begin to pair up and start prospecting for nest sites. Once a territory has been selected the birds will occupy it until the end of the summer. The nest is concealed in a hedge or in a gorse or bramble bush and the first egg is laid in early May. The young hatch after two weeks and, if conditions allow, there may be a second or even a third brood.
The young are fed almost entirely on insects, and chiefly grasshoppers in later broods. It is therefore important that there are insect-rich grasslands close to the nest to ensure that the chicks fledge successfully. The adult birds feed primarily on seeds but also take invertebrates.
Cirl buntings were first recognised as a British breeding bird in 1801. They slowly colonised the south of England and by the 1930s had become a common bird south of the Thames Estuary. However, since then their numbers have declined and there was a catastrophic crash in their population in the 1960s. By 1989 their range had decreased by 83 percent and only 118 pairs nested. In recent years, cirl buntings have increased to around 450 pairs but the population is still restricted to a small area in south Devon.
Chiefly a bird of farmland, the cirl bunting favours stubble fields in winter - especially barley - weedy fallows and rough pasture. The birds form small flocks, which usually forage within easy reach of cover such as a hedgerow. Cirl buntings also visit gardens and will even feed from bird tables in winter when alternative food sources are scarce.
The cirl bunting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) as amended, listed under Schedule 1 of the EC Birds Directive, and Appendix II of the Bern Convention.
The rapid decline of the cirl bunting was almost certainly due to changes in farming practices in lowland Britain. The RSPB carried out research in the late 1980s and concluded that key factors included the change from spring to autumn-sown barley which led to the loss of winter weed and stubble fields, important feeding sites for the birds. Agricultural improvement of grassland has lead to a reduction in the insect food needed by the chicks, and removal of hedgerows and scrub from field edges has also resulted in a loss of food sources as well as reducing favoured nesting habitats.
The cirl bunting is listed as a priority species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP), and included in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme. The RSPB and English Nature launched the Cirl Bunting Species Recovery Project in 1995, which has two main objectives. The first aim was for a continued increase in the breeding population; the second was to increase the range of the population beyond its current limits. This is being implemented by encouraging sympathetic management within the cirl bunting's current range through liasing with farmers, and implementing appropriate land management measures such as DEFRA's Countryside Stewardship Scheme. These measures are now being extended to other suitable areas in the south-west.
The recovery project's success has relied on co-operation and goodwill between the conservation bodies and the local landowners. Cirl bunting numbers have continued to rise but the bird's status in the UK will remain precarious while the population is restricted to one small area.
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