The prolonged song of the male corn bunting, resembling nothing so much as the jangling of a bunch of keys, was once a far more familiar sound. This bird, the largest of UK's native buntings, is a fairly plain brown coloured bird, easily overlooked when compared to its more colourful relatives. The song is delivered from a perch, sometimes quite close to the ground. In short flights, corn buntings tend to fly with their legs hanging down, a feature that can help with identification in the field.
Male corn buntings have a colourful sex life, and individuals have been known to mate with as many as 18 different females in a single breeding season. The male plays no part in incubating the eggs but does sometimes help with feeding the young. Three to five eggs are laid between late May and July, in a nest of dried grass built by the female in arable crops or rough grassy margins. The young are fed on insects, and the birds may produce two broods in the season, although one is more usual. Whilst adult corn buntings are primarily seedeaters, like many other seed-eating birds, they feed their young on invertebrates. They take weed seeds, as well as cereal.
Although common in southern Europe, the corn bunting is declining throughout its northern range. This is especially true in the UK, where it has suffered a 76% decline in its breeding population between 1968 and 1991. The breeding range extends from Orkney and the Outer Hebrides to southern and eastern England, but its distribution is patchy and it is now uncommon or absent from many areas.
This is a lowland bird of open arable and mixed farmland. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) estimated that in the early 1990's there were only 20,000 breeding territories in the UK, highlighting the extent by which species has declined.
The corn bunting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), as amended, Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and EC Birds Directive.
The corn bunting has probably declined due to changes in farming practices, especially the reduction in mixed farming. Extensive use of pesticides has reduced the numbers of arable weed species, an important food source for the adults, and insects, vital for rearing chicks. The switch from spring to autumn-sown cereals and consequent loss of weeds and stubbles, is probably a vital cause of the population drop, as it has led to the loss of both nesting and feeding habitats.
The corn bunting is listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UKBAP), and included in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme (SRP). There is no evidence that set-aside has helped improve the numbers of corn buntings, as they have continued to decline, since set-aside was compulsorily introduced in 1993. Agri-environmental schemes, such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) provide the best hope of improving the quality of the corn bunting's farmland habitat.
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.
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