Ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana)

French: Bruant Ortolan
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusEmberiza (1)
SizeLength: 16 cm (2)
Weight18 - 30 g (2)

The ortolan buting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The shy ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana) can be distinguished from other buntings by its pinkish-beige underparts and pale yellow throat (3). A narrow yellow ring surrounds each eye of the ortolan bunting and it has a small pink bill (2) (3). The stout, conical bill is adapted for crushing and taking the husks off seeds (4).

The male ortolan bunting has an olive green head and chest, and a dark brown back decorated with black streaks. The female is similar in appearance to the male, just a little drabber (3). Juvenile ortolan buntings have darker and streakier plumage than the adults (3).

The ortolan bunting has a slow, soft, variable song comprised of around seven clear notes with the final note substantially higher or lower than the previous (3).

The ortolan bunting’s breeding range stretches from Spain to western Mongolia (5). It migrates to Africa, as far south as Ethiopia and Uganda, for winter (2) (6).

The ortolan bunting occurs in warm, dry, open habitats with sparse vegetation (7). In northern and central Europe, the ortolan bunting favours agricultural land (7) with sparsely vegetated spots for feeding and perching (8), while in the Mediterranean parts of its range it occurs in rugged, gully-strewn countryside up to at least 2,000 metres (8). Little is known about the wintering habitat of this species (9).

Seeds form the substantial part of the diet of the ortolan bunting, which it easily crushes and husks using its stout bill (4). The ortolan bunting also feeds on small invertebrates which, as with seeds, it forages for on the ground (8).

A monogamous bird (4) (10), the ortolan bunting breeds in April. After forming pairs, a nest is built on the ground, hidden under shrubbery (10). Incubation of the eggs is predominantly carried out by the female while the male acts as a sentinel, protecting the nest from potential harm (10). Hatching of the eggs coincides with an increase in insect abundance, upon which the chicks can be fed (10).

In September, following breeding, the ortolan bunting returns to Africa, seeking out warmer climates before the onset of winter in Europe (2).

The ortolan bunting was once an extremely popular French delicacy associated with a very peculiar custom. Once captured, the ortolan bunting was kept in a darkened room and force-fed oats before being drowned in Armagnac, roasted, and eaten whole while the diner wears a napkin over their head. Despite hunting of the ortolan bunting being banned in Europe since 1998, hunting still continues in France, with up to 50,000 birds thought to be poached each year, primarily in Landes, a region of south-west France (11) (12).

A more severe threat to the ortolan bunting is the loss and degradation of its habitat, as a result of increased urbanisation and a change in agricultural practices (8) (13). This has not only disturbed breeding birds, but has also reduced the number of suitable nesting sites and food availability (8). As a result, ortolan bunting populations are declining across most, if not all, of its European range (8).

The ortolan bunting is protected under Annex I of the European Union Birds Directive, meaning it is prohibited to hunt or sell this bird and that member states should take measures to ensure its conservation, such as protection of its habitat (8). Despite it being illegal to hunt and sell the ortolan bunting, it is not illegal to eat one, and poaching of this bird sadly continues (12).

Learn more about bird conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Hume, R. (1997) The Shell Easy Bird Guide. Macmillan, London.
  3. Peterson, R.T., Mountford, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  4. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopaedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Yousef, R. and Tyjanowski, P. (2002) Differential spring migration of ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana by sex and age Eilat, Israel. Ornis Fennica, 79: 173-180.
  6. Birdlife International (November, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/
  7. Menz, M.H.M., Brotons, L. and Arlettaz, R. (2009) Habitat selection by ortolan buntings Emberiza hortulana in post-fire succession in Catalonia: implications for the conservation of farmland populations. Ibis, 151: 752-761.
  8. Wildlife and Sustainable Farming Initiative (2009) Ortalan Bunting, Emberiza hortulana Factsheet. EU Wildlife and Sustainable Farming Project, European Commission, Brussels. Available at:
    http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/management/best_practice_en.htm
  9. Menz, M.H.M., Mosimann-Kampe, P. and Arlettaz, R. (2009) Foraging habitat selection in the last ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana population in Switzerland: final lessons before extinction. Ardea, 97(3): 323-333.
  10. Dale, S. and Olsen, B.F.G. (2002) Use of farmland by ortolan buntings (Emberiza hortulana) nesting on a burned forest areafrom. Journal für Ornithologie, 143: 133-144.
  11. Caro, M. (2009) The Fois Gras Wars. Simon and Schuster, New York.      
  12. Mount, H. (2010) The songbirds slaughtered for a Frenchman’s supper. Daily Mail, 7 September. Available at:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-1309634/The-songbirds-slaughtered-Frenchmans-supper.html
  13. Vepsalainen, V., Pakkala, T., Piha, M. and Tiainen, J. (2005) Population crash of the ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana in agricultural landscapes of southern Finland. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 42: 91-107.