Reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

GenusEmberiza (1)
SizeLength: 15-16 cm (2)

The reed bunting is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, and Appendix II of the Bern Convention. Protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (3).

The reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) is a sparrow-sized bird with a long notched tail. Both sexes have reddish-brown upperparts with dark streaks, and pale creamy-white underparts with brown streaks. In the breeding season, males can be identified by their black head, white collar and a characteristic 'moustache' (2). The song is a series of high-pitched notes or a characteristic 'seeoo' produced whilst perching on a reed or bush (2).

The reed bunting is distributed throughout the UK, but is not as common in the uplands and the far north and west (4). Elsewhere it is widespread throughout central and northern Europe (2). Northern populations tend to migrate to southern France, Italy and Spain to over-winter, whereas the population in the UK and some areas of Europe tend to remain in the same area all year round (2).

The reed bunting tends to occur in wetland sites such as reedbeds, and is found mainly in dense stands of vegetation on waterlogged soils typically at the edge of water (2). The specific name schoeniclus derives from the Greek skhoinos, meaning reed (5). The species has recently tended to move into gardens and farmland habitat such as overgrown ditches and hedgerows, particularly in winter (2).

Adults feed amongst low vegetation, close to or on the ground. They mainly feed on seeds, but the young are fed on invertebrates. During the breeding season, which lasts from April to mid-July, males try to attract a female to their territory by singing. The female builds the nest from grass, twigs and pieces of reed with a soft lining of moss close to the ground amongst dense vegetation. Two to three broods are usually produced each year; each brood consists of about three to six black spotted green-brown eggs. Predators threatening the nest may be drawn away by one of the parents pretending to be injured, crawling or running away with its wings partly open (2).

The reasons for the decline of this species are not yet fully understood (4), however it coincided with the decline in many other farmland birds that have similar diets and feed their young on invertebrates. Changes in agricultural practices may be largely to blame, including the increase in pesticide and fertiliser use, the loss of winter stubble fields due to sowing in autumn rather than spring, and a general loss of farm diversity due to specialisation (4). In addition, many wetland habitats have been damaged or have deteriorated due to harsh river engineering, scrub encroachment and land drainage. In recent years, the main period of land drainage occurred between 1968-1985. It is perhaps no coincidence that the reed bunting population declined by 50 percent between 1970-1980 (3).

Reed beds are one of Britain's most important habitats for birds, supporting four other rare breeding birds, the marsh harrier, Cetti's warbler, Savi's warbler and the bittern. As part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan English Nature has produced an action plan for reed bed birds in England and individual Species Action Plans (SAPs) for these five birds. The reed bunting is included in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme, which aims to restore existing reed beds back to favourable condition and to create new reedbed habitats. Furthermore, agri-environment schemes, in particular the Pilot Arable Stewardship Scheme and new measures encouraging the retention of winter stubbles in the South Downs Environmentally Sensitive Area should aid the reed bunting (4).

For more information on the reed bunting and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  2. RSPB (November 2001)
  3. Battern, L. A., Bibby, C. J., Clement, P., Elliott, G. D. and Porter, R.F. (1990) Red Data Birds in Britain. T & A.D. Poyser, London.
  4. UK Biodiversity (November 2001)
  5. Greenoak, F. (1997) British birds, their folklore, names and literature. Christopher Helm A&C Black, London.