Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

GenusEmberiza (1)
SizeLength: 15.5 - 17 cm (2)

The yellowhammer is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (3). Receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Listed under Appendix II of the Berne Convention and classified as a species of conservation concern by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, although not a priority species (4). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List (high conservation concern) (5).

The yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is one of the brightest coloured of our native birds (6). It is a fairly large bunting, with a long tail, white outer tail feathers, a rust-coloured rump and yellowish plumage. In summer, males develop striking breeding colours; the head and underparts become bright yellow, with olive green or red-brown flecks to the breast (2). Females and juveniles are generally duller in colour, with grey or black streaks on the breast and sides (2). The song of the yellowhammer consists of rapidly repeated notes, and has earned the species the local names of 'a little-bit-of-bread-and- no-cheese' in parts of England, and 'may-the-Devil-take-you' in Scotland; both of which are imitative of the song (6). Yet more local names including 'scribbler' and 'writing lark' refer to the eggs, which are usually covered in dark squiggly lines resembling scrawled handwriting (6).

Widespread and common throughout much of Europe, the yellowhammer is a resident species in the UK (present throughout the year), and has a more restricted distribution in Scotland than the rest of the British Isles (7). Some of the Scandinavian population migrate in small numbers to the British Isles during winter (8).

The yellowhammer seems to prefer farmland, particularly bushy areas, as well as the edges of woodlands, wooded pasture, and heaths (2).

This species is wary, although not shy (2), and a high perch is normally occupied whilst singing (2). The yellowhammer female builds the nest, which consists of a cup of grasses and moss with a lining of hair or very fine grasses (9). Between two to six eggs are laid per clutch, and incubation takes 12 to 14 days (1).

In winter, yellowhammers form flocks, often in mixed species groups with other seed-eating birds (10). They feed mainly on cereals and large grass seeds as well as the seeds of docks and other plants, which they typically pick from the ground (8). They may also perch on cereal stems to obtain grains during autumn (8). Towards the evening, flocks fly to roost in scrubby or marshy areas (8).

Like other species of bunting, the yellowhammer, although still fairly common, has suffered following the widespread intensification of agriculture, including the large-scale removal of hedgerows and scrubland, and changes in land-use, reducing the availability of seeds in winter (11).

The yellowhammer receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Section 1 of this act prohibits the intentional killing, injuring or taking of any wild bird as well as the taking, damaging or destroying of the nest (whilst being built or in use) or eggs. It also forbids possession of wild birds (dead or alive) or their eggs (12).

For more information on the yellowhammer and other bird species:

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  1. Walters, M. (1994) Birds' eggs. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. and & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
  4. The Environment Agency. (1998) Species and Habitats Handbook. The Environment Agency, Bristol.
  5. RSPB. (2003) The population status of birds in the UK: birds of conservation concern, 2002-2007. RSPB, UK. Available at:
  6. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air; the names, lore and literature of British birds. Book Club Associates, London.
  7. (July, 2002)
  8. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  9. Birds of Britain (July, 2002)
  10. RSPB. (2003) Pers. comm.
  11. Batten, L.A., Bibby, C.J., Clement, P., Elliot, G.D. and Porter, R.F. (1990) Red Data Birds in Britain. T & A Poyser, London.
  12. Naturenet (July, 2002)