Buntings are among some of my favourite birds; the males have splendid plumage, they have simple but distinctive songs which are delivered from open vantage points (most helpful for birders) and are overall quite characterful and interesting. But one bunting breaks the mold by daring to look dull and colourless and with no plumage difference between sexes – the increasingly scarce Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra.
It had been quite some time since I last encountered this most agricultural of songbirds, yet as I strode past a downland field not far from Beachy Head and heard that tinkling rattle, I still recognised it instantly and with a wide smile. A jangle of keys, a free-wheeling bicycle, coins in a jar or a squeaky gate are just some of the attempts to describe the Corn Buntings metallic, monotonous song – it may not be the prettiest ditty but it is the background sound of a lost landscape. The eastern section of the South Downs are a hotspot for this bird and I counted four singing males along a short stretch of field edge – some singing from posts and some invisibly from the ground. Along with the hundreds of operatic skylarks, the parachuting meadow pipits, the rosy-breasted Linnets and the Corn Buntings this flower-stuffed field was what most of the English lowlands should look (and sound) like, alas no more.
- Despite being globally of Least Concern, Corn Buntings are a red-listed species in Britain, suffering an 80% decline since 1970 and just recently extinct in Ireland. Winter sowing, early harvesting, heaps of insecticide and loss of hedgerows have crippled the buntings food sources of waste-seed and invertebrates.
- The UK is home to some 11,000 pairs that can be found in suitable habitat from Scotland to Cornwall but with range gaps in Wales, north-east England & Scotland, parts of the south-west and Ireland.
- Males look the same as females but are up to 20% larger, otherwise this lack of sexual dimorphism is unusual amongst Buntings.
- Males usually have just one mate but sometimes practice polygamy, having 2 or 3 females raising their offspring – however a few males have been recorded with harems of up to 18 mates!
- In my native county of Sussex this bird is (or rather was) known as the Stubble Lark.
- The birds are rather sedentary, not moving far from where they were born, but they do form large flocks several hundred strong in the winter.
- Nests are on the ground, made of grass and lined with hair or more grass, clutches are on average four eggs, which are looked after predominantly by the female – in good years there can be 3 broods.