A lit­tle bit of bread and no cheese

The Yel­lowham­mer is a de­light­ful bird with a fa­mous song – but fall­ing pop­u­la­tion num­bers make it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: IAN PAR­SONS

The Yel­lowham­mer song was pop­u­larised by au­thor Enid Bly­ton – and now is one of the best times of year to seek it out

ALIT­TLE BIT OF bread and no cheese has to be one of the most well-known ren­der­ings of a bird’s song there is. The tum­ble of short notes (or ‘lit­tle bit of bread and no’) fol­lowed by the drawn out, wheezy sound­ing ‘cheese’ at the end, is al­ways a sound I en­joy hear­ing. It never takes long to spot the singer – con­spic­u­ous in habit and ap­pear­ance.

Sit­ting on top of a small tree or high up in a hedge, the bright glow­ing yel­low of a Yel­lowham­mer in full song is dif­fi­cult to miss. Yet this is a bird that has be­come a lot harder to find in the Bri­tish coun­try­side in re­cent times. Sadly, it is now a Red Listed species in the UK, hav­ing de­clined by more than 50% in the last few decades, a re­sult of the re­duc­tion in win­ter food avail­abil­ity due to mod­ern agri­cul­tural meth­ods, with the loss of win­ter stub­ble fields be­ing par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. De­spite this sharp and wor­ry­ing drop in num­bers, the Yel­lowham­mer can still be found across Bri­tain, its pres­ence guar­an­teed to brighten up any bird­ing day. The Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion is

ac­tu­ally made up of two sub­species, the slightly smaller and slightly darker E.c. calig­i­nosa, which is found in the north and west of Bri­tain as well as in Ire­land, and E.c. cit­rinella which is found in south-east Eng­land and much of Europe. Else­where, the bird is found through­out north­ern, cen­tral and east­ern Europe, ex­tend­ing through Rus­sia as far as the western shores of Lake Baikal. It is mainly res­i­dent through­out the range, but birds from north­ern Scan­di­navia and north­ern Rus­sia mi­grate south­wards in the win­ter, with some of the Scan­di­na­vian birds ap­pear­ing in some ar­eas of east­ern Eng­land. Like other Buntings, Yel­lowham­mers build their nest on the ground or low down in vege­ta­tion. They are par­tic­u­larly fond of con­ceal­ing their nests in tus­socky clumps of grass. Their wo­ven nests (pic­tured above), made with grass stems, are well cam­ou­flaged, as you would ex­pect from a ground nest­ing species. This cam­ou­flage is ex­tended to the eggs, too, which are marked with a del­i­cate pat­tern of what could be de­scribed as scrib­bles! Each egg has a unique pat­tern of these scrib­ble marks on it and is the source of the bird’s old coun­try names of Scrib­ble Lark and Scrib­bling School­mas­ter. The mark­ings form a con­vinc­ing cam­ou­flage, break­ing up the shape of the eggs and help­ing them to blend in with the mass of grasses and grass shad­ows in which their nests of­ten lie. Yel­lowham­mers are seed spe­cial­ists, favour­ing the seeds of plants like net­tles, dock and chick­weed. They are also es­pe­cially fond of ce­real seeds, which are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in the win­ter when nat­u­ral seed stocks have been de­pleted. Dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, in­ver­te­brates form an im­por­tant part of the diet of the nestlings, the adults scour­ing bare ground to find these pro­tein pack­ages so per­fect for their

The birds are ter­ri­to­rial dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son and, there­fore, this is the best time to see the re­splen­dent males singing from their perches

hun­gry and de­vel­op­ing chicks. Their pre­ferred habi­tat is open ground, in­ter­spersed with trees and hedgerows, and they are a typ­i­cal species of the tra­di­tional low­land farm­land habi­tat. They can also be found on grassy heath­land, scrubby down­land and will read­ily take to young forestry plan­ta­tions where these bor­der open ground. The birds are ter­ri­to­rial dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, so this is the best time to see the re­splen­dent males singing from their perches, as they de­clare their own­er­ship of the breed­ing ter­ri­tory. Breed­ing starts to­wards the end of April and the male will con­tinue to sing and hold his ter­ri­tory right through un­til the end of Au­gust. The males have their favourite song perches, and, once you have learned where these are, you can al­most guar­an­tee good views of the bird as he sings away, so have your cam­era to hand. When I go look­ing for them, I al­ways try and time it to­wards the end of the day, just as the sun is get­ting low in the sky. The sight of a singing male Yel­lowham­mer lit up by the evening sun is an ex­pe­ri­ence to al­ways en­joy – so I highly rec­om­mend you try and find one for your­self!


YEL­LOW MALE The bright­est male Yel­lowham­mers are very strik­ing birds

SCRIB­BLED EGGS Yel­lowham­mer eggs have dis­tinc­tive scrib­ble marks FE­MALE AT­TIRE Fe­males are duller than males, but still have yel­low tones and a chest­nut rump

BREED­ING PLUMAGE Male Yel­lowham­mer show­ing yel­low head and belly and dis­tinc­tive chest­nut rump

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