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
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