Yellow-breasted bunting

Yellow-breasted bunting
Photo by Madina Aristanova

The yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola (Ocyrisaureolus)) was one of the most numerous bird species in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, common in Western Siberia, rare and in some places common in European Russia. In the east of the habitat this bunting inhabited various types of meadows and bogs, in Western Siberia and european parts of the country — mainly floodplain meadows. The habitat extended from Kamchatka in the east to Finland in the west.

The species was described by Peter Simon Pallas in 1773, in Western Siberia, where, apparently, the Western border of the habitat was located. The first mentions of yellow-breasted bunting in the European part (not visitation, but summer habitation in particular) is in the monographies of Fisher de Waldheim (1830) in the Moscow province and of Dvigubsky (1831) in northern provinces. At the time the species was already well-known, hence it appeared here much earlier —not later than at the turn of the 19th century. In the first part of the 20th century it spread throughout the European Russia and settled so quickly that local ornithologists used it as an example of a species that quickly expanded its habitat.

The situation has now changed dramatically. The species area was greatly reduced, the number fell drastically. Yellow-breasted bunting has completely disappeared in Europe outside of Russia. In the European part of Russian species has disappeared almost completely: the last nesting sites were preserved only in the Arkhangelsk region and the Komi Republic. In Western Siberia population has decreased catastrophically, the former having broken up into separate territories. A strong decline was observed in Eastern Siberia and the Far East.

Despite the nesting part of the area extended from East to West, all yellow-breasted bunting migrate along a relatively narrow corridor — flying through China, and winter in South-East Asia. Birds from Western populations fly to China to the East, buntings of Eastern populations — on the contrary, to the West.

Yellow-breasted bunting possesses an interesting feature of being highly sociable. At breeding sites several couples settle close to each other. During migration and wintering buntings can gather in large concentrations in wet meadows and fields. Large flocks often gather for the night.

The tendency to form flocks, often helping birds to protect themselves from predators and efficiently find food, played a fatal role for a yellow-breasted bunting. In addition, the bright yellow colour of birds gives them a lot of positive and healing properties in Buddhist tradition, there were articles in Chinese press calling the bunting 'flying ginseng'. In China and to a lesser extent in Thailand and Cambodia, these birds are traditionally being caught by spider nets and with the help of special glue at the overnight stays during migration — for food. In 1990s and early 2000s due to the growing welfare of the Chinese population (this species is used as a delicacy in restaurants), the scale of hunting on yellow-breasted bunting increased exponentially. Poachers have now come up with more barbaric ways of capturing birds, such as mass poisoning with sleeping pills diluted in water. Data from Chinese colleagues indicate that number of captured birds during migration seasons was in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. This was obviously one of the reasons for the catastrophic decrease decline in the number and area of yellow-breasted bunting. Currently the volume of capture of bunting has significantly decreased, obviously due to a sharp decrease in the number of birds. In 2004 the species was put in the Red List of International Union for Conservation of Nature with the category NT —a state close to threatened. From 2008 to 2012 this species was already listed with the VU category — vulnerable. And finally after studying the scale of the decrease in world population, amounting to 80%, yellow-breasted bunting came under the EN category — endangered of extinction.

Russia is the country where the majority of bunting breeding sites are located. Moreover, only in Russia there are still areas with a relatively high population of this species.

In this regard, the preservation of yellow-breasted bunting is one of the priorities of BirdsRussia. A special project was launched to study and protect this species.

Project priorities

1. Key bunting breeding sites in Russia.

Recent studies of an international team of authors have shown that yellow-breasted bunting's area and its number are significantly declining. However the most catastrophic decline is in the West and South of the area. At the same time, the situation with yellow-breasted bunting in the East and North-East of the area is still under researched, but it is known that this species is relatively safe in Kamchatka, Magadan region and Yakutia. The project collects information about the current status of yellow-breasted bunting in different regions of Russia.

We have conducted a survey among ornithologists about the status of this species in different regions of Russia. The survey was conducted according to the questionnaire. As a result, 13 areas with high density of nesting bunting were identified. In eight of them the number of birds has been recorded for 25 and more years, which allows to trace the change in the population of the species. An important contribution to the long-term monitoring of birds through standardized records is made by staff of protected areas. Thus, as a part of this monitoring network, 9 of 19 points are located at the territory of protected areas, with 5 of them conducting annual counts for 25 and more years.


The results of preliminary work show that yellow-breasted bunting is still common in some parts of Western Siberia, the Amur region, Yakutia, Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Magadan region


In 2016 special field studies were conducted on Sakhalin island. The survey concluded that yellow-breasted bunting disappeared as a breeding species in the South of Sakhalin, rare in the central part and in the North-East, but common in the North-West of the island.

Yellow-breasted bunting has now been included into the Red book of the Russian Federation and BirdsRussia will continue to research the area and number of yellow-breasted bunting to fully understand the status of its population in Russia.

2. Causes and consequences of the decline in number of yellow-breasted bunting.

The results of the simulations have shown that capture at the sites of flight and wintering can be of the utmost importance determining the sharp decline in the number of birds. Nevertheless, it may not be the only factor.

Among other factors that could  hypothetically have effect on the number of yellow-breasted bunting, are the treatment of fields with toxic chemicals, changes in habitats in China and other South-East Asian countries. It is noteworthy that northern and eastern populations of yellow-breasted bunting remain relatively unharmed. This fact, combined with recent history of expansion of the species suggests that the number of yellow-breasted bunting can be seriously affected by natural causes connected with climate change. To clarify the reasons for the decline in number of yellow-breasted bunting several main points can be identified:

2.1. Analysis of modern and historical distribution of yellow-breasted bunting in Russia

Modern simulation methods allow the comparison of data on species distribution with climate data. It is based on the concept of "climatic niche" — a set of climatic factors that determine the possibility of animal habitat in a certain area. After receiving detailed information on yellow-breasted bunting distribution in Russia, such simulation can be conducted to determine whether the reduction of the area can be explained by climatic reasons.

2.2. Ways and strategies of yellow-breasted bunting migration

The information on ways and strategies is necessary for saving migrating species. In the case of yellow-breasted bunting, this data might help answer the question why some populations are declining and become extinct while others are relatively unharmed. For example, endangered populations can winter in areas with high hunting pressure while others winter in safer regions. Method of ringing has been used for the study of migration of passerine birds for more than a hundred years. Unfortunately, this is an extensive method where data is accumulated very slowly. To date, only two returns of yellow-breasted bunting rings have been received on the territory of Russia. However a set of additional methods appeared in recent years allowing yo study migration of small passerine birds quite effectively.

A modern addition to the method of ringing is the use of content analysis of sable isotopes in the keratin body parts of birds. Stable isotopes in water and soil enter living organisms through the food chain and are found in metabolically inactive, "dead" parts of the body, such as teeth, horns in mammals, or feathers and claws in birds. Knowing the ration of light and heavy isotopes in plumage and claws of birds and having a map of stable isotopes distribution on the earth's surface, it is possible to determine with a high degree of probability where a bird wintered and bred. It is also necessary to know at what stage of annual cycle the replacement of plumage occurs, or use claw samples immediately after the migration so that the content of isotope samples in keratin coincides with their content at breeding and wintering sites. This method has already been successfully used to study migration of birds of Europe and North America. At the East-Asian flyway, pilot trials were carried out in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The main isotope that can be used in an analysis to draw some conclusions is deuterium. This isotope has been successfully used to analyse migration routes of passerine birds, especially in North America, and as there is a map of deuterium distribution on the earth's surface it can be applied to research of Asia as well.

The second successful method of studying small passerine birds is tracking migration routes with geolocation light sensors. The method is based on the registration of light and dark time of day by the sensor. After downloading the information from the sensor, with the use of special algorithms the ratio of light and dark time of the day is established and recoded into geographical coordinates where the bird was located with a maximum accuracy of ±150 km. The main difficulty of the method is that the sensor does not transmit information and the only way to receive data is to catch a bird with a sensor in a year after the migration at the breeding sites. Available information on fidelity of yellow-breasted bunting to breeding sites suggests that there is a high probability of sensor return and this method can also be applied to yellow-breasted bunting.

2.3. Genetic diversity of populations, degree of isolation of subspecies and populations

Within its vast area yellow-breasted bunting forms four subspecies. They were selected on the basis of descriptions of morphometry and colouration of birds. Validity of the division to subspecies has not been verified with modern molecular methods yet. Given how quickly individual populations of a species disappear, it is necessary to assess whether there is a reduction in the genetic diversity of the species, whether losses are recoverable, or whether there is an irrevocable "local extinction". Of particular interest is the situation with the island subspecies Ocyris aureolus insulanus, living on Sakhalin, Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands. It almost disappeared in Hokkaido, and apparently disappeared in the South of the Kurils and Sakhalin. Yellow-breasted bunting is still common in the North-East of Sakhalin, it nests on the North-East coast and in the central part of the island. IN the course of work in 2018 its nesting was recorded almost within the city of Pervomaisk, and it is currently the southernmost point of its breeding on Sakhalin. Genetic analysis of bird samples connected these days and its comparison with bird samples from collections should show whether Sakhalin birds are typical representative of the island subspecies, affined to Japanese birds or they are genetically closer to the birds of the Amur region.

3. Action planning for the conservation of the species

The development of an International action Plan for the conservation of migratory terrestrial bird species in East Asia has been launched. The plan has traditionally been prepared under the auspices of the Bonn Convention, but since most countries in the region are not parties to the Convention, additional diplomatic work will be required to involve the governments of key countries in the region in the implementation of the Action Plan. At this stage, 79% of countries with yellow-breasted bunting area take part in the preparation of the Action Plan. BirdsRussia, involving all interested organizations and experts in the country, collects and analyses data on the yellow-breasted bunting population status in Russia for information support of the international action plan and for bilateral conventions with Asian countries. 


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