Fascinating facts about yellowhammers

Male yellowhammer singing

Male yellowhammer singing - Credit: Paul Hobson

As a boy wandering the lanes of rural Derbyshire and Cheshire during the late spring and summer I was continually serenaded by the wheezing song of the yellowhammer, arguably the most easily recognised of our agricultural birds.  

'A little bit of bread and no cheese' would pour forth from hedge tops and telegraph wires as the male liked nothing better than to sit prominently and pour his heart out.  

Not only was his song easily recognised but his splendid lemon-yellow plumage made him look like a delicious cowslip swaying on the fresh greens of young hawthorn sprays. 

Yellowhammers (or as many call them, yellow buntings - which may be more taxonomically appropriate but less romantic) have a very dimorphic plumage.  

The male is a stunning medley of dandelion yellows and streaky, soft browns which make him closely resemble a canary.  

Over the years I have listened to many budding birders tell me they have just seen an escaped canary, which always turned out to be a smartly plumaged male yellowhammer.  

The female, in contrast, is rather drab at first glance but in the right light she is nearly as beautiful, if in a brownish way.  

Female yellowhammer

Female yellowhammer - Credit: Paul Hobson

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This is easily understandable as the female will do the bulk of incubating her eggs, and a bright golden-yellow head sitting on the nest would be a target for predators.  

An alternative rural name is the scribbling lark, a name that in the past would have been familiar and understandable to bird nesting schoolboys.  

The name is derived from the scratchy lines that adorn the buff-coloured eggs. They really do look like a myopic, Victorian clerk has let his inky quill lazily dribble across the small eggs.  

Yellowhammers love agricultural land that is created by a combination of small fields and unkempt hedgerows with wide, weedy bases.  

The hedges provide singing posts for the males to set up territory and the weedy bases contain a myriad of potential places to cunningly camouflage the grass-built nest.  

Unfortunately, in today's world our modern agricultural land is no place for the yellow bunts. Gone are thousands of miles of hedges and the fields, in many cases, resemble wide open prairies devoid of all bird life.  

Yellow bunting eggs

Yellow bunting eggs - Credit: Paul Hobson

During winter yellowhammers, with many other species of small birds like reed buntings, skylarks and tree sparrows, flock up and roam the fields seeking seeds.  

In the past the soil of many fields after harvest would be littered with spilt seed such as barley, wheat or oats, and this would see many of our small, agricultural birds through the hardship of winter. The unkempt hedgerows would act as shelter and provide alternative food sources with numerous weeds such as dock providing winter seeds.  

Alongside the loss of the hedges and because more efficient combine harvesters which spill little seed, the death knell to many of our yellowhammers was the switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown cereals, which meant the fields were being ploughed in late summer instead of after winter. 

All this may seem bleak, and in a way it is. Yellowhammers have decreased by over 50% since the 1980s.  

However, there are chinks of conservation light peeking through the gloom. The amazing Knepp project in West Sussex is a beacon of hope of just how we can farm and sustain a thriving abundance of wildlife.  

Restoring hedges is key as well as providing banks or zones either side of them. This reduces the field size but this headland can either be left unsprayed or planted with a wild flower mix.  

A male reed bunting

A male reed bunting - Credit: Paul Hobson

Now the hedge has the base so beloved by nesting yellowhammers and many other birds. Farmers can be compensated for the loss of yield under a variety of schemes, one of which is targeted at farmers in National Parks.  

Of course, Brexit has changed, or will do, many of the older schemes as we switch to a new set of conservation concepts.  

Hopefully the new ideas, such as the sustainable farming incentive pioneered by DEFRA, will end up delivering exactly what is needed from a wildlife perspective. 

Rewilding can also have a part to play. Recently I visited Derbyshire Wildlife Trust's new reserve at Thornhill Carr, a reserve hosting a mixture of scrub and open grassy areas with pockets of woodland. 

This will be managed by low level grazing by cattle which should see scrubby areas increase, an ideal habitat for yellow hammers.  

On a more whimsical note, I remember the government's recent 'Operation Yellowhammer'. It sounded like something from a John le Carré novel but in reality was something far more boring -Operation Yellowhammer was a pre-Brexit plan for what to do if we ended up with a no deal.  

Yellowhammers are definitely some of our most stunning birds, and whilst they have declined dramatically there is some hope on the horizon.  

Skylark

Skylark - Credit: Paul Hobson

An alternative to seeking them in farmland is to find areas of post-industrial decay. Old mining areas in the south of the county are dotted with them.  

Here rewilding has been proceeding at its own pace and scrubland and young woodland has formed on barren soils. Yellowhammers love these areas which are often pockets of wildlife richness.  

When they are also adopted as country parks, such as  Pleasley Pit Country Park and Local Nature Reserve, they can become fantastic places for many wild creatures and make for a great day out.    

Words by Paul Hobson