Archived 2012-2013 topics: Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola): uplist to Endangered?

BirdLife species factsheet for Yellow-breasted Bunting Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola breeds across the northern Palaearctic from Finland, Belarus and Ukraine in the west, through Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, to far eastern Russia, Korea and northern Japan. In the autumn, birds stop over in large numbers to moult in the Yangtze Valley, China before continuing on to their winter quarters. It winters throughout a relatively small area in southern and south-east Asia which includes eastern Nepal, north-east India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand (Byers et al. 1995). It is currently listed as Vulnerable under criterion A2acd+3cd+4acd because, although it remains abundant locally, anecdotal evidence suggests that overall it has undergone a rapid population decline owing mainly to trapping on wintering grounds. It was formerly one of the most abundant breeding passerines across vast swathes of Siberia, but a severe decline has been noted in most breeding areas and it has completely disappeared from parts of its former breeding range over the last twenty years. No birds have bred in Finland in the last three years and its range has contracted northwards by 300 km in Kazakhstan over the last 15 years. It is estimated to have declined by at least 70% during 2000-2010 in European Russia, with declines reported in the Moscow, Novgorod, Kostroma, Ulyanovsk and Baikal regions (A. Mischenko in litt. 2012). Very rapid declines in the Tyumen region, Western Siberia, were reported in 2011 (J. Kamp in litt. 2012), suggesting a massive decline in an area of the core range during 2000-2011 (M. Flade in litt. 2007), and no Yellow-breasted Buntings were recorded during fieldwork in the region in 2012 (J.Kamp in litt. 2012). Severe declines have also recently been noted in Hokkaido, Japan, Mongolia (S. Chan in litt. 2003, O. Goroshko in litt. 2003, Tamada 2006, M. Gilbert in litt. 2007, A. Mischenko in litt. 2007, J. Kamp in litt. 2007), and Manchuria, South East China (S. Chan in litt. 2009). It no longer occurs as “swarms” at migration watch-points such as Beidaihe, China, and although a range-wide survey is required, numbers at wintering sites throughout its range have also shown rapid declines over the last twenty years (S. Chan in litt. 2003, M. Williams in litt. 2003, J. W. Duckworth in litt. 2003, N. Moores in litt. 2003, T. Evans in litt. 2007, M. Gilbert in litt. 2007, M. Williams in litt. 2007, S. Chan in litt. 2007). If evidence that the population size of this species has declined by ≥50% over three generations (11 years in this species) is confirmed, this species would warrant uplisting to Endangered under criteria A2acd+3cd+4acd of the IUCN Red List. Further information is required on the rates of decline and potential threats to this species, and quantitative data from systematic surveys within this species’s range is particularly welcome. References: Byers, C., Olsson, U. and Curson, J. (1995) Buntings and sparrows: a guide to the buntings and North American sparrows. Robertsbridge, U.K: Pica Press. Tamada, K. (2006) Population change of grassland birds over ten years in Nakashibetsu, eastern Hokkaido. Short Communication. Ornithological Science 5: 127–131.

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9 Responses to Archived 2012-2013 topics: Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola): uplist to Endangered?

  1. Tom Gray says:

    Based on evidence from wintering grounds in Cambodia the species is clearly declining (this matches the stronger evidence from breeding areas).
    In winter 2005 and 2006 the species was encountered multiple times daily (30-50 individuals a day not rare) within the Tonle Sap grasslands of Kompong Thom during Bengal Florican survey work (my observations). Based on recent survey work (per S. Mahood) yellow-breasted bunting is now extremely rarely observed in similar areas.

  2. I don’t have an opinion or any relevant new info on whether it is declining fast enough for EN, but justification – for retention at VU or change to EN – should probably mention that it is particularly tricky to assess this species’s wintering status on fragmentary information given the erratic appearance of occasionally much larger flocks than are normal, as shown by patterns in well watched areas.

  3. Paul Thompson says:

    I agree that it may be hard to assess based on patchy/flocking behaviour. But the following from reviewing my notes from visits in appropriate months to one major wetland in NE Bangladesh may be useful: it was seen on 66% of 9 visits to Hail Haor during 1986-2000 (in some cases good sized flocks), and on 4% of 51 visits during 2001-2012. In the same period Baya Weavers have remained generally numerous in winter flocks in the area.

  4. Raffael Ayé says:

    The species was common along the Irtysh river near Irtyshsk, Pavlodar in June 2011 with 19 singing males and several females found during 1.5 days spent in suitable habitat (area of c. 4 square km; not a standardised survey). 5 of 14 males were 1st summer birds (the other 5 males not seen or not well enough to age), showing that there is recruitment into the breeding population, too. Also Kamp et al 2007 and Kovshar & Khrokov 2009 found the species in this region. It is not clear to me, whether the species has actually decreased in this region.
    In other parts of Kazakhstan, the species has vacated breeding areas or decreased very substantially, for example in the foothills of the Altai (B. Shcherbakov, pers. comm.).

  5. Hi Raffael et al.,

    this is great news indeed. I repost below some comments from 2007. This information has been incorporated in the 2008 Red List assessment, when Yellow-breasted Bunting was updated to VU by Birdlife, but perhaps it’s good to have it here again for discussion. It seems as if we had either overlooked a substantial population in 2007 (which is possible, but unlikely given that we spent months along the floodplain and regularly surveyed the area near Irtyshsk), or that YBB has recolonised this area in Kazakhstan.

    message sent 23/10/2007

    Dear all

    some rough hints for Pavlodar oblast’ (province), NE Kazakhstan, situated at the southern distribution border of Emberiza aureola.

    Emberiza aureola was not mentioned by Finsch (1879) and A.E. Brehm (unpublished expedition diaries 1876) in an enumeration of Emberiza species for the Irtysh river between Omsk and Pavlodar and might have colonized the area later.
    Dolgushin (1939, 1962) classified the species as “common everywhere in willow stands and meadows” along the Irtysh river between Semipalatinsk and Irtyshsk (close to the Russian border). For 1939, he talks about a “background choir” of singing males at Os’meryzhsk, Irtysh floodplain. Solomatin & Shaimardanov (2005) share this opinion based on data 1980 to 1991: “everywhere common at the Irtysh floodplain and in forest steppe”.

    In 2007 we surveyed large areas (an estimated 20,000 km²) of the Pavlodar oblast’ north of Akku (Lebyazhe) up to the Russian border for Sociable Lapwings, mostly along the Irtysh river and covering the whole range of habitats (especially floodplain and steppe, end April to End July). Observation effort was very high with more than 600 hours in field.
    We saw Yellow-breasted Bunting only on one occasions north of the settlement Kachiry, a (probably breeding) pair. All areas described by Dolgushin and Solomatin were vacated completely.

    Our observations as well as statements from local ornithologists point to the fact that the species nearly completely vanished from the area. This would mean that the distribution border shifted a good 300 km north during the last 15 years.

    There has not been any pointed research on population development drivers for this species in NE Kazakhstan, but local scientists said that changed water regime of the Irtysh river (shortening the inundation period from 40 to 12 days on average, due to dams and reservoirs at the upper reaches) led to a significant change in meadow and willow habitats during the last decade.

    Johannes Kamp


    Finsch O 1879.[ Journey to Western Siberia in 1876]. Wallroth, Berlin. (In German.)

    Dolgushin IA 1939. [Ornithological observations in Pavlodar oblast’, summer 1939]. Mscr. Edited by NN Berezovikov and published posthumous (2004) in Transactions of Institute of Zoology 48:1-39, Kazakhstan State University, Almaty. (In Russian.)

    Dolgushin IA 1962. [Birds of Kazakhstan]. Vol.5, Alma-Ata. (In Russian.)

    Solomatin AO, Shaimardanov ZK 2005. [Birds of the Pavlodar-Irtysh region]. Pavlodar State Pedagogical University, Pavlodar, 251 pp. (In Russian.)

  6. And some more info, just coming in from surveys in Tyumen province (Western Siberia) and the Amur region:

    1) Between 15 May and 30 June 2012 and again 2013, we surveyed ca. 400 line transects of 500m length each (using Distance Sampling) across three study areas in Tyumen province, Western Siberia. The study areas were 400 km² large each and situated near the cities of Tyumen, Omutinskoe and Ishim. Despite the fact that large patches of suitable habitat were covered, survey intensity was very high and special attention was paid to the species, no YBB were observed in both years. We cannot rule out that the species is still present in Tyumen province (but was not detected by us), but if so, densities are clearly very low.
    Additionally, we checked many sites (fens and other peatlands, willow shrub, river floodplains) where Martin Flade et al. (unpublished reports) observed singing males in 1999 and 2000 in abundance (up to 15 singing males per area), but again did not find any YBB during these repeat surveys.
    In our opinion this indicates a very strong decline in Western Siberia, which is backed up by the Russian literature: many authors report declines or failed to find the species since about 2005 between the Ural mountains and Lake Baikal.

    2) Surveys between 5 June and today (18/07/2013) along 84 analogous transects (total length ca. 43 km) in prime habitat at Muraviovka Park, Amur region, Russian Far East (, see also revealed ca. 90 birds (mostly sg. males). Total population site of the protected area (6.500 ha) is assumed to be around 100-150 breeding pairs, suggesting that populations might be doing better in the east of the range. Outside the protected area in prime habitats along Gilchin river the species was found breeding, and it is still present in Chinganski and Bastak State Nature Reserves in the Amur and Chabarovsk regions. Breeding success has been confirmed for Muraviovka Park (fledged juveniles seen) but cannot be quantified. The data is not yet analysed, but it looks like as if densities were much below carrying capacity (perhaps suggesting problems on the wintering grounds rather than the breeding range). Additionally, anecdotal evidence from park staff and local ornithologists (S. Smirenski, W. Dugincov) suggests that densities were much higher until the 1990s (“willow scrub at upper Amur river terrace was full of singing birds” “they were everywhere”).

    We have to take into account that our surveys covered only tiny bits of the breeding range, but given the additional evidence from the wintering grounds, YBB seems to qualify at least for VU, probably also for EN under critera A2 and B1b.

    Contributors: Johannes Kamp, Steffen Kämpfer, Markus Frenzel, Aline Reinhard, Kolja Wolanska (University of Münster, Germany), Wieland Heim & The Amur Bird Project (Germany/Russia).

  7. Mingxia Zhang says:

    It’s now a famous wild dish in South China.It’s quite often to meet some people claim that they are selling Yellow-breast bunting on overline bridge in Guangzhou- one of the largest city of China, but it’s hard to identify the real species because the birds were already processed and fried. In 2008, however, one cart of 4300 Yellow-breasted Bunting was confiscated in Zhejiang province- the birds were supposed to be transported to Guangdong:

  8. Frederic Goes says:

    Difficult indeed to properly assess scale of decline in a possibly irregular wintering/flocking passerine, but all indicators from Cambodia speak for a substantial decline. Summary status and conservation discussion below (excerpt from the checklist in press). Detailed listing of records available on request.

    Yellow-breasted Bunting
    An uncommon winter visitor and spring passage migrant in rice fields, scrub, grasslands and marshes in lowlands. Occasionally at meadows and pools in dry deciduous forest. Present between November and April, with latest date 15 May. Mainly distributed along the Tonle Sap floodplain, where sometimes forming flocks of several thousands of birds. Historically noted as common in the central plain but now scarce away from the Tonle Sap area, though recorded in all other regions in very small numbers. // Conservation: In Cambodia, it was historically regarded as common in the central plain, and a well-known delicacy, killed in great numbers after it fed on the spring rice crop in the vicinity of Prey Veng (Thomas & Poole 2003). It has not been recorded from that province in recent times. In 1994, it was sold in very large numbers (transported by the sackful) in Phnom Penh and other towns as food (Mundkur 1994). In addition to being targeted for food, the species is also trapped for the merit-bird release trade. A weekly count on the Phnom Penh riverfront during 1995–1996 (37 visits) recorded 1,965 merit-birds, a third of all birds traded and the most common migrant species (56%) (van Zalinge 1999). Contrastingly, a more intense monitoring study in 2006–2007 at the two main merit-bird markets of the capital involving 353 visits (near-daily over 13 months) counted only 542 birds, with the species representing less than 0.1% of the sample (Gilbert et al. 2012). Although this difference may be due to highly variable winter abundance, it more likely results from a steep decline over ten years in the Mekong–Bassac floodplain where most merit-bird trappers operate. This is supported by the absence of records from the southeast since the late 1990’s, suggesting the species is now very rare and perhaps close to extirpation there. As the species roosts in large numbers, it is particularly susceptible to netting (Bird et al. 2006). Large flocks are still occasionally recorded on the Tonle Sap floodplain, and these may become targetted by trappers as populations are depleted elsewhere. All of these factors mean the species qualifies as nationally Threatened.

  9. Joe Taylor says:

    The following comments were received from Carol Inskipp and Hem Sagar Baral on 19 August 2013:

    Yellow-breasted Bunting has been assessed as Endangered in Nepal based on the criteria A2ace in a draft species account prepared for the Nepal bird Red Data Book. This draft assessment was upheld at the October 2012 workshop held to discuss over 240 draft Nepal species accounts. The following text is extracted from the full Yellow-breasted Bunting species account which is available for download from the front page of Himalayan Nature: A distribution map showing pre- and post-1990 distribution is also available here.

    STATUS AND DISTRIBUTION The species is now local and mainly a passage migrant, with smaller numbers overwintering. The population has reduced and the number of localities has declined since 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s it was quite widespread and locally common, especially on passage in the Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan National Park and near Koshi Barrage/Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve but has sharply declined since and is now rare in these localities.

    Huge flocks were recorded near Koshi Barrage and Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in the past: over 7000 in March and April 1982 (Eames 1982); thousands in November 1992 (Murphy and Waller 1992), 600 in February 2003 (Chaudhary 2003), 300 in December 2007 (Chaudhary 2007), and hundreds in sugar cane fields in 2008 (Tribe 2008), but there are no known later records from the Koshi area.

    Enormous flocks were reported flying to roost in Chitwan National Park in spring 1982 e.g. Inskipp and Inskipp (1982), with the maximum of 3500 in March (Turton and Speight 1982). Gurung (1983) described it as a winter visitor seen occasionally, but there are few recent records from the park, e.g. 20 in December 2001 (Naylor et al. 2002) and singles in March 2005 (van der Dol 2005) and in December 2008 (Bird Education Society). It has also been recently recorded from the park buffer zone: 10-15 birds near Juweni in May 2010 (Kapil Pokharel) and one at Sauraha in April 2012 (Bird Education Society).

    The species was recorded much more widely in the past, for example there are records from Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve (Schaaf et al. 1980), Bardia District terai (Egger et al. 1990), Begnas Tal, Kaski District (Inskipp et al. 1971, Hall 1981), and Tamaspur, Nawalparasi District (Mills and Preston 1981), but there are no known records from these localities recently.

    THREATS The species is seriously threatened by trapping for sale to restaurants and also by changes in agricultural practices since the 1980s, notably sharp increases in pesticide use (Inskipp and Baral 2011).

    Chaudhary, H. (2003) One-day bird survey at Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. Danphe 12(1/2): 6.
    Chaudhary, H. (2007) Christmas tour (Nepal), 23-31 December 2007. Unpublished.
    Dol, van der, J. (2005) Nepal birdwatching report, 20 February – 10th March 2005.
    Eames, J. (1982) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, 1982. Unpublished. 5pp..
    Egger, J., Lemke, G. W. and Timm, H. (1990) Nepal, 3 – 24 Februar 1990. Unpublished.
    Gurung, K. K. (1983) Heart of the jungle. London, U.K: André Deutsch.
    Hall, J. (1981) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, November 1980 – March 1981. Unpublished.
    Inskipp, C. and Baral, H. S. (2011) Potential impacts of agriculture on Nepal bird. Our Nature (2010) 8:270-312.
    Inskipp, C. and Inskipp, T. P. (1982) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, April–June 1982. Unpublished.
    Inskipp, T. P., Brown, R. S., Clement, P., Greensmith, A., Howard, W. and Jarman, R. (1971) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, September 1970 – March 1971. Unpublished.
    Mills, D. G. H. and Preston, N. A. (1981) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, 1981. Unpublished.
    Murphy, C. and Waller, C. (1992) Cygnus Wildlife Holidays, Nepal. November 1992. Unpublished.
    Naylor, M., Tomlinson, C. and Holmes, A. (2002) Notes on birds recorded in Nepal, March 2002. Unpublished.
    Schaaf, D., Rice, C. G., Fleming, R. L. Sr.and Fleming R. L. Jr. (1980) A partial checklist of the birds of Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, Nepal, with remarks on the relevance of species inventories. Unpublished.
    Tribe, M. (2008) Nepal 28 January – 12 February 2008.
    Turton, J. M. and Speight, G. J. (1982) A report on birds seen in Nepal, 1982. Unpublished.

    Carol Inskipp and Hem Sagar Baral

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