Archived 2017 topics: Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola): urgent request for information.

The Yellow-breasted Bunting, Emberiza aureola, is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List on the basis that the species is undergoing a rapid decline in population size. Formerly one of the most common breeding passerines of the northern Palearctic, it has been recorded breeding from Finland, Belarus and Ukraine in the west through to eastern Russia, the Korean peninsula and Japan in the east, overwintering in a relatively small area of South and South-east Asia. The species has recently undergone rapid population and range declines, which led to its uplisting from Least Concern to Near Threatened in 2004, Vulnerable in 2008 and Endangered in 2013.

These declines are thought to be driven mainly by impacts during migration and in wintering areas, with populations even on pristine breeding grounds showing large declines (S. Chan in litt. 2003, P. Round in litt. 2003, M. Williams in litt. 2007, S. Chan in litt. 2007). The main threat is thought to be excessive trapping for a range of uses, including human consumption. For instance, an estimated several thousand individuals of this species were being caught for the annual food festival in Sanshui City, southern China (Gao Yuren 1996), but although this practice was banned in 1997, a black market still persists and a huge number of birds are still being sold annually (see Kamp et al. 2015), including around 10,000 birds sold daily in a single market in Sanshui (Chan 2004). Additionally, in China, thousands of males are also stuffed and sold as mascots, since their presence in the home is thought to confer happiness (A. Mischenko in litt. 2012). Habitat degradation on wintering sites through agricultural intensification is also thought to be playing a role in the decline of this species (T. Evans in litt. 2007, J. Tordoff in litt. 2007, J. C. Eames in litt. 2007), which may be being compounded by habitat deterioration in some breeding areas too.

There has been no accurate quantification of the population size of this species, though in Europe the species is believed to have declined from 20,000-100,000 breeding pairs, equating to 60,000-300,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004) to only 60-300 pairs (BirdLife International 2015). There have also been some rough national estimates from East Asia of c.100-100,000 breeding pairs and c.50-10,000 individuals on migration in China; <c.100,000 breeding pairs and <c.1,000 individuals on migration in Japan; and c.10,000-100,000 breeding pairs and c.1,000-10,000 individuals on migration in Russia (Brazil 2009).  The lack of clear data on global population size means an accurate assessment of this species against criteria C and D is not possible. Additionally, the range of this species remains sufficiently large that the species would not warrant listing under criterion B, and no quantitative analysis of extinction risk has been conducted, thus the species cannot be assessed against criterion E.

The rate of decline has been sufficiently rapid for the species to be currently listed as Endangered under criteria A2acd+3cd+4acd (a past, ongoing and future decline of 50-79% over 3 generations or 10 years, whichever is longer). A recent study by Kamp et al. (2015), estimated that between 1980 and 2013 the population may have declined by 84.3-94.7%. This equates to a decline of 45.4-61.8% over 3 generations (10.8 years). However, it was noted in Kamp et al. (2015) that the population was relatively stable until 1987. Taking this into account, the decline over 3 generations falls in the range 53.7-70.5% (placed in the range 50-79% in the Red List assessment). This therefore falls within the bounds for listing as Endangered under criterion A – the species’s current listing. In a new Forktail paper, Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) also provide evidence for a rapid decline at the Svyatoy Nos wetlands, with an estimate of 500-1,000 breeding pairs in the 1990s, down to potentially only 5 breeding pairs in 2013 and 7 singing males (and an unknown number of females) in 2014. This is compelling evidence for a drastic decline at this site (potentially >90% over 3 generations) and Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) suggest that this may have been restricted to the 21st Century, which would mean declines over the most recent 3 generations may be considered even greater. However, it should also be noted that this site represents only a tiny proportion of the global range (<0.002%).

Further information is therefore now sought to determine if such steep declines may be occurring across the species’ distribution, and hence that Kamp et al. were in error and underestimated the global decline rate, or that the rate of population decline has worsened since the 1980-2013 period analysed by Kamp et al. and so now exceeds 80% over 3 generations (10.8 years). If this proves to be the case, the species would warrant uplisting to Critically Endangered. Given the recent comprehensive range-wide review by Kamp et al., and that the Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) study covers only a tiny fraction of the global distribution, further information from other parts of the species’ distribution is key to determining the correct Red List classification.


BirdLife International. 2004. Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

BirdLife International. 2015. European Red List of Birds. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.

Brazil, M. 2009. Birds of East Asia: eastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, eastern Russia. Christopher Helm, London.

Chan, S. 2004. Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureolaBirdingASIA: 16-17.

Gao Yuren. 1996. Ginsengs from heaven – Rice Bird (Yellow-breasted Bunting). Daiziren 1996: 34-35.

Kamp, J.; Oppel, S.; Ananin, A. A.; Durnev, Y. A.; Gashev, S. N.; Hölzel, N.; Mischenko, A. L.; Pessa, J.; Smirenski, S. M.; Strelnikov, E. G.; Timonen, S.; Wolanska, K.; Chan, S. 2015. Global population collapse in a superabundant migratory bird and illegal trapping in China. Conserv. Biol. 29: 1684-1694.

Mlikovsky, J.; Styblo, P. 2016. Biometry, ecology and population status of the Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola in the Svyatoy Nos wetlands, Lake Baikal, eastern Siberia, Russia. Forktail 32: 1-4.

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7 Responses to Archived 2017 topics: Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola): urgent request for information.

  1. James Westrip (BirdLife) says:

    Johannes Kamp has provided the following comments:

    I have just revisited the data we used for the Cons Biol paper. I have assumed that we need a trend for 11 years (=rounded from 10.8 which equals three generations). The last year I have data from is 2013, which means that we’d need a trend for the period 2002-2013.
    Simply looking at the model-predicted values and expressing 2013 as a proportion of 2002 would result in a decline of 70-89% for the 11 years (Fig. 2 in the Cons Biol paper), depending on the area used to extract densities to numbers. However, ideally, we would fit the GLMM that predicts abundance as a function of year again using only the data from 2002 to 2013. Unfortuately, this is not possible, because i) at many sites from which we had data, the species was already extict or so rare that either 0 or 1 birds were seen per year over the period 2002-2013, ii) there are not enough years with data to include a number of sites in the analysis (e.g. out of the 11 years, only 1-3 years have data). This means that any attempts to model a range-wide trend for 2002-2013 would be extremely unreliable (if the models converged at all).
    From the sites that have data for the 11-year period, the decline was 99-100% at sites 4, 6 and 7 (Fig. 1 in the Cons Biol paper). However, there are sites, where the decline was less severe, e.g. at site 9 (around 84% between 1999 and 2013) and only ca. 50% at Khinganskii reserve (the yellow arrow just northeast of point 9 in Fig. 1 – see Antonov-paper and data attached, appeared after the publication of the Cons Biol paper).
    There is a rather clear pattern in the decline/extinction, a wave moving from West to East (see also Fig. 3 in the Cons Biol paper) suggesting that the species had largely vanished from Scandinavia by 1998, from European Russia by ca. 2005-6, from Western Siberia by ca. 2008 and from the Baikal area and NE Mongolia by ca. 2011 (see e.g. Figure in the Ananin 2015 paper attached that appeared shortly after ours). This means that there is evidence of an accellerated loss of birds, which is also somehow visible in the graphs in the Cons Biol paper.
    To sum this up, I believe that the range-wide decline exceeded 80% in the period 2002-2013, but I can’t show it unambiguously due to a lack of data. It very much depends on the fate of the populations east of lake Baikal – if the decline in this region was only around 50% or so, then the 80% range-wide decline might not hold. If it was 80% like at site 9, than I am convinced that the range-wide declines exceeded 90% in this period.

    Useful new references:
    Ananin, A. A. 2015. Овсянка-Дубровник (Ocyris aureola Pall.) в северо-восточном Прибайкалье – катастрофическое исчезновение вида. Байкальский Зоологический Журнал 16: 82-86 [Yellow-breasted Bunting (Ocyris aureola Pall.) in the north-eastern Pribaikal region – catastrophical disappearance of a species. Baikal Zoological Journal 16: 82-86.] Download:

    Antonov, A. I. 2016. Динамика гнездовой популяции Дубровника Emberiza aureola Pallas, 1773 на юге Амурской Области. Проблемы экологии Верхнего Приамурья: сборник научных трудов / под общ. ред. А.А. Барбарича. Благовещенск 17: 68-71 [The dynamics of the breeding population of Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola) in the southern Amur province. Ecological problems of the Upper Amur region: a collection of scientific papers. Blagoveshchensk, volume 17, pages 68-71.] Download: (registration required)

  2. Carol Inskipp and Dr Hem Sagar Baral says:

    In the Nepal national Bird Red Data Book, Yellow-breasted Bunting was assessed Critically Endangered based on the criteria A2acde? In Nepal the species is now a local and mainly a passage migrant, with smaller numbers overwintering. The population has reduced and is now estimated to total between 250 and 2000 birds. The number of localities has also 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/KoshiTappu Wildlife Reserve but has sharply declined since and is now rare in these localities. There are several sites where it was recorded in the 1970s and/or 1980s, but there are no records since 1990. The species is seriously threatened by trapping for sale to restaurants and by changes in agricultural practices since the 1980s, notably sharp increases in pesticide use.
    More details of the species’ occurrence in Nepal can be found in Volume 3 national Bird Red Data Book which is available for free download at:
    Inskipp C., Baral H. S., Phuyal S., Bhatt T. R., Khatiwada M., Inskipp, T, Khatiwada A., Gurung S., Singh P. B., Murray L., Poudyal L. and Amin R. (2016) The status of Nepal’s Birds: The national red list series. Zoological Society of London, UK.

  3. Andy Symes (BirdLife) says:

    Preliminary proposals

    Based on available information, our preliminary proposal for the 2017 Red List would be to list:

    Yellow-breasted Bunting as Critically Endangered under criterion A2acd+3cd+4acd.

    There is now a period for further comments until the final deadline of 4 August, after which the recommended categorisations will be put forward to IUCN.
    Please note that we will then only post final recommended categorisations on forum discussions where these differ from the initial proposal.

    The final 2017 Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife and IUCN websites in early December, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN.

  4. Christoph Zöckler says:


    Small note of caution. This is still a wide-spread species though declining fast. I would be careful with overuse of the term CR. The species is still abundant in many parts of Eastern Siberia. I just picked up a note from Pavel Ktitorov from Sakhalin who summarises his YBB project: ‘Project goal
    We found recently that Yellow-Breasted Bunting dessapeared in the South of Sakhalin, but still common in central part of the island, and occurs in high density in the North-West of sakhalin. Now we are trying to find out how closely Sakhalin populations are related to the mainland birds (Amurland), and buntngs breeding in Japan. We want to find out if difference in migration strategies (e. g. key stopover and wintering sites) is responsible for contrasting sustainability of different populations. For that we are using stable isotopes sampled from free-ranging birds and collection speciemens, and geologger tracking of sustainable populations.
    Background and motivation
    Yellow -Breasted Bunting decline is outstanding example how numerous and widespread species can become rear within a few years. Current destribution of this species on Sakhalin (local extintion in the south, remnants in the center, common in the north-west) resembles the general pattern observed over the whole species breeding range, but in much smallar spatial scale. That gives us very useful study sistem to test hipothesis of reasons for decline in this songbird species.’

    I personally have seen this year only one bird singing in Kamchatka



    • Simba Chan says:

      Dear Christoph,

      Quick reply: I was in Sakhalin with Pavel banding birds there. I don’t think you can regard this as ‘common’ in northern (north-west? by the Baikal Bay) in Sakhalin. Our station could be the best place to capture YBB on the island but the best estimation was around 20 breeding pairs at the area (about 1-2 sq km in size)

  5. Paul Thompson says:

    Evidence from wintering range in Bangladesh supports proposed categorisation. In Thompson et al (2014) we described this as a “Declining and now rare winter visitor. This formerly locally common winter visitor has become very scarce. There were only three records in this period.” Although the national RDB only categorises it s Vulnerable, quoting that paper, I believe this is insufficient recognition of the threat level and that national wintering populations have dropped from presumed thousands to very small numbers.

    Reworking my data from visits to Hail Haor (a large 12,000 ha wetland in northeast Bangladesh), I have sightings between February 1986 and April 2007, and the species has been recorded from November to April in Bangladesh in general. In 1986-96 I visited on 7 days in the five potential months (Nov-Apr) seeing Yb Buntings on five visits including a flock of over 200 and another larger flock simply noted as “many” (71% of dates visited). In 1997-2007 I visited on 34 days in these five months (having started working on sustainable wetland use and conservation there in 2004) and saw Yb Buntings on just two dates, with the maximum a flock of 30 in April 2007)(9% of dates visited). In 2008-2017 I visited the haor on 51 days in these five months and saw no Yb Buntings (0% of dates visited). Habitat suitable for buntings has not declined overall in this wetland during this period. Moreover the very few sightings in general in the country in the last decade when observer effort has increased vastly in Bangladesh support the view that this is now a very rare winter visitor and spring migrant in Bangladesh wetlands and remnant grasslands. Wintering habitats and threats in Bangladesh show a mixed pattern: +ve improving protection of some remnant wetlands and protection of some swamp thickets, but also -ve increasing agro-chemical use which presumably affects rice stubbles (where weaver flocks may also be declining).

    Thompson, P.M., Chowdhury, S.U., Haque, E.U., Khan, M.M.H. & Halder, R. 2014. Notable bird records from Bangladesh from July 2002 to July 2013. Forktail 30: 50–65.

  6. Wieland Heim says:

    Yellow-breasted Bunting is still a common species on the Zeya-Bureya-plain along the middle stream of the Amur river in Far East Russia. My team and I mapped more than 200 territories this year, and the species was found in almost all areas with suitable habitat. After strong declines in the past decade the population remained stable between 2013-2017 at Muraviovka Park, a nature reserve which holds several hundred breeding pairs of this species. However, increasing fire frequency and reuse of formerly abandoned croplands caused the loss of several territories.

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