The yellowhammer voted Bird of the Year

Strnad obecný, foto: Alan  Vernon (Creative Commons 2.0)

It’s official: the yellowhammer has been voted Bird of the Year by the Czech Ornithological Society. The sparrow sized bunting is with us all year round –but its numbers are dwindling. With a bright yellow head and belly it is hard to miss –and moreover makes itself heard with a song that is known as “a little bit of bread and no cheese” in English and “jak to sluníčko pěkně svítí” in Czech meaning “see how brightly the sun shines”. Ornithologists also claim they discern two dialects in the yellowhammer’s call. To find out more about the bird of the year I spoke to one of our leading ornithologists Petr Voříšek.

Yellowhammer,  photo: Alan Vernon,  CC 3.0 license
“We announce one bird species as bird-of-the-year because we want to bring the attention of the general public to the species –either because it is in trouble because of its conservation status or generally because we want to educate people about the biology of the species and we often also want to bring attention to wider environmental problems. So these are the aspects we consider every year when announcing the Bird of the Year.”

So why did you elect the yellowhammer this year?

“The yellowhammer is a very common species, so obviously it is not endangered by extinction - at least not now. But this is a species which is very typical for farmland, not only in the Czech Republic, but also in other European countries and we know that farmland biodiversity suffers from agricultural intensification which impacts the yellowhammer as well. The yellowhammer is still a common species in the Czech Republic but its numbers have declined by about 20 percent in the last twenty to thirty years and the situation in Western Europe is much worse –there the population of yellowhammers nearly halved in the past 27 years. So this clearly indicates that something wrong is happening in our farmland. We want to bring the attention of the general public to this.”

How are you expecting to help the yellowhammer by electing it bird of the year? What would you like to see happen?

“Well, first solving the problems requires public awareness. We cannot do anything in nature conservation without the support of the general public and the problem of agriculture intensification and its negative effects on biodiversity is a very difficult problem to solve. It is to do with the EUs common agricultural policy, so people must be aware of the problem first and then we can go about solving it. We do not expect and immediate effect such as an increase in the number of yellowhammers next year, but we want to make people aware of the problem.”

How would you bring back the bird’s natural habitat?

“That’s a good question. In the case of the yellowhammer it suffers because it is a seed eater. It mostly eats seeds –though in the breeding season it also eats insects – but it is very dependent on seeds and suffers from lack of food in the winter because winter stubble fields have been declining in farmland. The manipulation with seeds and grain during harvesting is much more effective so there is less left for the birds in winter. But there are agricultural subsidies to help improve biodiversity in farmland and one of the things which could be subsidized is seed lanes - a few meters of land that would be sown and not harvested in order to provide food for the birds. So if farmers take those subsidies instead of just subsidies for production it could really help yellowhammers and other birds.”

I understand that the yellowhammer used to be a well-known garden bird, do you see them in gardens at all these days?

Yellowhammer,  photo: Spot1972,  CC 3.0 license
“No, no the yellowhammer is not really a typical garden bird. It could be sighted in village gardens if they are close to open fields - it could come to look for food. But it is not a typical garden bird. Its very, very common in the fields though, so you really do not have to walk far to see one. You see flocks of them everywhere in the fields. At least for now.”

I believe you have asked people to record the sound of its song and I believe that ornithologists distinguish two different calls –one ending on a high note and one on a low note –is that correct?

“Yes, this is another aspect of the campaign Bird of the Year. We want to involve people actively in this research. This does not have much in common with the protection of the species it is purely an analysis of bird song. There could be different dialects of this bird species in Europe and we think the yellowhammer population in the Czech Republic has two or more different dialects as we call them. But this has not been properly mapped or analyzed in the past because that requires quite a lot of work and this is a chance for amateur ornithologists and bird-watchers to use relatively simple technology to record a yellowhammer’s call in the field and send it to professionals who will analyze the calls and map the dialects and see how they differ and so on.”

What makes the same bird species sing in different dialects?

“Well, there are complex reasons. It could be the start of the speciation process –that females could only mate with a male singing a certain dialect and avoid others and at the end of this after hundreds or thousands of years you could have two separate species –a process that would have been started by the mating call. But sometimes one male can use more dialects which is very interesting because if a male uses more dialects he could be more attractive for females. That applies to other species as well, not just the yellowhammer. So there are many possibilities. It is like asking why people speak different languages.”

To Czech ears the yellowhammer either sings “See how brightly the sun shines” or “I wish you were dead farmer”. What do you think it sings?

“I think they probably sing both…..hard to say. I believe almost every European language –where the yellowhammer occurs – has its own version of what it sings.”