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Ortolan Bunting { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana



The Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, belongs to the Passeriforms {perching birds} order of birds and the family Emberizidae within that order. The genus name Emberiza derives from old German embritz a bunting. The species name of hortulana is from the Italian name for the Ortolan bunting. {Hortulane}.

The conservation status in the UK has not been accessed and there are about 71 records of this species per year. It does not breed in Britain or there are none officially recorded as I am aware of.

In Europe it is classed as being of 2 concern,most in Europe depleted. The total European population is estimated at between 3 and 7 million pairs {summer}. the populations vary from country to country and there follows a few selected examples.

The Armenian population is estimated between 15,000-30,000 Breeding pairs {BP}, Bulgaria 25,000-50,000 BP. Croatia 1,000-5,000 BP. Finland 30,000-50,000 BP.France 10,000-40,000 BP. Germany 5,600-7,000 BP.Russia 1,500,000-5,000,000 BP. Ukraine 58,000-67,000 BP. In Europe there has bean a large historical decline. { Source Birdlife}

They occur in Europe {except the far north} west and central Asia and they winter south to north Africa and Arabia. They are birds of scrub farmland and even towns.

Illustration of Ortolan buntings.

British Birds with their Nest and Eggs -Butler 1898,courtesy of the BHL.
British Birds with their Nest and Eggs -Butler 1898,courtesy of the BHL.

What are buntings ?

Buntings are a group of birds that look very simialr to Finches,however, in general thy are somewhat slimmer and also longer tailed,and the shape and structure of the bill is more constant with a small upper mandible fitting into a deeper broader lower one that ha a curiously shaped cutting edge.

Most buntings have dark tails and white sides but some such as the Corn bunting have plainer tails. They have a variety of head patterns,and the males tend to look like the females in winter. In the Uk there are several species such as the Reed bunting**,the Yellowhammer**, Snow bunting** Lapland bunting **,Corn Bunting** and the Cirl bunting.

Others which occur in Europe include the Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla, the Rock Bunting,Emberiza cia, the Pine Bunting, Emberiza leucocephalus, the Black Headed Bunting Emberiza caesla, the Yellow Headed Bunting, Emberiza aureola, and the Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica.

Here we review the Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana and as always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

** These birds have already been reviewed in this series.

Female Ortolan Bunting

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons via Capolatell.   taken in Ukraine.
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons via Capolatell. taken in Ukraine. | Source

Description of the Ortolan Bunting

Ortolan Buntings are six to six and a half inches log {15-16 cm} and weigh 21-27 grams.

The adult male has the head,nape and upper breast greenish grey,the eyelid whitish. the lores,a moustachial streak, the chin and the fore throat are sulphur yellow. The back,wing coverts and secondary feathers are a pale reddish brown with blackish central streaks to the feathers.The lower back and rump with barely defines streaks. The remaining feathers of the wings and tail brown, the three outer tail feathers with large terminal patches of white on the inner webs.

The lower breast, belly and under wing and under tail coverts a pale reddish brown. The bill brownish the feet a reddish clay colour and the iris is dark brown.

The female is altogether duller and browner than the male , the head greener streaked with dark brown. The young birds closely resemble the female ,but are more yellow and more streaked below, and only have white patches on the two outer pairs of tail feathers.

After the autumn moult the tail and breast of this species are somewhat greener,and the beak paler,more flesh coloured.

Courtesy of sweetmatahari Standard You Tube license Video was captured in Kanasi Xinjiang.

Male singing

originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Jirib {talk}. The image was taken in south Siberia Russia.
originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Jirib {talk}. The image was taken in south Siberia Russia. | Source

General and historical information

There are currently 70+ recordings of this species in the UK annually,and therefore is classed as a rare vagrant to our shores. Butler, 'British Birds with their Nests and Eggs',1898, informs us that " Although there can be little doubt that several of the Ortolans shot,captured or seen in Great Britain, have escaped from the poulterer's shop, having been imported from the Continent to supply the tables of the wealthy. The fact that it is a common species at no greater distance than northern France,renders its occasional visits to our coasts extremely probable."

These small cheerful birds were regularly captured in France and other parts of the Continent of Europe. They were cruelly forced fed after being placed in a dark box with millet to fatten them up according to some writers.However, a correspondent of the 'Illustrated London News' wrote, " the method of fattening is true to a certain extent,and is apt to mislead many of your readers. The fact is that the Ortolan has a peculiar habit of eating,which is opposed to its rapid fattening. To surmount this peculiarity,those who pander to the taste of the Italian gourmands, place the Ortolans in a warm chamber,perfectly dark,with only an aperture in the wall. Their food is scattered over the floor of the chamber"

" In the morning the keeper of the birds places a lantern in the orifice of the wall, by the light thus thrown in, the Ortolans thinking the sun is about to rise,greedily consume the food upon the floor. More food is scattered about,and the lantern withdrawn. the Ortolans soon fall asleep.In about two hours the whole process is repeated,and so on for four or five times every day. The birds thus treated become little balls of fat in a very few days"

Adam 'The Smaller Birds of Britain' ,1894, writes " When ready for the market the birds are killed,steeped in boiling water,and packed in casks with spiced vinegar,to preserve them for home use of exportation"

Ortolan hunting was not banned in France until 1999, but it seems that the law was poorly enforced and some authorities claim that up to 50,000 Ortolan buntings were killed each year. Pressure from conservationists, ornithologists and the European Union Directives have resulted In the French Government promising to enforce the ban.

The European Directive states that it is unlawful to kill or capture these birds by any method. It goes on to sat that deliberate destruction of,or damage to, their nests and eggs or removal of their eggs or nest,the taking of their eggs in the wild and keeping these eggs is also illegal.other wording in the directive makes it clear that these birds,their eggs and young,are fully protected by the law at all times of the year,including selling them alive for whatever reason.

It seems that in the UK it was first recorded in 1776. Seebohm writing of the habits of this bird remarks " I found the Ortolan Bunting breeding on the mountains, in the Pine regions both of Greece and Asia Minor. When I was in Valconswaard, we constantly heard its plaintive monotonous song,as it perched for a long time on a branch of a tree in the lanes or hedges that surround the fields close to the village"

He goes on to relate " In the wilder districts of Norway,when driving in our Carioles { a light ,small,two or four wheeled vehicle}from Lillehammer towards the Dovre Fjeld, it was by no means uncommon in the trees by the roadside. It is not a shy bird and frequently remains for a long time on the same twig,generally near the top of the tree,especially in the evening,when the simple song harmonizes with the melancholy stillness of the outskirts of the country village"

The food of this species does not materially differ from that of other buntings,consisting mainly of insects in spring and summer and of seeds and fruit in the Autumn and winter.

Courtesy of rastachardo. Standard You Tube license.

Keeping wild birds was once a popular pastime

Public Domain. Courtesy of the BHL
Public Domain. Courtesy of the BHL

Ortolan Bunting in captivity

In the days before it became illegal to keep wild birds in captivity {with a few licensed exceptions}, Bird Catchers made a good living by capturing the birds by any means {usually by nets} and selling them to Bird keepers, for cage birds or for food at the markets. The following few paragraphs allude to this time in our avian history.

Butler an experienced bird keeper of his time conveys to us that, " In 1891,a pair of Ortolan buntings were given to me by Mr. P.J. Lowrey,and, judging {from my experiences of yellowhammers and Reed buntings in captivity} that this species would be equally inoffensive. I turned them into a large covered aviary with English finches and many small Ploceine finches. At first the Ortolans were quiet enough, their feathers being somewhat abraded { owing to the fact they had been kept in a cage in some small bird shop}, no sooner,however, had the birds moulted and thus recovered their full powers of flight ,than they occupied themselves for the greater part of each day in chasing the unfortunate Waxbills and Mannikin's all over the aviary"

" Apparently the Ortolans had no vicious intentions in their pursuit of their weaker associates, they never actually pecked them, when they had the opportunity to do so,but they could not resist the pleasure which the frantic terror of the little finches evidently gave them. They darted up and down the aviary almost with the rapidity of a Swallow,whilst the poor little hunted birds,unable to escape by mere speed,were forced to fly themselves against the wire work and double back to avoid their pursuers."

" Seeing that it was impossible to keep the Ortolans with the ornamental finches, I now captured my birds and placed them in another aviary containing Rewings** and Greenfinches**,Chaffinches etc. here they dropped all their active habits which had previously characterized them,being dull and listless as other members of their genus. Their health nevertheless,was always perfect and their plumage tight and glossy..I parted with them at the same time as I sold my Redwings,and subsequently they were made use of for show purposes."

Butler goes on to relate -" That in the Autumn of 1894 I selected a male Ortolan from a consignment of Weavers which had just been received from Africa. It had been imported with Abyssinian and Russ' weavers,and with these I continue to keep it in one of my cool aviaries.Like its predecessors, this Ortolan,associated as it is with naturally quarrelsome and powerful birds,is singularly quiet and retiring in its demeanour. Indeed it often seems to be weary of the constant wranglings and strong language of the weavers,and perches quite low down, or even on the earth,where from time to time it utters its melancholy little monotonous song."

" Although it never has a chance of securing any insect food,all of which is greedily devoured as soon as it is thrown into the aviary by three specimens of Cape Weaver, it appears to find all its needs for its health in the few dried ant's cocoons remaining in a saucer of soft food,which has already been picked over by the smaller birds. It also eats a good many oats in addition to Canary and other seeds."

" In spite of their usually placid behaviour,this and all the Buntings are very pretty additions to a mixed aviary, their plumage being usually quite uninjured and very clean. Although perhaps not so passionately fond of bathing as some of the more typical finches,they perform their ablutions once or twice each day in a methodical and business like manner,which is probably quite as effective as the hurried splashing ,characteristic of a Goldfinch or Chaffinch."

Taken in Israel

Pikiwiki Israel.
Pikiwiki Israel. | Source

Eggs of the Ortolan Bunting

Museum of Toulouse France.
Museum of Toulouse France. | Source

Nest,Eggs and Young

The nest of the Ortolan Bunting is formed in May usually at the latter end of the month. It is placed in a slight depression on the ground among herbage,under bushed or in open corn fields.It is formed of dry grass strengthened with roots and lined with finer rootlets and hair.

The eggs which number from four to five and vary in colour from pale lilac to a rosy salmon. They are boldly blotched and spotted and slightly streaked with purplish black chiefly towards the larger extremity,where the markings sometimes form an imperfect zone. The shell markings are violet greyish. In form they very much resemble the eggs of the Yellowhammer.

The eggs are incubated for a period of eleven to twelve days the task being undertaken by the female. The single brood of chicks are fed on caterpillars and other invertebrate and they are ready to leave the nest in a further twelve to thirteen days.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, you are very welcome we are taught so much from each other.Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      As always, Dave, so well written and exciting for me to learn about this bird. Thanks again!

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi you are very kind ,many thanks for your votes.


      Hello, Devika Time and tide wait for no man {or woman} and we all get caught up with other things to do. Thank you for your encouraging words and votes. Look forward to sharing more hubs in the future.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful hub! I haven't been around lately to write or comment. Time is slipping by and I feel so occupied. I like reading your interesting and well-informed hubs. The photos are impressive!

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 3 years ago from Jaipur

      Rated up and awesome for a beautiful article.