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Yellowhammer {birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015


The photograph originally on Flickr uploaded to Wikipedia by Snowmanradio. The Photograph was taken in New Zealand
The photograph originally on Flickr uploaded to Wikipedia by Snowmanradio. The Photograph was taken in New Zealand | Source


" Plentifully distributed throughout nearly every part of Great Britain, the yellowhammer is one of the commonest and best known wild birds; indeed in the summer months almost every hedgerow or patch of furze {gorse} may be relied upon to furnish a haunt for this handsome little bird." That was a paragraph from the book " Familiar Wild Birds" by W Swayland 1883.

How times and the fortune of this once numerous bird has changed in Great Britain, where, it is now on the Red List of conservation concern, making it a Priority species of conservation concern. The criteria for addition to this list is a decline in population/distribution numbers of more than 50%,in the species over the last forty years or so.. Once on the list a Species Action Plan often abbreviated to S.A.P. is formulated and then implemented on behalf of the species in an attempt to halt and eventually reverse the decline. According to the latest Bird Atlas 2007-2011, the species is now missing from large swathes of Ireland,Western Scotland, southern Wales and Northern England,representing a 32% contraction for this formerly widespread breeding bird. The Good news is that on mainland Europe it is not a species of concern.

Here in this article we review the species through the perceptions of past ornithologists such as Swayland and others of his ilk.

Yellowhammer male and female

Birds of Britain {
Birds of Britain {

Description of the Yellowhammer

The Yellowhammer varies in plumage to a considerable degree, some birds being much yellower than others, while the rufous red on the breast and the lower part of the back is more or less deep in some than others. The bill is of a bluish horn colour, the upper part tinged with brown. The iris is dark brown and the base of the bill is adorned with sharp bristles.

On the crown and the sides of the head is bright yellow, with a few streaks of dusky black olive, frequently forming a line on each side from the forehead over the eye to the back of the head.The chin, throat and breast bright yellow with streaks at the sides of reddish brown.

The tail is slightly forked, of a dusky black colour with some white markings on the outside feathers, which are very easily seen during flight. The legs toes and claws are a light yellowish brown with a reddish tinge.

The length of the bird is 16cm {six and a half inches} with a wingspan of 23-29cm{ nine to eleven and a half inches} They weigh 24-30 grams. In relation to their body size the wings are relatively short, the tail a medium length, the neck short, bill short as are the legs.

The female, as a rule , is a duller yellowish brown and the tail is lighter and she has a smaller proportion of white on the outside tail feathers. When the young first leave the nest their colouring is a dull yellowish brown, the brighter portions of their plumage not being attained until the bird is fully grown.

After the Autumn moult the Yellowhammer has dark tips to the feathers of the head, and broad, pale margins to the feathers of the rump and to the upper tail coverts, most of these are abraded or drop off in the spring, leaving the bird in its most brilliant breeding plumage.

Yellowhammer and its history

The yellowhammer has been given the scientific name of Emberiza citrinella. The genus name of Emberiza derives from a German word embritz indicating a bunting while the specific name of citrinella derives from citreus meaning of the citrus tree and indicates its yellow colouring. The word 'hammer' is derived from the same source as the German 'ammer' which also denotes a bunting, the addition of the 'h' is probably an English corruption of the original word.

According to Seebohm, in his book ' The History of British Birds' 1883-85, the ditribution od the bird was as follows -It breeds in every part of the United Kingdom and Ireland but does not appear to have visited the Faroe's or Iceland. On the Continent of Europe it breeds throughout Scandinavia, at least as far north as Latitude 70 Degrees. It is found throughout Russia even as the \Arctic circle and in the valley of Petchora. In the extreme northern portions of its range it is only a summer visitor.

It is resident in northern France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, North Italy and Austria, but to the south of France, Spain, Portugal, the south of Italy, Turkey, Asia minor, the extreme north west Persia and north west Turkestan it is only a winter visitor. In the south it is a resident of the island of Teneriffe, but there is no satisfactory evidence of it ever having been found on the African Continent"

Lifestyle and diet

These birds have a very sociable nature although intermittent squabbles often break out. The flight of the Yellowhammer id rapid, strong and undulating, the bird seems to alight unexpectedly, and may be seen to display its tail, at such times, with a quick jerky movement. The Yellowhammer has a somewhat peculiar way of leaping when feeding on the ground, the bird's breast at the time being close or very nearly so, to the ground, when perched the attitude is 'listless' and the tail being defelected for some time.

Several of the buntings are nearly allied to the Yellowhammer, but none can be confounded with it. The Yellowhammer is the only species in the genus which shows so much yellow on the head and at the same time a yellow throat and belly.

Its preferred haunts are well cultivated fields, country lanes, and commons. However, the bird does occur near Moorlands and on wild upland pastures. It is not an inhabitant of woods, but tends to frequent their borders and it may be encountered in well wooded districts providing there is plenty of open land between them.

The song of the Yellowhammer is one of the first to be heard in spring, and amy often be detected as early as February. It consists of two to three chirps, which are said to sound like 'Chit-chit' followed by a prolonged harsh 'chirr-r-r'. In Sussex the Yellowhammers called was popularly supposed to resemble the words " a little bit of bread and no cheese" This interpretation seems to have caught on and still regularly written in modern day bird books when the song of the Yellowhammer is mentioned. The song is uttered from the top of some hedge or spray of a bush.

The diet of the Yellowhammer principally consists of grains and various seeds of various sorts, and insects. Insects are, as is common among nearly all seed eaters, are fed to the young nestlings. Grains and seeds are its mainstay diet.

Illustration of the Yellowhammer

Courtesy of the BHL
Courtesy of the BHL

Nest eggs and young

About the middle of April { or much earlier in the southern parts of Europe and Great Britain }, the flocks of winter disperse and the Yellowhammer pairs up and turns its attention to family duties. Generally the nest is placed near the ground in a bank and frequently in a tuft of course grass or herbage. It is built of moss, fine fibrous roots and small twigs, and neatly lined with horse hair.

Three or four eggs are laid of a pale purplish colour, streaked, spotted and blotched with dark reddish brown occasionally eggs may be encountered which are adorned with a reddish tint, with dark brown streaks and blushes. Others are encountered with fine dark streaks which gave rise to the country titles for the bird of writing sparrow and the scribbling lark.

The eggs may also vary in size which are incubated for about thirteen days, the young fledge in a further fifteen or sixteen days. The young are carefully attended to by their parents, the male bird being especially noticeable for its assiduity and anxiety he evinces for the protection of his mate and young. As soon as the young are capable of looking after themselves the Yellowhammer becomes more a less a nomad and wanders in search of food.

Yellowhammer at nest.

Birds through the year {1922}
Birds through the year {1922}

Autumn and winter birds

In autumn they visit the grain fields. As autumn approaches they congregate in flocks and throughout the winter they live on various kinds of seeds. before the practice of autumn sown wheat was introduced in Britain and the stubble fields were left until spring before they were turned brown by the plough, the stubble fields provided weed seeds throughout the winter which helped the birds survive, alas these days the stubble field is much less numerous as a habitat and consequently this may well have a large contribution in the birds decline.

In the depths of winter they were often observed in farmyards clinging to the corn stacks, or picking up a scanty sustenance from the manure heaps, they would also hop around the barn door as thrashing was ongoing and picked up the grains that were scattered by the operation.

During the season the birds flight can be witnessed to perfection. They wheel in the air with great regularity, almost in the manner of a starling, and pass overhead chirping to each other as they go. claims--Henry Seebohm claims " That with a sudden movement they will sometimes dart downwards as if shot from a bow, and alight in the branches of some tall tree directly under them".

" They seek the fields again very cautiously, for one bird will fly down and then another, or two or three together until they are all together again feeding as before.The singular mode of alighting in the tree beneath them is almost unique and is often indulged in about dusk when the birds are about to seek a roosting place".

Yellowhammers,tend to roost in evergreen during this time of the year and sometimes on the ground with the larks.

There are few sights in the British countryside, than a flock of Yellowhammers in the snow, when their rich plumage contrasts with the frosted branches and the whiteness all around.

Conservation update November 2013

The new Bird Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland { 2007-11 }reveals that the yellowhammer which could once be heard singing in most every village of Britain and Ireland is now absent from large swaths of Ireland, western Scotland,Southern Wales and northern England, representing a 32% contraction for this formerly widespread breeding bird.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, thank you for your comments, I just hope we continue to be fortunate here in Britain as far as the Yellowhammer and other species are concerned. Many of our species are in decline. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Such a delightful rendition about a lovely little bird that Britain is so fortunate to have.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Imogen French,

      H, thank you for your kind comments which are appreciated. Sorry this little bird is not more common in your part of our country, they were once common there. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, thank you for welcome comment. Best wishes to you.

      Peggy W,

      Hi Peggy thank you for your visit and for leaving your warm comments. It sure is a handsome bird. Best wishes to you.


      Hello, Your Goldfinch is indeed very similar in many ways . A bird that I have covered in another hub. Your comments, as always are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      This bird is similar to our goldfinch though it has more brown markings. Obviously, as you've pointed out we don't have this species in the US.

      As you always do, you've provided lots of information about this little bird. I loved your choice of pictures too.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Really enjoyed learning about the beautiful Yellowhammer bird. It is certainly a beauty! Thanks!

    • Londonlady profile image

      Laura Writes 

      5 years ago

      Aww, what a cutie. Very descriptive hub

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 

      5 years ago from Southwest England

      A fascinating and in-depth look at the yellowhammer - a bird that I have only ever seen twice in my lifetime. Thanks for the info.


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