Yellow-breasted Bunting is declining, and its decline is so severe that researchers are comparing it to the infamous 19th-century collapse of the Passenger Pigeon.
The bunting once occurred over vast areas of Europe and Asia, its range stretching from Finland to Japan. But unsustainable rates of hunting, principally in its wintering area in China, have caused not only a catastrophic loss in numbers but also a dramatic shrinkage of the areas in which the bunting can now be found.
“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting,” says Johannes Kamp, an ecologist from the University of Münster and the lead author of a new paper on the bunting.
The species may have numbered 100 million birds in the 1980s, Kamp writes. Since then, it has declined by 90 percent, and its range has contracted eastward by 5,000 km (about 3,100 miles). Today it has all but disappeared from eastern Europe, European Russia, large parts of western and central Siberia, and Japan.
When BirdLife International released the European Red List of Birds last week, Yellow-breasted Bunting was one of 10 species listed as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat. BirdLife estimates the breeding population in European Russia, Ukraine, and Finland to be 120-600 individuals.
During migration and on the wintering grounds, Yellow-breasted Buntings gather in huge flocks at nighttime roosts, making them easy to trap in large numbers. Birds have traditionally been trapped for food at roosts with nets.
Hunting of the species — known in Chinese as the “rice bird” — was banned in China in 1997, but millions of Yellow-breasted Buntings and other songbirds were still being killed for food and sold on the black market as late as 2013. Consumption of the birds has increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity in East Asia. According to the South China Morning Post, the birds are considered a delicacy in southern China, “where locals believe eating the animal can boost their sexual vitality and detoxify their bodies.”
A 2001 study estimated that one million buntings were being eaten annually in China’s Guangdong province alone. Kamp notes that 60 percent of the Chinese population consumes wildlife, and “the main consumer group is young men with high educational status and incomes.”
A single bird sells for about $8-$11 each, although prices as high as $30-$40 have been reported.
“To reverse the declines, we need to better educate people of the consequences of eating wildlife,” says coauthor Simba Chan, senior conservation officer at BirdLife International. “We also need a better and more efficient reporting system for law enforcement.”
A new agreement between China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia is a first step in developing a coordinated monitoring of migratory birds across the region. Also, signers of the Convention on Migratory Species have agreed to develop an international action plan by 2017 for the recovery of the Yellow-breasted Bunting throughout its range.
“The story of the Yellow-breasted Bunting illustrates how little we know about trends in populations in many species in the region,” Chan adds. “There is growing evidence that these declines are part of wider problems for common Asian birds. We need to better understand these in order to address them more effectively.
“In the last decade, birdwatching has become increasingly popular in China. Birdwatchers will play an important role in future data gathering. Now is the time to address these worrying declines across the region by mobilizing people for conservation action.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor