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 Reed Bunting - Fact File
Reed Bunting
Emberiza schoeniclus
Widespread resident throughout Britain, retreating from Northern Scotland in winter.
Breeds mainly near water, but does not depend on reeds. In winter, found also in fields and even gardens, feeding with other buntings and finches.

Breeding male unmistakable with bold black and white head pattern. Female is rather sparrow like but with distinctive head markings and streaked breast and flanks. In winter, males head pattern more like females.

15.5 cm

Reed Bunting

When I first knew the Broads, the reed bunting abounded in all the reed and sedge marshes, winter and summer. It was always conspicuous on any walk one took into the fens, the cock especially, with black cap and bib and white collar, flying up on to a sallow bush or the top of a reed clump like a sentinel and uttering a wheezy jingle of alarm notes.

Many a time in spring and early summer I have stumbled on the bunting's nest lodged on a mossy, grass-grown stump or among sedges on a dyke bank - a rather untidy, yet snug cup of coarse grass, lined with the old reedtops or sallow fluff.

I would take a brief look at the rather chaffinch-like eggs with their purple-black 'commas' and streaks, or the fluffy black nestlings with bright pink gapes and pass on, hoping not to tread on the next nest along the way. Usually the hen bird would fly off and work her way through the undergrowth in rather a flurry as one approached the nest, so this usually served as a warning to tread carefully.

Pair of Reed Buntibgs
Reed Buntings : photo © Andrew Howe

Some birds of the old Broadland mowing marshes became scarcer when litter-cutting virtually ceased in the 1920's, because many of the more open areas soon became overgrown with bushes and other rank vegetation not to their liking.

I would not say that the reed bunting was one of the species upset by this change, because it is a haunter of bushy and reedy marshes rather than the grazing levels. Yet there has been a noticeable decrease in its local breeding population in the past 20 years or so, even in its best habitats.

In some areas I saw it go down quickly when harriers took up residence. At Surlingham, for instance, it became scarce very quickly when a pair of Montagu's harriers nested for five years in succession on one of my marshes near the River Yare. The harriers do not come now, except as occasional visitors, and in the past two years I have begun to see a few more reed buntings, in summer.

During the winter, there are still plenty of these striking little birds to be seen feeding with finches in stackyards in Norfolk farms and they flock on the hedges and in gardens far inland, especially in hard weather.

Probably most of these are immigrants from the Continent. They appear in flocks on our coast in autumn fairly regularly and many remain there for most of the winter. I have seen them feeding at the tidemark with snow buntings and pipits and they also find seeds in the marram hills.

In recent years more and more reed buntings have been reported visiting town and city gardens during the winter and this seems to be a new development. I have been asked to identify them on several occasions when they have appeared as conspicuous strangers in flocks of house sparrows

By Michael J Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Michael Seago article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Photograph: © Andy Bright - Digiscoped U.K. Birds Website
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain