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 Yellowhammer - Fact File
male (left), female
Emberiza citrinella
Common and widespread resident. Scarce or absent from parts of N W Scotland.
Farmland with hedges, heaths, bushy commons and young plantations. In winter more on fields with stubble and root crops.

Yellow and chestnut plumage (strongest on male) and white outer tail. Has tinkling song traditionally rendered as "little bit of bread and no cheese".

16.5 cm (6.5")


These birds of the hedgerows and farmland always join us in the late winter and it is a great delight, as well as a treat, to watch them through my field-glasses. Their appearance is so attractive — one cannot but feel sometimes that they must have escaped from an aviary! With their thick bills, they pick out the seeds from the mixed food I put out, which includes wholemeal breadcrumbs, sunflower seeds, corn, millet and nuts.

The male yellowhammers are really beautiful and brilliant, mustard-coloured heads streaked with feathers of dark brown. They have black, beady eyes and vivid yellow bills. Their wings are a rich mixture of stripy browns, and their breast feathers are yellowish with dusky-brown streaks and a greenish tinge of olive.

I spend many odd moments examining the yellowhammers. The females, though attractively streaky, are feathered in softer shades than the males and have far less yellow on their heads. All yellowhammers have striking, rusty-coloured, unstreaked rumps which are most attractive.

Thirty years ago, every little lane in the parishes among which I live had its hedgerow yellowhammers, the cocks perched on high on their songposts, on bushes or the telegraph wires. In fact the lanes were filled with their day-long voices — the highly distinctive and repetitious 'chiz-iz-iz-iz-iz-iz-zeee.'

Country people used to call the song 'a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese' which requires more than a little imagination to make the words fit the song. The bird, by the way, sometimes omits the final 'cheese' or prolonged wheeze altogether!

Although we have yellowhammers in our lanes today, there are nowhere as near as many of them as there used to be. With the removal of hedgerows and flailing of others, as well as the constant trimming of verges, there are far less weed seeds, wild fruits and insect larvae for them today, which may be a contributory factor.

Yellowhammers have at least 20 other names including yellow bunting, yellow amber, yellow ring, scribble lark and scribbler, the last two, because of the squiggly marks on their eggs.

The yellowhammer's nest is constructed by the female. It consists of a cup of grasses and a little moss, and is lined with fine grass and hair. It is usually built near the roadside where there is cover, either on the ground hidden among grasses and other plans, or a foot or two above it perhaps in a thick bush. The second half of the name yellowhammer is thought to derive from the German for bunting which is 'ammer', yellowhammers being the commonest of the buntings.

By Rosemary Tilbrook

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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.