The Yellow-breasted Bunting, Emberiza aureola, is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List on the basis that the species is undergoing a rapid decline in population size. Formerly one of the most common breeding passerines of the northern Palearctic, it has been recorded breeding from Finland, Belarus and Ukraine in the west through to eastern Russia, the Korean peninsula and Japan in the east, overwintering in a relatively small area of South and South-east Asia. The species has recently undergone rapid population and range declines, which led to its uplisting from Least Concern to Near Threatened in 2004, Vulnerable in 2008 and Endangered in 2013.
These declines are thought to be driven mainly by impacts during migration and in wintering areas, with populations even on pristine breeding grounds showing large declines (S. Chan in litt. 2003, P. Round in litt. 2003, M. Williams in litt. 2007, S. Chan in litt. 2007). The main threat is thought to be excessive trapping for a range of uses, including human consumption. For instance, an estimated several thousand individuals of this species were being caught for the annual food festival in Sanshui City, southern China (Gao Yuren 1996), but although this practice was banned in 1997, a black market still persists and a huge number of birds are still being sold annually (see Kamp et al. 2015), including around 10,000 birds sold daily in a single market in Sanshui (Chan 2004). Additionally, in China, thousands of males are also stuffed and sold as mascots, since their presence in the home is thought to confer happiness (A. Mischenko in litt. 2012). Habitat degradation on wintering sites through agricultural intensification is also thought to be playing a role in the decline of this species (T. Evans in litt. 2007, J. Tordoff in litt. 2007, J. C. Eames in litt. 2007), which may be being compounded by habitat deterioration in some breeding areas too.
There has been no accurate quantification of the population size of this species, though in Europe the species is believed to have declined from 20,000-100,000 breeding pairs, equating to 60,000-300,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004) to only 60-300 pairs (BirdLife International 2015). There have also been some rough national estimates from East Asia of c.100-100,000 breeding pairs and c.50-10,000 individuals on migration in China; <c.100,000 breeding pairs and <c.1,000 individuals on migration in Japan; and c.10,000-100,000 breeding pairs and c.1,000-10,000 individuals on migration in Russia (Brazil 2009). The lack of clear data on global population size means an accurate assessment of this species against criteria C and D is not possible. Additionally, the range of this species remains sufficiently large that the species would not warrant listing under criterion B, and no quantitative analysis of extinction risk has been conducted, thus the species cannot be assessed against criterion E.
The rate of decline has been sufficiently rapid for the species to be currently listed as Endangered under criteria A2acd+3cd+4acd (a past, ongoing and future decline of 50-79% over 3 generations or 10 years, whichever is longer). A recent study by Kamp et al. (2015), estimated that between 1980 and 2013 the population may have declined by 84.3-94.7%. This equates to a decline of 45.4-61.8% over 3 generations (10.8 years). However, it was noted in Kamp et al. (2015) that the population was relatively stable until 1987. Taking this into account, the decline over 3 generations falls in the range 53.7-70.5% (placed in the range 50-79% in the Red List assessment). This therefore falls within the bounds for listing as Endangered under criterion A – the species’s current listing. In a new Forktail paper, Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) also provide evidence for a rapid decline at the Svyatoy Nos wetlands, with an estimate of 500-1,000 breeding pairs in the 1990s, down to potentially only 5 breeding pairs in 2013 and 7 singing males (and an unknown number of females) in 2014. This is compelling evidence for a drastic decline at this site (potentially >90% over 3 generations) and Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) suggest that this may have been restricted to the 21st Century, which would mean declines over the most recent 3 generations may be considered even greater. However, it should also be noted that this site represents only a tiny proportion of the global range (<0.002%).
Further information is therefore now sought to determine if such steep declines may be occurring across the species’ distribution, and hence that Kamp et al. were in error and underestimated the global decline rate, or that the rate of population decline has worsened since the 1980-2013 period analysed by Kamp et al. and so now exceeds 80% over 3 generations (10.8 years). If this proves to be the case, the species would warrant uplisting to Critically Endangered. Given the recent comprehensive range-wide review by Kamp et al., and that the Mlikovsky and Styblo (2016) study covers only a tiny fraction of the global distribution, further information from other parts of the species’ distribution is key to determining the correct Red List classification.
BirdLife International. 2004. Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.
BirdLife International. 2015. European Red List of Birds. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.
Brazil, M. 2009. Birds of East Asia: eastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, eastern Russia. Christopher Helm, London.
Chan, S. 2004. Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola. BirdingASIA: 16-17.
Gao Yuren. 1996. Ginsengs from heaven – Rice Bird (Yellow-breasted Bunting). Daiziren 1996: 34-35.
Kamp, J.; Oppel, S.; Ananin, A. A.; Durnev, Y. A.; Gashev, S. N.; Hölzel, N.; Mischenko, A. L.; Pessa, J.; Smirenski, S. M.; Strelnikov, E. G.; Timonen, S.; Wolanska, K.; Chan, S. 2015. Global population collapse in a superabundant migratory bird and illegal trapping in China. Conserv. Biol. 29: 1684-1694.
Mlikovsky, J.; Styblo, P. 2016. Biometry, ecology and population status of the Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola in the Svyatoy Nos wetlands, Lake Baikal, eastern Siberia, Russia. Forktail 32: 1-4.