18 Dec 2019

Bringing the ‘rice bird’ back to Hong Kong

The Yellow-breasted Bunting used to flock in its thousands across Asia’s paddy fields. Now, due to hunting and changes in farming practices, it is Critically Endangered. A new project is bringing rice paddies back to Hong Kong, along with the birds that depend on them.

Autumn is both rice harvesting season and migration season for Yellow-breasted Bunting © oLDcaR
Autumn is both rice harvesting season and migration season for Yellow-breasted Bunting © oLDcaR
By Vicky Yeung

Hong Kong is such a highly-developed metropolitan city, it's hard to imagine that it still contains active farmland. In fact, a few areas of agriculture cling on – but there used to be even more. Paddy rice was once widely grown in Hong Kong, the perfect habitat for the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola. At that time, the species was abundant; in the 1950s, as many as 2,500 individuals were observed at one time, and as recently as the 1980s the birds could still be seen flocking in their thousands. But then the market value of rice dropped. Farmers began growing vegetables to give them a higher and faster economic return, and in the 1980s, according to governmental data, paddy field habitat became locally extinct in Hong Kong.

Within just 14 years, Yellow-breasted Bunting was re-classified from Least Concern to Critically Endangered, mainly due to habitat loss and excessive trapping at its migration and wintering sites. The Yellow-breasted Bunting was a well-known seasonal food referred to as the “rice bird”, and come autumn, was commonly found at local markets and food stalls.

Nowadays, only a tiny portion of the older generation still eat rice-bird in mainland China, where it can be found on the black market alongside other wild birds on sale for consumption. But these wild birds are also at risk in other East Asian countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, where they are threatened by illegal trapping for food and the Buddhist practice of “mercy release”.

Something had to be done to address the Yellow-breasted bunting’s dramatic decline. Ending trapping through education and law enforcement was an important piece of the puzzle – but if the bird were to truly recover, it would also need suitable habitat to feed and breed in. And so, in 2005, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (HKBWS) and another local NGO, The Conservancy Association (CA), initiated an agricultural wetland management project in Long Valley, northern Hong Kong. The project, with funding support from the government and cooperation with local farmers, aims to increase the diversity of habitats in this freshwater area, and thus enhance the ecological value of the site.

Long Valley, a natural floodplain in northern Hong Kong, is the only remaining active agricultural area © Kit Lam

Restoration of paddy field began in spring 2009 and by the autumn of the same year, more than 10 Yellow-breasted Buntings were already visiting the new rice field. In subsequent years, the scale of paddy rice planting continued to grow and with it, the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s population. At present, roughly 1 hectare of paddy field has been restored. In the autumn, around 30%-40% of the area is left un-harvested in order to provide a stable food source for the bunting and other seed-eating migratory birds.

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When HKBWS and CA first approached some of the rice farmers, perhaps understandably they were shocked and laughed at this idea, saying: “No farmer in the world would ever let birds eat their crops.” However, a few years on, they are happy that birds are targeting these un-harvested fields, as it minimizes damage to their productive fields. A phenomenal increase in biodiversity has resulted from the project with the number of bird species in Long Valley rising from 230 in 2005 to a staggering 317 in 2019.

And the benefits of the project reach even further than that. Besides birds, the fields provide habitat to a wide variety of wildlife including amphibians and insects, and besides just farmers, the whole community can get involved. Since the farmlands of Long Valley are small and irregular in shape, using machinery to plant and harvest the crop is impossible and therefore must be done by hand.

For this reason, HKBWS and CA established the “Eco-paddy Club” – a community engagement scheme bringing volunteers from the community together to grow rice. Members get to take part in every part of the whole rice production cycle in the scenic beauty of the wetlands, as well as enjoy their own self-grown rice. The rest of the product is packaged and sold at local markets as “Long Valley Eco-rice,” with the message “Support wildlife conservation, support local agriculture”.

The Eco-paddy Club is a fun and effective way to restore habitat in Long Valley © The Conservancy Association

In order to measure this success scientifically, in 2017, HKBWS began an Autumn Bird Banding Programme at rice fields in Long Valley. Special coloured rings are put on Yellow-breasted Buntings and other bunting species in order to collect more information on their migration pattern. Preliminary results reveal that Long Valley has now become a stable stopover site for buntings in autumn, with Yellow-breasted Buntings stopping over for up to 13 days (with an average duration of 7 days). Researchers await news of overseas observations, but countries across the species’ range have begun to join forces to carry out further research and conservation work. Colour-banding schemes for buntings are now also in place in Russia, Mongolia, Japan and Thailand. The results of these studies are crucial in order to plan a conservation strategy and secure a future for the Yellow-breasted Bunting across its entire range.

The Yellow-breasted Bunting is a flagship species that represents all other terrestrial migratory birds in Asia. Owing to its use in the traditional dish, it is a well-known species in Hong Kong and the biggest selling point for Long Valley Eco-rice. However, it’s clear that the conservation work done in its name goes far beyond just this one species. We hope that the success of the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s story will become another leading source of hope, inspiring future bird conservation efforts worldwide.