Is the Yellow-breasted Bunting the next Passenger Pigeon?
Wide-scale, unchecked hunting has, in the space of just three decades, driven frightening declines in two widespread bunting species, on both sides of the Eurasian landmass. Armed with our scientific findings, the BirdLife Partnership is now working to help buntings recover.
We are all familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius — once the most abundant species in North America, and possibly the entire world. Numbering well into the billions at the peak of its existence, flocks of Passenger Pigeons flying overhead were likened to deafening hurricanes. It seemed unthinkable that this superabundant bird could go extinct.
Yet, it did. Unchecked hunting and the widespread clearance of hardwood trees, which provided the bulk of its diet, drove a steep decline in numbers in the late 19th Century. By the time we realised what was happening, it was too late to reverse the decline, and Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914. This sorry tale serves to remind us that although many birds are classified as Least Concern by BirdLife on behalf of the IUCN Red List, if we ignore the warning signs, no species is immune from the threat of extinction.
In the mid-1990s, the observed decline of the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola in Hokkaido, Japan alerted conservationists that another super-abundant species might be in trouble. Now we know it has suffered a huge decline, possibly as much as 95 percent of its population, in the span of just two to three decades. Prior to 2004 the Yellow-breasted Bunting was not regarded as of conservation concern, but since 2013 it has been listed as Endangered, and this year the discussion on BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Birds Forum concerned a potential further uplisting to Critically Endangered.
The main reason for its decline is also comparable to that of the Passenger Pigeon: the species migrates in huge flocks, which are hunted in massive numbers. Again paralleling the Passenger Pigeon, the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s plight has been worsened by improvements in communication and transportation. The species gathers in large numbers at night to roost, making the birds easy to trap in high numbers.
The species is known as the “rice bird” in China, where it is hunted for food — a practice that has been illegal since 1997, but continues on the black market to this day. Such unsustainable and mostly illegal hunting on migratory passerines in Asia has pushed not only the Yellow-breasted Bunting to the edge of extinction; according to preliminary monitoring projects performed in Amur Region (Russia) and Hong Kong SAR (China), all migratory bunting species in eastern Asia are declining.
In order to address and confront this little-known crisis, BirdLife International co-organised an international workshop on conservation of the Yellow-breasted Bunting with the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife in China (Hong Kong)) and the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China in November 2016. The purpose of the workshop was to collect information and opinion for drafting an International Conservation Action Plan on the Yellow-breasted Bunting, and to form an international conservation network on this and other migratory passerines.
More than 50 experts from almost all major range countries attended the workshop. The main recommendations from the workshop were that the Yellow-breasted Bunting should be officially protected in all range countries, that its migration patterns should be managed using colour banding and geolocators, and that its breeding, migration and wintering sites need to be identified, surveyed, protected, and managed. It is also imperative to study the effect of agrochemicals on migratory passerines that use farmlands, and promote wildlife-friendly farming practices. International cooperation on the research and conservation of this species and other migratory passerines is necessary if we are to stabilise the numbers of Asia’s vanishing migrants.
Alarmingly, the yellow-breasted bunting appears to have disappeared completely from southern Sakhalin
The International Conservation Action Plan of the Yellow-breasted Bunting is expected to be published by 2019, as good consultation with different countries and stakeholders, including some regional and national workshops, are needed. However, important actions are already underway. In the breeding season of 2016, BirdLife International and Birds Russia conducted a preliminary study on the Yellow-breasted Bunting in Sakhalin, Russia. The result was alarming: it has seemingly disappeared completely from southern Sakhalin, and could only found at a few localities in northern and central parts of the island.
The next year, a joint team from BirdLife International, Wild Bird Society of Japan (BirdLife Partner) and Birds Russia visited northern Sakhalin and colour-banded eighteen Yellow-breasted Buntings so we could study its migration. Geolocators will be used in the breeding season of 2018 if the banded birds have proven they are returning to the same breeding sites.
A poster prepared by BirdLife to raise awareness of the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s plight
This year, China has made a very positive move in saving the Yellow-breasted Bunting and other migratory passerine by enforcing a revised Wildlife Conservation Law. It outlaws the eating of protected species, which includes the Yellow-breasted Bunting. The key to success is higher awareness among the general public so they will refuse to buy the birds and report any illegal activities seen.
BirdLife International and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society have produced a poster to support implementation of the new conservation law. BirdLife Partners will also support an education programme on prevention of hunting and wildlife consumption in all other range countries as the fight continues to ensure that the Yellow-breasted Bunting doesn’t become another cautionary tale for future generations.