Published 9 June 2015

Superabundant “rice bird” decline mirrors that of Passenger Pigeon

Cambridge, UK, 9th June 2015—One of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, the Yellow-breasted Bunting or “rice bird” has declined by 90% and retracted its range by 5000 km since 1980 a new study shows.

Yellow-breasted Bunting male on the breeding grounds. © Ulrich Schuster / Amur Bird Project

The sheer scale and speed of the loss has drawn comparisons with that of the Passenger Pigeon, once the commonest bird in North America, but now extinct. 

“The magnitude and speed of the [Yellow-breasted Bunting’s] decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the new research published in the journal Conservation Biology. 

During migration and on the wintering grounds, Yellow-breasted Buntings gather in huge flocks in East Asia at night-time roosts where they have traditionally been trapped with nets for food. 

Kamp’s research indicates that unsustainable rates of hunting, principally in China, have contributed to a catastrophic loss of numbers and also in the areas in which the buntings can now be found.

The Yellow-breasted Bunting has all but disappeared from Eastern Europe, European Russia, large parts of Western and Central Siberia, and Japan.

Hunting of the species was banned in China in 1997. However, millions of Yellow-breasted Buntings and other songbirds were still being killed for food and sold on the black market as late as 2013. Consumption of these birds has increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity in East Asia, with one estimate from 2001 of one million buntings being consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone.

“To reverse these declines we need to better educate people of the consequences of eating wildlife. We also need a better and more efficient reporting system for law enforcement,” said Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer at BirdLife International.

“There is growing evidence that these declines are part of wider problems for common Asian birds. We need to better understand these in order to address them more effectively.”

Major songbird declines have also been reported in South-East Asia, where capture for the songbird trade is recognized as the single largest threat to many species, particularly in the Greater Sunda region comprising Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. 

Currently, there is a lack of regulation, monitoring and enforcement efforts of bird markets, trade routes and collection sites by relevant authorities. 

In response to this crisis, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, TRAFFIC, Cikananga Wildlife Center and other international institutions, have joined forces to host Asia’s first Songbird Crisis Summit, which takes place in Singapore on 26–29th September 2015.

The latest study on Yellow-breasted Buntings is published in Conservation Biology: Kamp et al. (2015) Global population collapse in a superabundant migratory bird and illegal trapping in China

Yellow-breasted Buntings are trapped in huge numbers to be sold as food snacks. © Huang Qiusheng