Cirl Bunting, Emberiza cirlus, adult male feeding in straw, on a Devon farm.

Cirl bunting factfile

From how to say it to how to see it, find out more about this special little bird.

Introducing the cirl bunting

The chances are that you’ve never seen a cirl bunting. After all, they’re rare, and at present they’re only found in parts of Devon and Cornwall, but this wasn’t always the case.

They weren’t even known until 1800, when a gentleman by the name of Lord Montagu first discovered them in Kingsbridge, Devon (he also named the Montagu’s harrier, by the way).

By the 1930s cirl buntings were widespread across southern England and in Wales. Had they newly arrived from the continent, where they are more common, or had they been overlooked? We’re not sure, but by the second half of the nineteenth century they were even breeding in London suburbs.

However, in the 1970s, it was increasingly obvious they were in serious trouble. By 1989, all that was left was a small population based almost entirely in south Devon.

Cirl bunting

Family life

Cirl buntings are birds of traditional mixed farmland. They need hedges for nesting, a mix of farmland habitats to provide seeds in winter, and insects to feed their young in spring.

Grasshoppers are particularly important for the chicks but changes in the way farms were managed meant they became too scarce. Also, spring-sown cereals, which after harvest had been left as stubbles over winter, were replaced by autumn-sown cereals, which are sown straight after harvest, resulting in total loss of winter stubbles.

Cirl buntings are real home-birds, rarely moving very far from their breeding sites or from where they hatched. Males declare their territories with a simple, metallic trilling song. The nest will be well-hidden in a hedge or scrub, and the pair may have up to three broods of three or four babies each year.

Females and juveniles are mainly streaky brown and a lot less brightly coloured than males.

Cirl bunting's nest and eggs, RSPB Cirl Bunting Project.

Seeing cirls

They are still quite rare birds, and to see them you’ll have to visit the right part of Devon or Cornwall.

They can be seen in many places along the coastal strip between Plymouth and Exeter. One of the best places to see them is the RSPB Labrador Bay nature reserve.

Cirl buntings never wander far from their breeding sites at any time of year, so you could be lucky whenever you go. 

Please bear in mind that they are sensitive to disturbance, especially in the breeding season, so always put their welfare first and follow the advice given.

But by going to the right place, and being careful, you might get to see a really special little bird, and in truly stunning countryside, too.

Map showing where you can see cirl buntings

Meet the cousins

Cirl buntings are close relatives of corn buntings, reed buntings and yellowhammers, and indeed, look very similar to yellowhammers.

But you’ll only see a cirl bunting in the UK if you’re in Devon or Cornwall.

Elsewhere you can see their close relative the yellowhammer. These birds look very similar and are found on farmland across many parts of the UK, apart from the uplands.

Despite their wide range, yellowhammers are on the red list too as a species of conservation concern, having suffered a serious population crash like many other farmland birds.

If you’re out for a spring or summer walk in the countryside, listen for the “little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese” song of the yellowhammer, and look for the startling yellow of a male in the hedgerow.

In winter you may still spot them searching for food in stubble fields and along hedgerows.

Yellowhammer perched on a yellow flower calling

Timeline

1800 – 1930s: First encounter

Cirl buntings have long been widespread on the continent. But prior to 1800, when they were first discovered in Kingsbridge, Devon, they had not been seen in the UK. It’s assumed they had only just arrived. By about 1930, they had spread across 39 British counties, reaching as far as north Wales and Yorkshire. They also bred in the Channel Islands.

1930s  1980s: On the way down

From that peak in the 1930s, cirl bunting populations began to fall and the birds disappeared from many places. From1968-72, there were only 250-300 pairs in 20 counties and by 1989, only 118 pairs remained, almost all in south Devon.

1988 – 1991: Understanding the problem

As the 1990s dawned, no-one was sure what had gone wrong. It was suspected that like so many other farmland birds, cirl buntings were suffering as a result of changes in the way farmland was managed. RSPB research into the problem had begun in 1988, and gradually it became clear that they needed mixed farming and winter stubbles to survive. By the time we understood what was needed to help the birds, the last pairs had vanished from Cornwall and Somerset. By 1989, there were just 118 pairs left.

1991 - the present day: The fight back begins

The Cirl Bunting Recovery Project began in 1991, with the Countryside Stewardship Scheme proving a vital lifeline. It provided essential funding to help farmers make changes to their farming practices, so they could give the birds the food and habitat they so desperately needed.

The RSPB has been involved with c500 farmers and landowners to help cirl buntings. There have been more than 200 land management agreements secured with RSPB help. This has created the habitats cirl buntings need - including 10 square kilometres of winter stubble!

When cirl bunting habitat was lost during the building of the Kingskerswell bypass, the planning process provided funding for the RSPB to acquire Labrador Bay in Devon, the first nature reserve dedicated to cirl buntings.

Special management projects at RSPB Powderham Marshes (adjacent to RSPB Exminster Marshes) meant local cirl buntings had a suitable winter home. The RSPB, and its partners, undertook a number of ground-breaking projects, including a reintroduction project (the first in Europe for a passerine - perching - bird) to help these sedentary birds re-establish in Cornwall.

2009 - 2015: Coming back 

A national survey in 2009 found 860 pairs, mostly in the Devon stronghold. And in 2012, the number of breeding pairs on the Roseland Peninsula, site of the Cornish reintroduction, rose to 30-40. It seemed the population was self-sustaining there. In the same year, they were found breeding in east Devon, the first time since the mid-1980s. They’d colonised naturally. Two years later, in 2014, cirl buntings bred at RSPB Powderham Marshes.

Cirl bunting territory

Today - and tomorrow?

In 2016, 25 years after the Cirl Bunting Project began, field staff found 1,078 nesting territories in the latest national survey. The target of 1,000 pairs had been reached.

There are now ten times as many cirl bunting pairs as there were at their lowest ebb, when the project was getting underway back in 1991.

This wonderful outcome is the result of dedicated effort by the RSPB, its partners, and especially the many farmers who made a home for these birds on their farms.

But it’s clear that funding, so farmers could earn a reward for taking the nature-friendly option on their farms, has been vital. The government's agri-environment schemes had proved essential. 

The new scheme (once again known as Countryside Stewardship) is in place. This, and future versions, must ensure it's easy for farmers to do the right thing for nature - so these little birds will always find a welcoming home.

Cirl bunting perched in bushes, Broadsands, Torbay,