The cirl (pronounced sirl) bunting is a small finch-like bird which is a close relative of the yellowhammer.
were once widespread and common across much of southern England, but in recent years, they have become rare and only found in south Devon, mostly confined to coastal farmland between Plymouth and Exeter.
We ran a programme of research to try to understand this decline. We found that the loss of food sources and nesting sites had caused this dramatic decline.
During the winter, cirl buntings forage in weedy stubble fields, feeding on seeds and spilt grain. In the summer, they nest in hedges or scrub, and forage in unimproved grassland full of invertebrates - grasshoppers are a particularly valuable food for chicks.
As cirl buntings are very sedentary (they only move up to 2 km between their breeding and wintering areas), it is vital all these habitats are close to each other.
Changes in agriculture during the 20th century have made farms more productive, but these changes have meant cirl buntings have struggled to find food and nesting sites.
Technological advances such as autumn-sown cereals replacing spring-sown varieties, more efficient machinery resulting in less spilt grain, increased fertiliser and pesticide use and hedge removal to create larger fields have all had an impact.
A widespread trend towards specialised farms has seen farms in the west of the country converting to mainly grass and farms in the east growing arable crops. This has resulted in a reduction of mixed farms, which makes life very difficult for a species like the cirl bunting which needs both grass and arable habitats close to each other.
In Devon, small traditionally-managed coastal farms have persisted, the exposed coastal environment making spring crops a more viable option than winter cropping. This has made this area more appealing to cirl buntings.
A mixed farming environment that includes winter stubbles is the key to helping this colourful bird and the support of the farming community is vital if cirl buntings are to become more secure in the UK.
For more information on cirl buntings and how the RSPB is involved in their conservation visit our Cirl Bunting Action Hub.