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One of the Most Endangered Migratory Birds:The Yellow Breasted Bunting

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Its World Migratory Bird Day! Therefore, we wanted to highlight an amazing little bird called the yellow breasted bunting.

Status: Critically Endangered

Because their numbers are declining at an exceedingly rapid pace, ascertaining their numbers in the wild is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, they are heading towards extinction.

Yellow Breasted Bunting
Yellow Breasted Bunting.Attribution: Manshanta Ghimire, CC BY-SA 4.0. Date: 18 March 2018.

The incredible migratory bird, called the yellow breasted bunting, once so very common, has now been driven to the brink of extinction because of illegal over-hunting and loss of habitat. Every year, these birds migrate from Siberia southward to wintering grounds in southern China and southeast Asia, covering up to a mind-blowing 2,486 miles (4,000 kms)! Alas, these birds have now become a much sought after as a food source (in parts of China and Southeast Asia it is eaten as a delicacy) and therefore, are being hunted in monstrous numbers. Sadly, their numbers have now dwindled by more than 90% in just a few years.

That said, let us talk briefly about these unique species of specialty birds called the migratory birds.

The Whats and Whys of the Migratory Birds

Birds, like all living creatures on our planet, eat, breed, and raise their young to propagate their kind. All of them make some type of nest, whether it be on the ground, rocks, in trees, or even under the ground. Some reside in small areas; on the other hand, many birds fly extraordinary distances to different locations to accomplish their objective. The yellow-breasted bunting covers distances that could be as long as several thousand miles or more. These types of birds who fly such distances are those that make up the awe-inspiring migratory birds.

Migratory birds migrate to different locations due to several factors. They are always looking for the best feeding locations and in which to raise their young. The timing of their quest also becomes important because they would need the optimum climate to achieve their goal. Most birds migrate from the northern breeding areas to southern winter locations. Many other birds breed in the southern parts of Africa and migrate to northern winter grounds. They may also fly to the milder climate in coastal areas in winter. Migratory birds usually fly together in flocks of great number.

Flyways of the Yellow Breasted Bunting
Flyways of the Yellow Breasted Bunting. Map courtesy of IUCN, BirdLife International and the Handbook of Birds of the World 2016

How do they do it?

Over thousands of years of evolutionary process, these incredible migratory birds have fine-tuned and perfected their morphology and physiology to fly fast over long distances.

The remarkable question is, how are the yellow-breasted bunting and other migratory birds able to find their way precisely over such large distance, more so through inclement weather and difficult terrain? Although scientists are still trying to unravel this mystery in greater detail, it has been observed that the bird’s receptors in their brain orientate by the location of the sun during the day, by the stars at night, and by the geomagnetic field at any time. In addition, some species of migratory birds detect polarized light for navigation at dusk and at night.

Yellow Breasted Bunting Migration
Yellow Breasted Bunting Migration. Photo: Craig Brelsford (

What are the challenges faced by the yellow breasted bunting and other migratory birds?

The fate that has fallen on the yellow-breasted bunting is not unique to this or any bird for that matter. But apart from problems common to all birds, all migratory birds, including the yellow breasted bunting, also face specific problems to their niche--some natural but mostly man-made and due to variable regulations. For example, because they nest in different countries, even if they or their habitat are protected in one country, they may not be protected in the other country. The local laws and regulations can be different in two countries. In such circumstances, even the international bodies such as those of environmentalists and ornithologists (those who study birds) will be unable to protect these species.

For the yellow-breasted buntings, the changing rice paddy irrigation practices have reduced the quality and quantity of their nesting sites in their winter habitat. Loss of water stubble and reedbeds have further drastically reduced the areas in which they can build nests.

The migratory birds, such as the yellow-breasted bunting, are the keystone species of their habitat. They are a unique species because they also contribute to the well-being of the ecosystem in not one but two or more countries to which they travel. Depending on the species, at each location, these birds lay hundreds to thousands of eggs, eat seeds, and disperse them over large areas, and die in hundreds or more. They then become food for the local carnivores such as bears, fox, and birds of prey as well as humans.

So, we must protect not only the few remaining yellow breasted buntings, but also all the migratory birds as it directly impacts our own well-being.

Examples of other endangered migratory birds:

· Black-tailed Godwit

· Northern Shoveler

· Sandhill Crane

· The Snowy Owl

· Sarus Crane

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