March 2011 - The Reed Bunting

Male reed bunting in winter plumage - Lin's  garden

Since we came to Bawburgh 8 years ago, we have seen a significant number of reed buntings in our garden, summer or winter, but this winter we are seeing more sightings than usual. The reed bunting is of similar size to the house sparrow and indeed the female bird is similar in appearance too. In summer the male bird is very distinct with a black head and bib with white collar, upper parts brown with dark streaking, under parts pale. The legs and bill are dark brown and the outer tail feathers are white.  In winter his head and bib becomes dull brown and streaked. Females have a dark brown, streaked head and bib with no white collar. She has buff –coloured lines above and below the eye. The female has a shorter tail than the male. The song of the reed bunting is rather indifferent with only a succession of similar squeaky notes (reported by ornithologists as tweek-tweek-tweek-tititick).


Female reed bunting in winter plumage - Lin's garden

Reed buntings are traditionally birds of reed beds and marshes, but are found more and more on farmland and gardens as their natural habitat is destroyed. They feed on seeds, insects and other invertebrates. We often see them in our garden, feeding with the local flock of chaffinch; presumably there is safety in numbers.  Breeding starts in April and continues into the summer with several clutches of eggs potentially being laid. Nests are made by the females and consist of cups of grass and moss, lined with hair and finer grass, built on the ground usually in reed beds where they can be adequately hidden from predators. The female incubates typically 3 to 5 eggs, which are smooth, glossy, pale lilac or olive green with black markings, while the male has several adulterous liaisons with other females. The British Trust for Ornithology has reported over 50% of the chicks are fathered by males other than the pair male. When the eggs hatch after about 14 days, the male takes up his duties and helps to feed and raise the chicks. The chicks fledge after about 12 days but tend to leave the nest early on and hide in the undergrowth, a ploy that helps to protect them against predation. The typical life span of the birds is 3 years although one was recorded in 1978 as being nearly 10 years old.

UK numbers have fallen since the 1970s due to wetland drainage and loss of habitat - the number of breeding pairs in the UK is reported now to be in the region of 200,000.

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