Corn buntings’ rattle of keys

Have you ever lost your keys when you are in a hurry to go out? Whoever finds them holds them up in triumph giving them a rattle. That is the sound of corn buntings’ song.

Look along the second line back of telegraph wires that run through the field next to Newmarket Road. When you see a tiny dot – that’s a corn bunting!

The very first time I heard a corn bunting was about 12 years ago as I was walking along Heath Road. I heard a rattling sound I hadn’t heard before. I looked up and saw a non-distinctive bird – a ‘little brown job’, or lbj in birders’ jargon – sitting on the telegraph wire ahead. Classic corn bunting sound and behaviour. Three years ago I was delighted to hear the same rattle come across the field adjacent to Newmarket Road. I searched along the telegraph wires that run the length of the field. Sure enough there was a small dot on the wire – a corn bunting. Each year since I’ve heard it there and last week I saw five of them, spread along the wire, right up to the old railway bridge out of the village, each guarding its territory.

Spot the corn bunting on the wire – that’s the size dot you are looking for! (Clue, middle of the highest wire, running diagonally across the top right of the photo.)

These birds are such fun to spot. They can be heard rattling at all times of day, but I think it is easiest to pick out their song in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Once you have heard the rattle, look along the line of telegraph wires that runs behind the one nearest to Newmarket Road until you see a tiny dot. You have found a corn bunting!

Corn bunting singing its rattling song. Thanks to the photographer and Wikipedia for the photo, offered for free use.

Corn buntings are actually a bit bigger than a chaffinch, about the same size as a skylark. Indeed, their scientific name emberiza calandra is derived from words meaning ‘bunting’ and ‘calandra lark’. Local names for them such as ‘corn dumpling’, ‘corn blob’ and ‘clod bird’, rather unkindly describe their shape – they are chunky, dark-streaked grey-brown birds. In short flights they leave their legs dangling – a useful ID feature.

Corn buntings are no longer a common sight. They only occur in some parts of the country – we are on the edge of their distribution on the chalk lands of Cambridgeshire. They are also a species in drastic decline, losing 90% of their population between 1970 and 2010, making them a red data book species (Bird Atlas 2007-2011, Balmer et al, BTO). Seeing them is a pleasure as they are unusual, hearing them sing is wonderful as it tells us they are breeding – right on our doorstep!

Corn buntings nest on the ground, either hidden in crops or in tangled weedy areas along the edge of fields. Reasons for their decline are mixed and vary between different parts of the country. In our area the switch from spring to autumn sowing of crops has reduced the availability of weed-rich stubble for winter feeding by these seed eating birds. They nest later than many birds, often only laying their eggs in June, with chicks still in the nest into August. This makes them vulnerable to going under the combine as harvest times have got ever earlier and also reduces their chance to have a second brood.

Considerable research is going into finding suitable measures that farmers are able to take to turn round their decrease in numbers. Fossil records of this species in Britain have been found from the last glaciation of the Pleistocene, ie from 100,000-10,000 years ago (‘A History of Ornithology’ P. Bircham, Collins, 2007). They have been part of our soundscape for thousands of years. For their and our sake, I hope we can keep it that way.

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