Red List Seventeen – Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

Dear Readers, when I used to go to visit my parents in Dorset, I would often take a walk around the fields to reacquaint myself with the farmland birds, much rarer now than they were when I was a girl. I remember that, in my Ladybird Book of Birds, there was a little yellow bird, rather like a canary, that sang a song that was supposed to sound like ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’. I’m not sure that it does, though – see what you think (recording in the Netherlands by Michael Veldt). Apparently in summer a male can repeat the call 3000 times per day.

The song of the yellowhammer has inspired several composers – the first notes of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto was said to be based on the yellowhammer’s song. Messiaen(1908 -1992) used the bird’s song over and over again, most notably for our purposes in  Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, which also features many other birds, including the blackbird, ring ouzel, wren, chaffinch, black woodpecker and blackcap. If you have an hour to spare, you can listen to the whole thing here.

Female yellowhammer

Male birds hold territories along lengths of hedgerow, and therein lays one of the problems, what with hedgerows being grubbed out and replaced with wire fencing. About 400 million farm and grassland birds have disappeared in the past thirty years, but many farms are changing their practices to encourage wildlife to come back, and where they are, the results can be impressive – at the RSPBs Hope Farm, yellowhammer numbers have increased by more than 80%. They are still on the Red List, though, so lots more people in the countryside need to resist the urge to tidy up every patch of rough grass and weeds. Sometimes, a scrubby ‘mess’ can be a haven.

Male yellowhammer (Photo Francesco Veronesi from Italy, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons)

The poor old yellowhammer was once thought to carry a drop of blood on his tongue, and his eggs were said to contain strange Satanic messages on their shells – the bird was also known as ‘Scribble Jack’. Those eggs are truly beautiful.

Yellowhammer eggs (Photo By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

And finally, here’s a poem by John Clare, closely and tenderly observed as always. I love the last few lines…

The Yellowhammer

When shall I see the white thorn leaves agen
And yellowhammers gath’ring the dry bents
By the dyke side on stilly moor or fen
Feathered wi love and natures good intents
Rude is the nest this Architect invents
Rural the place wi cart ruts by dyke side
Dead grass, horse hair and downy headed bents
Tied to dead thistles she doth well provide
Close to a hill o’ ants where cowslips bloom
And shed o’er meadows far their sweet perfume
In early Spring when winds blow chilly cold
The yellowhammer trailing grass will come
To fix a place and choose an early home
With yellow breast and head of solid gold.


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