"Rice Bird" Being Eaten to Extinction

Yellow-Breasted Bunting

Story at-a-glance -

  • Numbers of the yellow-breasted bunting, or “rice bird,” have dropped by 90 percent since 1980 due to extensive hunting of the species for food
  • Huge flocks roost on the ground during the winter, making them easy targets for trappers using nets
  • China banned hunting of the yellow-breasted bunting in 1997, but millions were reportedly still being hunted and sold for food up until at least 2013

By Dr. Becker

The yellow-breasted bunting, known in China as the "rice bird," was once abundant in Europe and Asia. However, numbers of the songbird have dropped by 90 percent since 1980 due to extensive hunting of the species for food.

In 1997, China banned hunting of the yellow-breasted bunting after concerning population declines were noted, but millions were reportedly still being hunted and sold for food up until at least 2013.

Will Yellow-Breasted Buntings Soon Become Extinct?

Unfortunately, the birds make for easy prey. Huge flocks roost on the ground during the winter, making them easy targets for trappers using nets. As reported in the journal Conservation Biology, while "persecution and overexploitation by humans are major causes of species extinctions," this most often affects rare species confined to smaller geographic ranges.

Extinction of species with very large ranges, and once superabundant populations, is rare, but this is precisely what's happening to the yellow-breasted bunting. The journal continued:1

"The population declined by 84.3 to 94.7 percent between 1980 and 2013, and the species' range contracted by 5000 km. Quantitative evidence from police raids suggested rampant illegal trapping of the species along its East Asian flyway in China.

A population model simulating an initial harvest level of 2 percent of the population, and an annual increase of 0.2 percent during the monitoring period produced a population trajectory that matched the observed decline.

We suggest that trapping strongly contributed to the decline because the consumption of Yellow-breasted bunting and other songbirds has increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity in East Asia.

The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds with a comparable range size, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon…  which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting.

Our results demonstrate the urgent need for an improved monitoring of common and widespread species' populations, and consumption levels throughout East Asia."

It should be noted that many songbirds, not just the yellow-breasted bunting, are at risk from illegal poaching. In southern Europe, millions of migratory songbirds are also hunted illegally and rampantly in order to make a local delicacy known as ambelopoulia (grilled, pickled, or boiled songbirds).

If you want to learn more, watch the documentary "Emptying the Skies," or read The New Yorker essay upon which the film was based.2

Common 'Backyard Birds' Are Also on the Decline

It's not only birds being illegally hunted for the food trade that are at risk of extinction or being forced to drastically change their ranges. A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of 50 bird species revealed that by 2075, the birds you're used to seeing in your backyard may look very different.

Some birds will have lost up to 90 percent of their current habitat range while others will increase theirs significantly.3

Further, 33 species of "common" US birds are starting to decline at alarming rates, according to the State of the Birds Report 2014, which was authored by the US Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 4

Like the authors of the study concerning the yellow-breasted bunting, the authors of the State of the Birds Report 2014 also made comparisons to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, in warning that even "common" and "superabundant" species can become extinct if humans overexploit them or their habitat. According to the report:5

"The passenger pigeon, once numbering in the billions, is a strong reminder that even species considered common can become extinct without careful attention, as it did Sept. 1, 1914. Another focus for The State of the Birds 2014 is the importance of keeping common birds common.

The report identifies 33 species, like the northern bobwhite quail, grasshopper sparrow, and bank swallow, that do not meet the Watch List criteria but are declining rapidly in many areas. These birds have lost more than half their global population, and the 33 species combined have lost hundreds of millions of breeding individuals in just the past 40 years."

What Types of Threats Are North American Birds Facing?

Ken Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology told National Geographic:

"To me, the top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss… We're losing the battle acre by acre."6

Suburban sprawl, industrial development, and agriculture all play a role, as do more subtle changes to landscapes that you might not expect. For instance, the cerulean warbler, another songbird that's been declining steeply in recent decades, wasn't using mature deciduous forests – long thought to be their preferred habitat – for breeding.

It turns out they need not only a mature forest, but one with gaps in the canopy, which aren't present in areas created by modern forestry practices.7 So there are many variables that come into play.

Additional widespread threats to birds include wind turbines, communications towers (which are involved in an estimated 6 million bird deaths annually) and even domestic cats, making solutions complicated and varied.8 In Canada alone, an estimated 22 million birds die every year from colliding with windows of homes.9

Do You Want to Help Protect Migratory Birds?

In the US, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, sell, or purchase any migratory bird (or their nests or eggs) unless a special permit is issued. However, the birds are still in need of added protections.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has a plan to strengthen the treaty to better fit the threats that have emerged in the 21st century. If you want to get involved, the Audubon Society has a sample letter you can use to let FWS know you support this important action.

You can also make your backyard a more bird-friendly place by creating an area with natural habitat, including native grasses, shrubs, and trees, for birds to find refuge, especially if you live in an area that's highly developed (or surrounded by lawn "deserts").

Add in a source of water and food for the birds, minimize your use of pesticides and other garden chemicals (including fertilizers), and consider these additional tips to make your yard "bird-friendly":10

  • Install bird nest boxes, which provide nesting areas even in urban areas
  • Reduce window collisions; place bird feeders within three feet or at least 20 feet away from windows and hang mylar tape strips from windows that are frequently struck by birds
  • Create a brush pile: A pile of downed tree limbs or other yard brush can provide an important refuge for birds during bad weather
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