In spring and summer, country lanes ring to the sound of the cock yellowhammer singing his shrill little song over and over again from the hedge-tops
Yellowhammers live in open country, mostly on farmland growing cereal crops and oil-seed rape, but also on pastures and meadows, heathland and commons. They always need some hedgerows and gorse or scrub nearby to provide elevated song posts and nest sites.
Spring is the best time of year to see and hear yellowhammers as they chase each other up and down the lanes or visit the garden. From afar, a pair of yellowhammers flitting in and out of the hedges can look like a pair of fluttery yellow butterflies.
In spring, a cock yellowhammer displays himself as conspicuously as possible by perching on top of a gorse bush or the highest point in a hedge, even on telegraph poles or telephone wires. Years ago, his cheery song and vibrant colouring earned the cock yellowhammer his nickname of the Hedgerow Canary.
The yellowhammer was once better known as the yellow bunting, showing that yellowhammers belong to a group of small songbirds called buntings. Although broadly similar in appearance and habits to finches, buntings are slimmer and more elongated, with longer tails than the average finch. Like most buntings, yellowhammers have short, stout, pointed beaks, capable of husking seeds and grains but also well suited to picking up insects for feeding to their nestlings during the breeding season.
After an autumn moult, both male and female yellowhammers emerge looking duller, with extra dark streaks in their plumage. (Like finches, the females are drabber than the males throughout the year.) Over the course of the winter, the tips of the male’s brown feathers gradually wear away so that the cock bird is at his sunniest yellow when courting his mate in spring.
Singing for his supper
The cock yellowhammer is famous for repeating his catchphrase, which sounds like ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’. He delivers the first seven syllables of his signature tune in a shrill, staccato fashion – a-little-bit-of-bread-and. After that he faces a vocally challenging cadence. The second-to-last note is an emphatic higher-pitched NO. Then his voice drops straight down to a low, drawn-out c-h-e-e-s-e. This final note often tails off, producing a rather wistful effect. Each phrase lasts about three seconds – including the final note that he holds for a full one second – and is repeated at ten-second intervals.
Getting it right
Male yellowhammers start rehearsing their songs as early as February, as it takes them a while to get up to speed. At first, most cock birds just ask for a-little-bit-of-bread-and, leaving out no-cheese altogether. It always sounds as though their voices are a bit rusty. In fact, as spring approaches, there are real physiological changes taking place in a cock bird’s larynx (voice box). Only after time and practice does he start to sing fluently.
Even in summer, on overcast days, a lazy cock bird may still not deliver his tricky final notes. But almost as if he knows that his yellow plumage gleams brightest in sunshine, the cock yellowhammer loves singing on a sunny afternoon while other birds are taking a siesta, which makes it all the more notable. His song is also one of the few to be heard in August.
For the winter
Having fed their nestlings on creepy-crawlies, yellowhammers revert to a vegetarian diet once the breeding season is over. They congregate in flocks, often with finches such as linnets and chaffinches. Groups are seen hopping about on the ground, pecking up stray cereal grains from stubble fields or feeding troughs in farmyards and chicken runs. During the winter, yellowhammers also eat fruits and wild seeds from large grasses and weeds, such as dock.
Although yellowhammers could never really be described as garden birds, during hard winters and early spring they do visit gardens which border on commons and heaths to take small seeds such as hemp, millet and canary mix.
‘ Five eggs pen-scribbled over lilac shells Resembling writing, scrawls which fancy reads As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells They are the yellowhammer’s’
from The Yellowhammer’s Nest by John Clare (1793-1864)
Yellowhammers enjoy a period of lively courtship which can last for several weeks as a preliminary to the hectic days of nest-building, egg-laying and chick-rearing.
The courting cock yellowhammer sings his heart out but stops when he sees a female entering his territory. Then he flies down to the ground where he ruffles his feathers and starts picking up small sticks and pebbles which he then drops near her perch in a mock feeding ritual.
Playing it cool
At first the hen bird plays hard to get, outwitting her suitor by twisting and turning in flight as he chases her along a hedge or from bush to bush. The final stages of pairing take place on the ground, with the male making short runs in front of his prospective mate, fanning his tail, raising his wings and carrying grass stalks in his beak as though he is enticing her to start nest-building.
After the excitement of courtship, the hen yellowhammer gets on with constructing a nest on her own. She usually builds on or near the ground, in gorse and bramble bushes, at the base of a hedge or in a jungle of grass and nettles. There she assembles a large cup of dried grass, stalks, roots and moss, lined with horsehair and finer dried grasses.
Once the hen bird has laid a clutch of eggs, she does most of the incubating, with occasional help from her mate. He spends most of his time singing from the top of the hedge or bush above the nest. If she is disturbed, the female reluctantly leaves the nest, issuing an abrupt alarm call as she goes, and continues her protest from nearby until the danger is past.
The chicks hatch after 12 to 14 days. Although the hatchlings are helpless bundles of grey down, they very soon start flashing their pink-lined mouths to chivvy their parents into finding insects to feed them. The youngsters are ready to leave the nest about 14 days after hatching. Then the parents may go on to raise a second and even a third brood that summer.
Yellowhammer numbers may be falling but studies indicate that its breeding performance – the survival rate from egg to fledging – has got better. The main reason for their decline seems to lie with a lack of winter food, which is where garden feeding comes into its own.
The anonymous young ones
No matter whether it is male or female, a juvenile yellowhammer is a darker, streakier version of its mother: only faintly yellow underneath and with hardly any yellow on its head at all. The youngster’s inconspicuous colouring is useful protection while it is still learning the basics of flying and taking care of itself.
The bright yellow plumage of the young cock birds starts to show through in their first spring. Then you hear the first-year males warming up their voices and practising their song until they eventually achieve a full run at a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese, just like the experienced males.
In late April or early May, as soon as she has finished building her nest, the hen yellowhammer lays her first clutch of the season.
Usually, there are three to five pale lilac eggs in the nest, each one decorated with original doodlings of darker purple-brown veins and streaks. Long ago, people found these strange patterns absolutely fascinating and they resulted in the yellowhammer being known as the Scribe, Scribbling Lark or Writing Lark.