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Global Ideas

Final act for a songbird?

Unfortunately for the yellow-breasted bunting, the small songbird with the bright yellow belly is considered a delicacy in China. High demand has caused an alarming decline in the population.

The yellow-breasted bunting is massively at risk of extinction (Foto: Huang Qiusheng)

The yellow-breasted bunting is massively at risk of extinction

Until the 1980s, the small yellow-breasted bunting was a frequent and prominent sight in the skies over northern Europe and Asia. The sparrow-sized bird with its bright yellow breast usually summered in Finland, northern Russia, China and Japan. Over winter, the birds headed south, mainly to India and southern China. But this exact routine has put the species on a path to extinction.

For some time now, the tiny singers have been considered a delicacy in southern China, where their consumption is thought to be medically beneficial and the birds are hunted with nets. The impact on the population has been devastating, according to a recently-published study in the #link:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12537/abstract:scientific journal Conservation Biology#.

Between 1980 and 2013, numbers of the tiny songbird plummeted around 90 percent - and demand remains high among wealthier foodies.

"Unfortunately, the birds became fashionable in the 1990s," Johannes Kamp, lead author of the study and landscape ecologist at the University of Münster, told DW. "The birds are eaten as a delicacy, not by the poor people, but by the more distinguished, rich people," he adds.

The birds are captured with nets. (Foto: Huang Qiusheng)

The birds are captured with nets.

Huge numbers captured

By running simulated population trajectories, the researchers estimated the decline reflects an initial bunting harvest of 2 percent of the total population in 1980, with an increase of 0.2 percent annually to a harvested proportion of 8.6 percent - or 8.6 million birds - in 2013. The study assumes a population size of 100 million birds and concluded the results "seem realistic" based on reports of confiscated animals and other factors.

For instance, in November 2011, Chinese police confiscated a total of 2 million captured songbirds during a single raid in the southwest of the vast country. Some 20,000 yellow-breasted buntings #link:http://www.uni-muenster.de/news/view.php?cmdid=7720:were among the find#.

Although hunting of protected songbirds, such as the bunting, has been illegal since 1997, the trade in songbirds remains big - and still pays. The birds end up on the black market and later on dinner plates. As the #link:http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1365285/chinese-gourmands-drive-migratory-bird-endangered-list:South China Post# wrote in a 2013 article, the birds are sold secretly. And the bunting's small size also makes it more vulnerable.

"It takes more than one animal for a meal," said Johannes Kamp. "Each bird weighs about 16 to 18 grams, and is sold for about 30 euros [$34] or more."

Unprecedented process

The yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola), which congregates in large flocks in wet grasslands and rice fields during winter and migration, is not the only songbird species raising concerns.

"We also know about other bunting species, whose numbers are declining," says Kamp. "The rustic bunting for example, or the rose finch, take the same migratory path to their winter quarters as the yellow-breasted bunting."

However, the rate at which the yellow-breasted bunting is disappearing is unprecedented. Its distribution range has shrunk by around 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) in the west, the scientists wrote. In the European part of Russia, the animals are virtually extinct. Johannes Kamp compared this collapse to the extinction of the passenger pigeon in North America in the 19th century. These birds were also hunted to extinction by humans.

The bunting doesn't appear to have benefitted greatly from its addition to the #link:http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22720966/0:IUCN Red List of Threatened Species# 18 months ago either. Still, Kamp hasn't lost hope.

"In China, a lot of information is spread with the help of social media," says Kamp. "Our study was shared about 3,000 times just on the first day." And that's a start in drawing more much-needed attention to the little feathered songster.

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