CAMBRIDGE, UK, June 10, 2015 (ENS) – A songbird once abundant from Finland to Japan, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, Emberiza aureola, has all but disappeared from Eastern Europe, Russia, large parts of Western and Central Siberia, and Japan. The cause of this decline is detailed in a new study – the easy-to-catch birds are being eaten by the millions in China.

New research published in the journal “Conservation Biology” shows that unsustainable rates of hunting, mainly in China, have contributed to the 90 percent decline and shrinking of the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s range by 5,000 km (3,000 miles) since 1980.

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Yellow-breasted Bunting in Russia (Photo credit unknown)

Dr. Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, lead author of the paper, compares the disappearance of the Yellow-breasted Bunting, Emberiza aureola, to that of the Passenger Pigeon.

“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting,” said Dr. Kamp. “High levels of hunting also appear to be responsible for the declines we are seeing in Yellow-breasted Bunting.”

During migration and on the wintering grounds, Yellow-breasted Buntings gather in huge flocks at night-time roosts making them easy to trap in large numbers. Birds have traditionally been trapped for food at these roosts with nets, explains Dr. Martin Fowlie, communications officer with BirdLife International in Cambridge, UK

Following initial declines, hunting of the species, known in Chinese as ‘the rice bird,’ was banned in China in 1997. However, said Dr. Fowlie, millions of Yellow-breasted Buntings and other songbirds were still being killed for food and sold on the black market as late as 2013.

Consumption of these birds has increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity in East Asia, with one estimate from 2001 of one million buntings being consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone, he said.

“To reverse these declines we need to better educate people of the consequences of eating wildlife. We also need a better and more efficient reporting system for law enforcement,” said Simba Chan, senior conservation officer at BirdLife International.

“The story of the Yellow-breasted Bunting illustrates how little we know about trends in populations in many species in the region,” Chan said. “There is growing evidence that these declines are part of wider problems for common Asian birds. We need to better understand these in order to address them more effectively.”

Fowlie points to a new agreement between China, Japan, South Korea and Russia as a first step in developing an urgently needed coordinated monitoring of migratory birds across the region.
The situation is now so serious that the Convention on Migratory Species has agreed to develop an international action plan for the recovery of the Yellow-breasted Bunting throughout its range by 2017.

“In the last decade birdwatching has become increasingly popular in China. Birdwatchers will play an important role in future data gathering,” said Chan. “Now is the time to address these worrying declines across the region by mobilizing people for conservation action.”

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