A superabundant, cosmopolitan bird is being eaten to the brink of extinction. Yellow-breasted buntings, Emberiza aureola, used to be one of the most abundant songbirds you’d see in Europe and Asia, from Scandinavia all the way to Japan and the Russian Far East. But they’re also cooked and sold as “rice birds” in China. Their migration routes are littered with illegal traps and their populations have plummeted by as much as 95% in just the last couple of decades, according to a new Conservation Biology study.
Rare species living in small, specific habitats are usually at the highest risk of extinction. So it’s unusual that a superabundant species with expansive breeding ranges would go extinct. “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,” Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster explains in a news release.
These birds breed north of the Himalayas, between Finland and the Pacific coast, and they winter in Southeast Asia, stopping at numerous sites in China along the way. At night, they gather in large flocks to roost in wet grasslands and rice fields – making them easy pickings for trappers with mist nets. Anecdotal evidence of local extinctions began surfacing in the 1990s and by 1997 China outlawed the hunting of the species for food trade. But the birds were still being trapped along their Chinese flyway: a million were eaten in 2001 in Guangdong province alone, according to one estimate. Their consumption as a fancy dish likely increased as a result of economic growth and prosperity. By 2013, the birds were classified as endangered.
This photograph from November 2012 shows some of the 1,600 buntings confiscated at a trapping site in Foshan, Guangdong province. Huang Qiusheng
Now, to model the world’s yellow-breasted bunting population trends and geographical patterns, a large international team led by Kamp reviewed the literature and analyzed long-term monitoring data from hundreds of sites throughout their entire range.
Between 1980 and 2013, the population declined by 84.3–94.7%. And the range of the species shrank by 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). They’ve all but vanished from Eastern Europe, European Russia, Western and Central Siberia, and Japan. The team also combed through media reports about confiscated birds and police raids to evaluate the extent of illegal trade: it’s rampant all along their East Asian flyway in China.
They developed a population model to simulate a harvest level of 2% of the population initially, with an annual increase of 0.2%. This means that if the population in the 1980s was 100 million birds, 8.6 million were harvested in 2013. This population trajectory matched the decline that the researchers observed.
According to BirdLife International, the Convention on Migratory Species has agreed to develop an international action plan for their recovery throughout their range by 2017.