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Extinction Watch: Eating a songbird into extinction

It used to be one of the most abundant songbirds with a breeding range of over 15 million km² stretching fromScandinaviato the Pacific coast inSiberiabut has suffered a 95% decline inpopulationat its migration and wintering sites.

The species is known as the “rice bird” in China, where it is hunted for food — a practice that has been illegal since 1997, but continues on the black market to this day.

This practice on migratory passerines in Asia has pushed not only the Yellow-breasted Bunting to the edge of extinction; but led to all migratory bunting species in eastern Asia declining.

Until 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature considered the yellow-breasted bunting to be a species of least concern. Since 2004, it has been gradually upgraded to a status of Critically Endangered due to rapid drops in population sizes.

The main reason for its decline: the species migrates in huge flocks, which are hunted in massive numbers. The species gathers in large numbers at night to roost, making the birds easy to trap in high numbers.

Birds are flushed then caught in mist-nets, to be sold for consumption as “sparrows” or “rice birds”. Even though the actions have been restricted to a small area in southern China, it has become more widespread and popular due to increasing wealth, and hunters now travel long distances to find sufficient birds. Shifts in rice paddy irrigation practices have reduced the quality and quantity of wintering habitats, including the loss of water stubble, and the loss of reed-beds has reduced available roost sites.

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