Pine Buntings

The Pine Bunting, Emberiza leucocephalos, is a passerine bird in the bunting family Emberizidae, a group most modern authors now separate from the finches, Fringillidae.

Breeding and habitat

The Pine Bunting breeds across much of temperate Asia, migrating south to central Asia, north India and southern China in winter. It is common in all sorts of open land with some scrub or trees, including cultivation, but has a greater preference for open forest (usually pine) than the closely related Yellowhammer. It is a rare vagrant to western Europe.

Appearance and song

The Pine Bunting is a robust 16-17.5-centimetre bird, with a thick seed-eater’s bill. The male has a white crown and cheeks, and a chestnut forehead and throat, and a heavily streaked brown back. The female is much duller and is more streaked on its undersides. Non-breeding plumage is like that of a Yellowhammer, but with all the yellow replaced by white.

Its song and calls are like those of the Yellowhammer.

Appearance of Pine Bunting × Yellowhammer hybrids

Hybrids between Pine Bunting and Yellowhammer show a mixture of characters. One such bird, a vagrant in Suffolk, England in 1982, the “Sizewell bunting”, is documented and illustrated with photographs in British Birds [2]

Some doubt has been cast upon male birds which appear to all intents and purposes to be pure Pine Buntings, but show yellow primary fringes. Previously, in Britain, these were regarded as potentially hybrid birds, and not accepted by the British Birds Rarities Committee. However since 2004, BBRC has regarded these birds as acceptable if they also meet the following conditions:

  • the lores (the regions between the eyes and bill on the side of a bird’s head) must be chestnut, not black or grey
  • the throat must be extensively chestnut colored, without a dark malar (cheek) line or pale submoustachial line
  • the supercilium (line above eye) should be chestnut or grey, but not white
  • there should be no yellow on the head, or anywhere else except the primary fringes


The Pine Bunting’s natural food consists of insects when feeding young and seeds at other times.

Nesting / Breeding:

The nest is on the ground. Four to six eggs are laid, which show the hair-like markings characteristic of the Bunting group.


  1. BirdLife International (2004). Emberiza leucocephalos. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 12 May 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this species is of least concern
  2. Lansdown, Peter and Trevor D. Charlton (1990) ‘The Sizewell Bunting’: a hybrid Pine Bunting × Yellowhammer in Suffolk British Birds 83(6):240-242
  3. British Birds 97(11):620-621
Photo of author

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