Cirl Buntings

 Cirl Buntings in Cornwall

Male Cirl Bunting Female Cirl Bunting;                                               Photos courtesy N. Climpson

Cirl Buntings are breeding again in Cornwall thanks to the RSPB’s Cirl Bunting reintroduction project, in partnership with Paignton Zoo, Natural England and the National Trust. Cirl Buntings are small farmland birds that used to be found throughout the county, and right across England’s south coast, but now they are restricted to a narrow strip of coastal farmland in south Devon. Despite a revival in numbers over the last 15 years, this population is still vulnerable, so it was decided to establish another population within its’ former range.

Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2014

2014 marked the ninth year of the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project – a joint venture to re-establish the cirl bunting in Cornwall, between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, the National Trust and Natural England.

Cirl Male and juvenile

Male and Juvenile Cirl bunting

For those of you who have followed the progress of these birds over the last few years, you will have seen that their fortunes can at times seem like a game of snakes and ladders. After steady, sustained progress saw their population rise a couple of years ago to over 40 breeding pairs and exceed the target level for the project, along came the dismal, wet summer of 2012 and ground was lost. Thanks to the much-improved summer of 2013, it was hoped that things would get back on track and that the population during 2014 would be comprised of a healthy number of new recruits ready to advance the population again.

As each year goes by, we see fewer of the hand-reared, colour-ringed birds that have been the initial pioneers of the Roseland population, as they naturally die and are replaced by their wild-bred, unringed offspring. This presents us with more of a challenge to accurately assess their numbers, as without coloured-leg rings to identify them individually, one cirl bunting can look pretty much like the next. During the winter there is a tendency to under-estimate the size of the population as birds can overlap in their foraging areas, though once they form pairs and take up their territories in spring, intensive monitoring enables a more accurate picture of their numbers and distribution to be determined.

With this in mind we were optimistic at the end of what was a particularly wet winter, that plenty of birds had survived and an increase in the breeding population was on the cards. As the weeks went by, established territories from the previous year were occupied, along with a few novel ones to extend the range in a couple of places on the peninsula. By the end of May the previous year’s total of 28 pairs had been exceeded, with plenty of time for others to be discovered. As is usual, the first, early nesting attempts in May almost all ended in failure due to the reduced availability of the insect prey that cirls require to feed their chicks. As temperatures rose and dry conditions persisted, many more pairs than usual successfully fledged broods in June. A continuation of the fine, summer weather right through the following months, enabled an increasing number of broods to be fledged as the parents were able to take advantage of the ideal foraging conditions.

By the end of the season a total of 39 pairs had produced an impressive minimum of 45 fledged broods, amounting to well over 100 fledglings. This represents a very healthy 39% increase in the breeding population and the highest number of youngsters recorded by a long way, for any of the previous years of the project. The main reason for this success can be attributed to the warm, dry conditions, enabling greater success during the early part of the season and also allowing many more pairs than is usual to produce two fledged broods. Indeed, one particularly industrious pair was successful in fledging three broods – just the second time this has been recorded during the project.

After reporting on previous breeding seasons of the reintroduced cirl buntings on the Roseland Peninsula, where breeding success has so often been limited, at least in part, by unsuitable weather, it makes a pleasant change to be able to report on one where the weather has not had a significant detrimental impact and has provided the conditions that have led to the most productive year of the project so far. The results also confirm that the mixed farmland habitat on which these birds depend, much of which is managed under Environmental Stewardship by Roseland farmers, is in good condition.

With such an encouraging rise in the population coupled with such high productivity this year, it’s likely that the population will continue to rise next year, though as we’ve seen over recent years, the weather will, as always, play a large part in the process.

The cirls will continue to be monitored by our team of staff and volunteers for whom we are, as always, most grateful, just as we are to the Roseland farming community who continue to support our work through Environmental Stewardship.

If anyone has any sightings, or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07736 792524 or at

Stuart Croft

RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer

Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2013

2013 marked the eighth year of the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project – a joint venture to re-establish the cirl bunting in Cornwall, between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, the National Trust and Natural England.

Rarely was the weather out of the news during 2012. At the end of the year it could only be hoped that we wouldn’t see a repeat for many years (or should that be decades?) of the seemingly, never-ending rain that beset the British summer of 2012. The affect of such adverse conditions on the cirls and various other wildlife, has been particularly detrimental. Just as well then, that the numbers of cirls across the peninsula had built up to a level that could help the population withstand such a poor summer. So, as a new year began, we were all hoping that the jet stream would stay to the north and Cornwall at least, would be treated to a summer that could, at last, be legitimately prefixed with the word barbecue. 

However, the opening months of 2013 offered little encouragement as the wet, cold conditions persisted. Across the peninsula small groups of cirls were to be found at about ten sites as temperatures remained stubbornly low. Given the relatively low rate of productivity during 2012, it was to be expected that the population would decline, particularly as there were no additional hand-reared birds to augment the population as there had been in all other years of the project. However, more surprisingly, it became clear as spring advanced, that it was the number of adult females that had reduced, whilst the number of males remained the same as the previous year. Out of a total of nearly 50 males, up to 20 sang throughout the season in territories that were absent of a female mate. The reasons for this decline in the female population are unclear. One possible explanation could be that the adult females entered the winter in poorer condition compared to the adult males. As females expend more energy during the breeding process than males, it is possible that due to the particularly difficult weather conditions during the summer of 2012, their condition deteriorated to a level from which they were unable to recover sufficiently to survive the winter.

As a consequence of this comparatively high rate of female mortality, the breeding population declined to 28 territory-holding pairs. The unseasonally cold spring, that persisted in to May, hampered all the early nesting attempts, with the first appearance of fledglings coming towards the end of May. With a marked improvement in the weather from June, the cirls began to enjoy far greater success as the range of insects, so vital to growing chicks, were far more readily available to foraging parents. A heat-wave declared in July, followed by a settled period for the following weeks marked a return to a summer that we all dream of, complete with the sounds of buzzing bees and stridulating grasshoppers and one which was so desperately needed by a whole host of species, in order to, at least, partly address significant declines in their populations due to the recent poor weather.

Several more fledged broods followed in August and even in to September, with the final brood fledging on the late date of 13th September – the latest date recorded during the project. The 28 pairs produced 28 successful, fledged broods that totalled a minimum of 66 juveniles – productivity slightly higher than the average for the previous six years of the project. Most pairs produced a single fledged brood though seven were successful in producing two. There was one incidence of polygyny – one male breeding with more than one females – and followed the loss of a male paired to one of the females. The neighbouring male was soon on hand to fill the gap, before returning to complete his parental duties with his original mate; the upshot being two successfully fledged broods.

Hopefully, the coming winter will not be too harsh and mortality amongst the cirls will be low. Another summer as good as this year may be too much to hope for next year, but given a reasonable one at least, it would allow the cirls a chance to recover from the losses endured following the summer of 2012, to see a rise in the population once again.

The cirls will continue to be monitored by our team of staff and volunteers for whom we are, as always, most grateful, just as we are to the Roseland farming community who continue to support our work through Environmental Stewardship.

If anyone has any sightings, or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07736 792524 or at

Stuart Croft


RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer



Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2012

2012 has become a milestone year for the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project – a joint venture to re-establish the cirl bunting in Cornwall, between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, the National Trust and Natural England.

Building on the successes from the previous six years, the population has gone from strength to strength to reach its target – to attain what is considered to be a self-sustaining population of 30-40 breeding pairs. However, the wettest summer for a century severely impacted on the success of the birds, despite all their efforts.

The year started well with record numbers recorded from across the peninsula, with the previous year’s hand-reared birds surviving particularly well. 2011 was the final year of releasing hand-reared birds – a job that has been undertaken with much skill and dedication from the aviculturalist team over the last six years and for whom much credit is deserved.

As the winter progressed, several flocks were to be found from many different wintering sites where weed-rich stubbles and areas of bird seed mixes have been sown specifically for the benefit of cirls and other farmland birds. As an increasing number of supportive Roseland landowners adopt Environmental Stewardship in the form of HLS, the benefits for cirls are clear to see.

Some of these wintering sites were new ones, helping to aid the spread of the bird across the peninsula, which is so encouraging to see. By late February, dispersal from these wintering sites was underway and the task began to track them down to find where territories would be formed. As is typical for the species, most settle close to their wintering areas, though exceptions are not unusual and at least one colour-ringed bird was recorded moving at least 5km from its wintering site.

By mid-May, 39 pairs had been located. The geographical spread of this population was very similar to 2011, with all the known sites from that year being occupied again in 2012. Again, as in 2011, several pairs took up residence adjacent to human habitation, whilst populations also formed at a few new locations. Despite the lack of decent spring weather all pairs soon settled in to breeding behaviour.

The arrival of June did not see a let up in the dismal weather. Rain followed yet more rain. Not a week went by where conditions remained favourable for adults to feed their hungry chicks. As a consequence, it was not until the latter half of the month that the first fledged broods of the year were seen – more than a month later than is typical.

After more unseasonal wet weather in July, conditions in August improved slightly to enable several more broods to fledge, though it was also clear that several of the 44 pairs were cutting their losses and calling it ‘a day’ before the ‘summer’ was over. Several pairs continued breeding in to September and helped raise the fledgling count to approximately 65 for the year. Though a relatively low rate of productivity, it is hoped that the population next year will not be too badly affected and that given more-favourable weather, it will continue to rise.

We are, as always, indebted to the help and support we receive from the local community and the dedicated team of staff and volunteers who keep a close eye on the birds throughout the year.

If anyone has any sightings, or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07736 792524 or at

Stuart Croft

RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Field Officer


Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2011

This summer has seen a dramatic increase in the Cornish Cirl Bunting population, with record numbers of chicks being hatched in the county.

This enigmatic farmland bird used to range across Cornwall, but disappeared in the early 90s. Now, thanks to the ongoing reintroduction project, it has been returned to one of its past haunts and the population is growing.

The project draws on expertise from the RSPB, the National Trust, Paignton Zoo, Natural England and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and has been running since 2006. Chicks are moved under license from healthy cirl bunting populations in Devon and reared and released in South Cornwall.

After breeding was first recorded in 2007, the population has been slowly increasing, but this summer has seen a big increase in the number of pairs breeding, and the number of young leaving nests is the highest ever for the project. Not only that, but the birds are expanding their range.

The RSPB’s Project Officer, Nick Tomalin, thinks that this is down to the availability of suitable habitat: “We always knew that the local habitat was good, but the farming community has been very supportive of the project, and many farmers have managed parts of their land to benefit cirl buntings and other farmland birds.”

“In many cases, cirls have moved into areas where this work has occurred, and it’s great to see these farmers rewarded for all their efforts.”

Ian Carter, Natural England’s ornithologist added: “Reintroducing a small bird like the Cirl Bunting is a huge and complex task, involving supportive landowners, experts who have hand-reared the birds and scientists who monitor their progress. We’re encouraged that the birds we’ve released have reared significant numbers of young, many of which we hope will reach adulthood and then go on to breed. The future of this rare songster looks brighter than it has for many years.”

Natural England and the RSPB have worked closely with landowners in the release area to set up Higher Level Stewardship agreements which have been invaluable in helping to ensure that released cirl buntings can find sufficient food and breeding sites in the wild. This scheme, funded by Defra and the European Union, pays farmers to manage their land in an environmentally friendly way, tailored to the needs of local wildlife.

Janet Lister, National Trust Nature Conservation Advisor said: “It’s great to see numbers of the Cirl Buntings growing in South Cornwall. The National Trust is pleased to have been able to support this project both at the donor end in South Devon and where the new population has been established in Cornwall. We are really grateful for the help our tenant farmers have provided.”

Paignton Zoo Curator of Birds Jo Gregson said: “Paignton Zoo is keen to support conservation projects all over the world, but working with British birds is always very special for us.”

The Cirl Buntings have also been living up to their old name, the ‘Village Bunting’, by nesting in suburban gardens and feeding around the village edges. Many of the local residents have been delighted to find such a rare species making visits to their gardens and food supplies.

The burgeoning population will continue to be monitored throughout the winter, and with such strong support from the local community, both landowners and residents, conservationists believe these birds have a bright future ahead.Another summer comes and goes, and its time to take stock again of what we’ve achieved in the last six months. It would be easy to succumb to an early bout of Seasonal Affected Disorder with the days drawing in and the cold winds returning, but this year more than ever I have cause for optimism.

Our bustling Cirl Bunting population in south Cornwall has increased dramatically, and with it the amount of young born in the area. All the signs in spring pointed towards an increase, but even we could not have hoped for such a sizeable leap forward. Last summer we recorded 16 breeding pairs, but this year we shot up to 28 pairs! This is probably due to a combination of a successful breeding and release campaign last season, and good over-winter survival. And between them these birds have produced at least 69 fledged chicks from nests locally. This figure can be added to another batch of young birds hand-reared and released by the aviculturalists, to create a total much higher than in any previous year. Although many young birds do not survive their first winter, this had not been a big problem for us in previous years, so we hope that a good proportion of these birds will make it through to breed next year.

Not only have we seen an increase in the breeding activity, but the birds have been finding new territories and extending their range across the peninsula. We’ve seen a significant movement of birds in virtually all directions, as well as a wide-ranging post-release dispersal that we have not recorded previously. For sedentary birds this is quite a spread, and has kept the field team on their toes when monitoring new areas. In several cases birds have relocated to areas of farmland where specific management is in place for farmland birds. The local farming community has again made this possible, and its wonderful to see some of them rewarded for their efforts. The work done in partnership with the farmers will continue, to ensure that there is sufficient habitat for the birds to survive here in years to come. This year may be the last year that any birds are translocated from Devon to be hand-reared, but our programme of monitoring will go on. This is partly because the population is still vulnerable at such a low level, but also to assess whether the population will now be able to sustain itself; we may reach the critical threshold next season. Let’s hope that we’ll see another increase like we did this year, and that the population continues to thrive.

Nick Tomalin RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Officer

Follow the whole story of the re introduction of Cirl Buntings in Cornwall in the articles below.

Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Update 2010

2010 marked the fifth year of the Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project; a joint venture between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, the National Trust and Natural England to re-establish the Cirl Bunting in Cornwall.

The year saw a steady, continued rise in the breeding population and thanks to the generally fine summer weather, most pairs pursued two, or even three breeding attempts. The result of all this activity was the production of at least 39 juveniles. Intensive monitoring of these breeding birds again revealed what complex lives they can lead with separations and re-pairings being not uncommon. Also, as in 2009, one particular male, who at over four years old is our oldest surviving bird, paired with just the two different females this year compared to last year’s three! His performance has become legendary in the cirl world and, no doubt, his productivity will be what all others will be compared with for a very long time to come. Long may he continue!

Another very good year of hand rearing saw 70 of the intake of 76 chicks from Devon survive to release. All sporting their assortment of uniquely colour-co-ordinated leg rings, several have already ventured some way beyond their release area to mix with their wild-bred relatives. In an attempt to reduce the impact that Sparrowhawks have on the Cirl Bunting population, a few methods of non-lethal intervention were trialled this year. Central to this was a technique of providing supplementary food, in the form of commercially-reared dead quails, to the local pair of breeding Sparrowhawks. Similar methods have been used in similar scenarios with great success, for example with Kestrels that jeopardise breeding success at Little Tern colonies in the east of England. Initial results suggest that this action may have led to increased survivorship within the released population. Continued monitoring from project staff and volunteers will, hopefully, determine if this is indeed the case.

As the winter progresses it is likely that the cirls will continue to disperse further afield seeking out their favoured foraging habitat of over-wintered, weed-rich stubbles and bird-seed mix crops. Many of these areas have been put in place through the continued support from local farmers. Their continued involvement with the project has safeguarded large areas of farmland habitat for wildlife. Over 700 hectares of land near the release site is now managed under the new Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, where the farmers receive financial support from Natural England for environmentally sensitive practices. This will secure the future of Cirl Buntings in Cornwall.

As it becomes clearer over the coming months just how well the birds are doing, the decision will be made whether or not to extend the release programme into 2011, but the team will remain on the ground to monitor the situation closely. Providing the winter is not too severe, it is hoped that the majority of the birds from this year will make it through to breed next spring and summer. We are, as always, indebted to the help and support we receive from the local community and the dedicated team of volunteers who keep a close eye on the birds throughout the year.

If anyone has any sightings, would like to commit to regular voluntary work, (*see below) or simply wants more information, please feel free to contact me on 07736 792524 or at

 Stuart Croft RSPB Cirl Bunting Reintroduction Project Field Officer

*In the RSPB, volunteers are a major resource and make a vital contribution to the RSPB’s aims to take action for the conservation of wild birds and the environment. On a project like this we would need someone with good field identification skills and reasonable fitness who could commit to at least one day each fortnight, since it requires regular work to become familiar with the ring identification and the monitoring area. We also offer residential placements during winter. For more information see or contact Stuart Croft (details above).

Cirl Bunting Project Update 2009

Another summer comes and goes and we ask yet again what happened to it! There were periods this year when I almost believed the met office’s prediction that it would be a ‘BBQ Summer’, but a hot, sunny day turned out to be nearly as rare as a Cornish cirl bunting. This was the fourth year of the project to reintroduce the species to the county, in a joint venture between the RSPB, Paignton Zoo, The National Trust and Natural England. Every autumn so far I have reported that wet weather has not helped the plight of these plucky little birds, despite the fact that released birds have been breeding on the Roseland Peninsula since 2007. This year the damp periods were sandwiched between a bright and warm April and May, and a slight resurgence of summer in September. The effect of this was a considerably more productive breeding season, as there was more invertebrate food available for the tireless parents to gather for their chicks. In fact, despite there being a similar number of breeding pairs to last year, the productivity went up three-fold, with around 50 young birds fledging from Cornish nests. Moreover, this year, females outnumbered males for the first time. This is an unusual situation for many species, and we were able to observe some instances of polygamy, which has rarely been recorded for this species before. One optimistic male tried his luck with three separate females, ensuring that he fathered more chicks than any of his peers.

Another cohort of chicks were translocated from Devon and reared in Cornwall. By the end of the season, 67 had been released into the Cornish countryside. When added to the young born in Cornish nests, the population had been boosted by over 100 young birds this year. Many of these will not survive their first winter, but in larger flocks, alongside more experienced birds, they stand a better chance than in previous years. RSPB staff and volunteers will continue to monitor these birds through winter, when they tend to move onto spring barley stubbles or patches of bird cover. Many of these areas have been put in place through the continued support from local farmers. Their knowledge and enthusiasm for farmland wildlife has ensured that a diverse range of flora and fauna will benefit from suitable management. Some farmers have now been offered financial support from Natural England for this work, and this will secure the future of Cirl Buntings in Cornwall.

We will shortly be deciding what the future holds for Cornish Cirl bBntings, as we go over the progress that has been made, and try to determine what we still need to do! The next year or two will be critical if the birds are to establish themselves for good. After a better breeding season this year, things are looking positive for the species. With the continued support of the local community, and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers keeping a close eye on things, I hope to be able to report even more success in future years for cirl buntings in Cornwall. Who knows, perhaps we’ll get a BBQ summer next year instead

Cirl Project Update 2008

The joint venture between the RSPB, Natural England, Paignton Zoo and The National Trust to reintroduce Cirl Buntings to Cornwall has continued with another successful year of rearing and releasing young birds from Devon, as well as continued breeding by older released birds in Cornwall. In 2007 we were able to report the first confirmed breeding of cirl buntings in Cornwall for some time, with several pairs making nesting attempts and rearing young. This summer there has been even more pairs breeding despite the wet weather, including some birds that were born in Cornwall last summer. These pairs have been dispersing into new areas too, finding suitable areas of over-wintered stubble and bird cover crops during the winter, and breeding in the nearby insect-rich grasslands.

The population has also been boosted by another batch of young birds translocated from Devon. Aviculturists from Paignton Zoo have again been busy rearing the birds from 6-day old chicks until release at around 30-32 days. This is no easy task, as the birds require feeding every two hours from 6am until midnight. The process has been adapted from last year drawing on the experience of the head aviculturist, Carl Laven, and on advice from vets at the Zoological Society of London, who develop the rearing protocol. Although poor weather may mean that the chicks are more vulnerable to disease, a total of 68 have been released this year – ahead of target and with very few losses, due to the dedication of the hand-rearers.

With the winter fast approaching, monitoring of the population will continue with RSPB staff and volunteers identifying birds by their unique colour-ring combinations. The birds will begin to form flocks and spend their time feeding in seed-rich stubble fields. The local farming community have been hugely supportive of the work, with many putting in suitable wintering habitat on their farms to encourage cirl buntings. Many have been interested in the governments Environmental Stewardship Schemes, which offer payments for wildlife friendly management of the land. This support is crucial to the success of the project. With more birds due to be translocated next year, it is hoped that the population will continue to expand over the next couple of years so that Cirl Buntings will be a common feature of the Cornish countryside once again.

Cirl Bunting 2006 The Start of the Project

Summer 2006 saw the first releases at a ‘secret’ site in south Cornwall. Young chicks were taken from Devon nests under licence from Natural England, then transported to the site and reared by aviculturalists from Paignton Zoo. When the chicks were old enough, they were moved outside to aviaries, and released into the wild a week later. By the end of August 2006, 72 Cirl Buntings had been released. They were all ringed with a unique colour combination so each bird could be identified. During March 2007 , pairs began to form territories and showed signs of breeding activity, with the first chicks hatching out in June.

Though this represents a great success for the species, more birds will be needed for the population to be able to sustain itself. More young birds have been brought down from Devon and released this year (2007), and will be for the following two years, and we are working with local farmers, landowners and Natural England to provide suitable habitat for Cirl Buntings under the Government’s Environmental Stewardship schemes.