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© Photo: Key to Baikal
February, 12

Where and Why Does the Yellow-breasted Bunting Go?

These questions were put forward by a group of scientists from the Baikal State Nature Reserve, the Research Institute of Biology of the Irkutsk State University and the University of Westphalia named after Wilhelm (Germany) - they made a decision to study the migration of the yellow-breasted bunting.

Yellow-breasted bunting - a bird of the family of buntings (Emberizidae) - was one of the most widespread and numerous species of birds in Russia. The bird was widespread everywhere within the natural territory of Baikal, in many areas it even was the dominant species.

We have talked with the head of the project under the name “Where did Yellow-breasted bunting Go?”, a researcher of the Baikal Nature Reserve, ornithologist Yurii Anisimov, about the reason why the yellow-breasted bunting species may disappear and what measures are being taken in the Baikal region to preserve the species.

Фото

Key To Baikal: How did you start exploring the yellow-breasted bunting species in the Baikal region? Why did you and your colleagues come to the conclusion that this bird is in need of help?

Yurii Anisimov: The International Organization for the Protection of Birds, “BirdLife International”, based in Southeast Asia, regularly holds meetings where ornithologists from different countries come and discuss the issues related to the study and preservation of birds. One such issue was the development of a monitoring scheme for migration of passerines. There are international monitoring schemes for waterfowl in Asia, but nothing like this have yet been developed for passerines. There are separate pieces of data that are not collected together. So that to systematize them and observe the migration of passerines, the idea was put forward to create a common monitoring scheme. As far as the order of Passeriformes includes several hundred species, it was necessary to choose a certain flagship, a species to start monitoring with. We did not think for a very long time. At the same time, people began to spread information about yellow-breasted bunting experiencing serious problems. There were articles where scientists were speaking about a reduction in the number of the species: some believed that the number had fallen by 50-70%, some told that the drop was equal to 90%. However, researchers agreed on one thing - the number of yellow-breasted buntings was falling. So, today, the yellow-breasted bunting is listed in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature with the mark “endangered species”. Therefore, this species was chosen as a flagship.

At these meetings, Russia was represented by the Russian Society for the Conservation and Study of Birds named after M.A. Menzbir (RSCSB). I participated in these as the Chairman of the Baikal Branch of RSCSB. Me and my colleague from Irkutsk State University, Igor Vladimirovich Fefelov, worked in parallel on the study of other birds in the delta of the Selenga river and the Kabansky Game Reserve being under the jurisdiction of the Baikal Nature Reserve. Then we repeatedly saw yellow-breasted buntings in the course of our monitoring. An idea emerged to organize the study of this species in the delta. We carried out preliminary works in 2018, in collaboration with the Research Institute of Biology of the Irkutsk State University and the University of Westphalia named after Wilhelm represented by the German ornithologist Wieland Heim. That was actually the way of the emergence of the project named “Where Did the Yellow-breasted Bunting Go?”.

Key To Baikal: What is the essence of the project?

YА: The main goal of our project is to study specific migration routes and wintering areas of yellow-breasted buntings living in the Selenga Delta and Kabansky game reserve. This is one of the areas of the Baikal natural territory where this species is still nesting. The best method of study is to install geologgers for birds – these are the light sensors making it possible to locate the birds by the length of the daylight hours. In 2018 we received a grant for the project implementation from the Foundation for Applied Ecological Research and Development “Lake Baikal”. In the year 2019 we are planning to raise a part of funds for the continuation of the project via crowdfunding.

Key To Baikal: The problem of preserving a single species is a global issue. Is there a general plan of actions about how to start protecting the yellow-breasted bunting?

YА: When some species are under the threat of extinction, an international action plan is developed: it contains a program of work aimed at the correction of the current situation. Once this plan is approved, it is used as guidance by all environmental organizations around the world. Such a plan for yellow-breasted buntings is currently being developed by experts from different countries; its development is being coordinated by “BirdLife International”.

The best method to study the migration of Dubrovnik is the use of special light sensors, that is, geologgers

Key To Baikal: So that to know what to do, one needs to find out the reason. How you think, what influenced the decrease in the number of yellow-breasted buntings?

YА: It is hard to find some general reason. There is a whole set of reasons. One of them is the degradation of the habitats of the yellow-breasted bunting. Many people know that the countries of Southeast Asia have been developing rapidly in recent years. Tentatively speaking, today they have a factory or a megalopolis on the places that used to field earlier. And earlier the fields were home to animals and birds; they could find food and shelter here. Now their home is not there anymore, therefore, they have to look for a new place, during the process of this search, many birds and animals die.  One of other reasons includes changes in farming methods, the use of pesticides. Yellow-breasted bunting is called “a rice bird” in China, because its wintering areas are located on rice fields and large flocks of these birds have been seen flying over these fields. Hence comes one more reason for the decline in numbers of the species - the rapid spreading of the species to the west in the past. By the way, they don’t say much about it. In the twentieth century, the yellow-breasted bunting was widespread in Eurasia, from Finland to Kamchatka. But the things were not always like that. Several hundred years ago, the yellow-breasted bunting nestled only in the Asian part of Russia. Due to human activity, an increase in the area of rice fields, such limiting factor as an insufficient amount of food in the wintering areas was eliminated, and the number of birds in these areas began to grow. Thus, many yellow-breasted buntings migrated to the west pretty fast. Upon such a rapid migration, there was no time to form strong ecological ties with new nesting areas, and as soon as the species began to have problems, the yellow-breasted bunting began to disappear from new nesting sites.

Key To Baikal: There is another very provocative reason, some even put it in the first place: yellow-breasted buntings have simply been eaten...

YА: Yes, this reason also exists, but I do not think that it is the main one, although it is the most understandable for the majority of people. The birds have been eaten: their number has decreased. The logic is simple. Of course, it is difficult to make a judgment based on the real volumes of catch and the number of catch nets. You cannot say until you see it with your own eyes. However, the fact really is that there are a large number of these nets. Why do people catch birds? The main reason, of course, is nutrition. A lot of people are poor. They put the nets, catch a hundred or two of small birds: then they have food for their family for several days. By the way, many people are mistaken thinking that this situation is typical only for Asia. A similar situation with another bird - ortolan bunting – was also observed amidst progressive Europe, in France. The number of the species began to decline. They began to look for the reason, suggesting that this was the fault of the hunters who used to catch the bird. But when they conducted studies (by the way, with the help of geologgers which we want to use in the study of yellow-breasted buntings); they proved that the birds with decreasing population were flying precisely above hunting places; then a ban on the catch of the species was introduced.

Yellow-breasted buntings and other birds may be caught not only for food. There is a tradition to release birds in holy places, temples. For example, when you release a bird, it means that you will be happy. And the more the number of birds, the better. The weakened birds that are set free, are immediately caught once again and resold to other people who wish to find their happiness. Few birds survive after these procedures.

Key To Baikal: You have already mentioned that you want to study the migration of yellow-breasted buntings with the help of geologgers within the frame of the project. Tell us in which way the studies will be conducted?

YА: As I have already said, the best method to study the migration of Dubrovnik is the use of special light sensors, that is, geologgers. A geologger is a kind of small transmitter mounted on the bird’s body like a backpack. It is virtually invisible on the bird’s back, the device is hidden in the feathers, and only a small sensor is visible - it measures the intensity of illumination. The weight of the geologger is small, relative to the bird's weight, therefore, it does not interfere with the movement and vital activity of birds. And this is certainly an advantage. However, geologgers also have a disadvantage: they collect information, but do not transmit it. That is, in order to read the data, we will need to catch the bird once more. We could also use satellite transmitters, but they are several times more expensive and heavier. Therefore, we have opted for geologgers.

Of course, we cannot be 100% sure that the bird will return to the same place year after year. In the case of yellow-breasted buntings, different researchers have proved that a high percentage of birds return to their nesting sites. Therefore, we decided that the situation in our Kabansky game reserve should be the same.

In 2018, we marked 11 yellow-breasted buntings with plastic rings. A total of more than 30 singing males were recorded last year. This year, we will check if they come back and will provide them with geologgers. And next year we will catch them again and read the data. In addition, if we find a suitable laboratory, we will perform genetic analysis. The yellow-breasted bunting includes several subspecies, and it would be interesting to find out which of these subspecies is experiencing most difficulties, in order to understand exactly where each of the winters, what birds and where should be saved first.

Ornithologists around the world have already combined their efforts in order to save the yellow-breasted bunting. By the way, dear readers, you, also have the opportunity to become a part of the global community and help this species of birds. You just have to support the project “Where Does the Yellow-breasted Bunting Go?” by clicking on the link.

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