It was Kate who picked it up first, the soft, distinctive ‘jangling keys’ song of a Corn Bunting. Despite his rather drab appearance he was easy to spot, a dumpy little bird sat on a telegraph wire above an arable field margin, repeating his characteristic song at steady intervals. Males sing incessantly throughout the breeding season and are highly territorial, even to the extent of making regular visits to the breeding territory during the winter months. These levels of song production may be one reason why male Corn Buntings often attract multiple female partners, although the quality of the territory in which he is singing also has a major influence on his ability to attract and support a mate. One male, holding a high quality territory on the South Downs, was found to have six different females nesting in his territory at the same time.
This was a good bird to see, a species in retreat and now missing from much of the county. It is only here, on the chalky soils of northwest Norfolk, that they seem to be hanging on in any numbers. The demise of the Corn Bunting is part of a wider decline in the breeding populations of many of our farmland seed-eaters, with species like Tree Sparrow, House Sparrow and Reed Bunting in documented decline. It is a story that we have heard all too often; changes in the way in which we manage the land impacting upon the other creatures with which we share our fields and woodlots. The desire for cheap food necessitates a particular form of land management which, in turn, determines how much space there is for birds like the Corn Bunting.
The changing status of the Corn Bunting has had a knock-on effect on our appreciation of it as a bird. Once described as being ‘lumpy, loose-feathered’ and ‘spiritless’ the Corn Bunting is now growing in our affections. One author wrote ‘He is a dull bird and seems to know it’, something which would surely be countered today with the response ‘He is an understated bird, not brash but subtle in his charms’. And that’s the thing really; here is a bird with old world charm, a species whose song would have been familiar to a generation of birdwatchers but whose future now looks uncertain. We could lose the Corn Bunting from Norfolk and with its loss would go one of the true sounds of arable farmland. I know that, at present, I can come to the chalk around Ringstead and Chosley to see Corn Buntings but what I really want us to have them return as a backdrop to farmland walks elsewhere in the county.