Ortolan Bird (Ortolan bunting, Emberiza hortulana)

Ortolan bunting

Ortolan bunting, ortolan bird, Emberiza hortulana, hortolan, or just ortolan, is a species of bird in the bunting family Emberizidae, which also includes the similar-looking and closely related yellowhammer.

It breeds in most of Europe and western Asia and migrates south in winter to north Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and northern India. It should not be confused with its larger relative the golden oriole, which has very different breeding and wintering ranges and which does not overlap with it at all.

Emberiza hortulana is named after the French town where it was traditionally captured with nets on winter grain fields; sometimes the birds were kept alive in cages and fattened with grain before being eaten by gourmets.

Ortolan bird breeds in southern Europe and southwestern Asia, and it is migratory, wintering in north Africa and the Middle East. Ortolan buntings are not rare, but they tend to be inconspicuous because of their skulking habits and grassland habitat; they are also very secretive around the nest, which is usually built on the ground in rough vegetation or amongst rocks or at the base of bushes.


Ortolan bunting

Named for its French name ortolan, the Ortolan bird is a small songbird. They are an endangered species of birds and they can be found throughout Eurasia and Africa during warmer months.

In France, these migratory birds are harvested in October and November by catching them in nets. They were then roasted in ovens before being served whole to privileged guests at banquets – but this practice has now been outlawed.

Ortolan bunting scientific name

The scientific name of the ortolan bunting is Emberiza hortulana.

Range and habitat

There are a large number of species of this bird present in most European countries and western Asia, reaching as far north as Scandinavia and beyond the Arctic Circle. It is frequently seen in cornfields and their surroundings. The species is a rare vagrant to the British Isles in spring, and especially in autumn.

The Black Billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)

This bird was photographed by Birdwatchers in November 2018 at Kenjar Coastal Karnataka, India. In India, this is the first photograph of an ortolan bunting, according to some birders.

Ortolan bird size and weight

The Ortolan is a stocky 16 to 17 cm (6.3 to 6.7 inches) long bird, with a wingspan of around 23 to 29 cm (9.1 to 11.4 inches). They weigh around 20 to 25 grams (0.71 to 0.88 oz).

Feathers and plumage

Ortolan bird

While Ortolan bird is very similar to the yellowhammer in appearance and habits, the ortolan lacks the bright coloring of that species; for instance, its head is a pale greenish-grey color rather than a bright yellow. An ortolan male sings in a similar manner to a yellowhammer.


Like all birds, Ortolans rely on feathers to maintain body temperature. Once their feathers are fully grown and waterproof, they are unable to replace them when they wear out or become too damaged. Instead, Ortolans fly into the sea after reaching sexual maturity where they shed their old feathers and grow new ones. This gives the young Ortolans an advantage in body size due to not having any more molting to do once fully matured and gives them a quick shot at reproducing before they go extinct.

Nesting behavior

It is common for Ortolan birds to build their nest on the ground beneath a small bush or clumps of grass with the nest hidden among cultivated cereal crops, perennial grasses, or among sparse grassy vegetation. The nest is built from thin roots, dry leaves and stems of cereals, and occasionally just dry leaves.

Ortolan bunting food and foraging

Besides being herbivores (granivores), Ortolan buntings are also carnivores (insectivores). Seeds are the primary food source of these birds, but when they are breeding, they switch to insects as well.

The majority of their time is spent foraging during the day. While searching for seeds, they hop along the ground, and when chasing beetles, they walk or run.

Red Headed Bunting Bird (Emberiza bruniceps)

Sounds and vocal behavior

A short “tsi” sound is the Ortolan bird’s common call, and the males sing more melodiously and gently than Yellowhammers.


Ortolan bird

Birds of the Ortolan bunting species breed between the middle of April and the beginning of June. The nests are located at a considerable distance apart in separate pairs.

Nesting pairs may, however, sometimes occur together. Ortolans nest on the ground, hidden among cultivated cereal crops, perennial grasses, under sparse grassy vegetation under bushes and bunches of grass. Generally, nests are built using cereal stems, leaves, and thin roots, however, sometimes dry leaves can also be used.

Often, it is lined with feathers, horsehair, and roots. After laying 4 to 5 eggs, the female incubates them for about 11 to 12 days. Both parents feed and brood the chicks, which hatch blind and helpless. After spending 10 to 13 days in the nest, they begin to learn how to fly.


Ortolan bird has a lifespan of two to three years. A bird found dead in Switzerland was six years and ten months old.

Movements and migration

Ortolan birds are far-distant migrants that winter in Africa. They live in open landscapes with trees and sparse shrubs, as well as not very dense grassy vegetation. For their habitat, they prefer forested edges and thickets of shrubs among fields. Gardens and cultivated areas are also good places to find these birds.

Diseases and threats

Ortolan bird populations are facing a variety of threats. The major threats are loss of habitat, degradation, destruction of habitats, persecution, and hunting. Other factors like climate change and predators also play a role in the shrinking populations.

Population status

The IUCN Red List indicates that there are between 8,000,000 and 17,999,999 mature Ortolan buntings in the world. It is estimated that there are 3,330,000 to 7,070,000 breeding pairs in Europe, which is equivalent to 6,660,000 to 14,100,000 mature birds.

Yellowhammer Bird (Emberiza citrinella)

Currently, there are fewer Ortolan bird species than there were years ago, but this species is still listed as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

Conservation and management

IUCN provides conservation guidance to help people work together to protect and manage land, water, air, and biodiversity, ensuring a healthy planet for future generations. Their current focus is on working with policymakers, partners, and stakeholders to improve the management of key habitats like grasslands, wetlands, and forests that support birds like the Ortolan bird.

They also provide assessments on how climate change will affect many different habitats and wildlife species around the world, including the Ortolan. Organizations such as WIDECAST are using these data to produce informative videos and posters on how climate change will impact specific regions in order to raise awareness and inform decision-making processes at all levels.