The pine bunting (Emberiza leucocephalos) belongs to the bird family Emberizidae, which also includes finches, sparrows, and buntings. It is part of the genus Emberiza, which includes about 30 other species of buntings scattered throughout Europe and Asia. The pine bunting was first described by Linnaeus in 1758, after an initial sighting in Sweden by Peter Kalm in 1747.
Emberiza leucocephalos was not previously placed in the genus Emberiza but following the publication of a comprehensive molecular phylogenetic study in 2018, it was moved to the resurrected genus Emberiza. The genus formerly contained other buntings now considered more distinct, in particular the Eurasian Reed Bunting and Yellowhammer.
The pine bunting is a very small bird and is found primarily in the forests of Europe and Asia. Although there are 17 different species of bunting that can be found throughout the world, this one has been the focus of multiple ornithologists and bird enthusiasts because of its unique appearance.
Pine bunting is an open habitat bunting bird, which is usually found along forest edges and clearings, as well as on hillsides and agricultural lands. A breeding male is strikingly handsome, with a warm brown coloration overall and bright white cheek patches and crown; you can listen to his buzzy song during the summer months.
During the breeding season, females possess largely white underparts, a dirty white ear, and a gray cast on the back of their bodies. As the season changes, wintering adults become darker and streakier, but they retain the patterning on their heads.
In a young bird, the large white cheek patch is not present, and they may be confused with Rustic Buntings. Observe if the crest is weak or if the belly has faint streaks, and if the ear patch is gray in color with a whitish spot near the end.
There is a high probability of hybridization with Yellowhammer in areas where their ranges overlap, and nonbreeding adults may appear very similar; note the absence of any yellow tones in the adult. In some cases, the species is found in flocks with other species outside of the breeding season.
The scientific name of the pine bunting is Emberiza leucocephalos
Range and habitat
There is a large population of pine buntings throughout temperate Asia. In winter, they migrate south to central Asia, southern China, and North India. Although it can be found in a variety of open habitats with some trees or scrubs, as well as in cultivation, it prefers open forests, particularly pine forests, over the closely related yellowhammer.
This species is a rare migrant to western Europe, but it is frequently seen in Tuscany and Northeast Italy during the winter months.
Size and weight
The average size of the pine bunting is 16 to 17.5 cm (6.3 to 6.9 inches). The males are larger than the females. Pine buntings weigh approximately 24 to 37 grams (0.8 to 1.3 oz) each, and have a wingspan of around 23 to 29 cm (9 to 11.4 inches).
Feathers and plumage
Male pine buntings have a white crown and cheeks, chestnut foreheads and throats, and brown backs with heavy streaking. Compared to the male, the female has a duller appearance and has more streaks on its underside.
The non-breeding plumage of this species looks similar to that of a yellowhammer, except that all of the yellows have been replaced with white.
Nests are built in protected shallow depressions on the ground, such as beneath a rock, under a shrub or other standing vegetation, or next to a fallen log. Twigs, grasses, and roots are used in the construction of the nest, along with finer materials such as rootlets, grasses, and animal hair for the lining. Females lay between three and six eggs, which hatch after about 13 days.
Diet and foraging
Pine buntings normally consume seeds and insects, especially when feeding their young.
In addition to eating seeds throughout the year, pine buntings also consume large quantities of insects during the breeding season.
As a result, they have learned to exploit agricultural areas by gathering in flocks during non-breeding seasons in order to feed on agricultural waste grains.
Even when on their forested breeding grounds, these birds tend to forage on the ground or very low in vegetation. There is a tendency for them to form large flocks outside of the breeding season, feeding in agricultural fields and other areas rich in seeds and other food sources.
There are 4 to 6 clutches of eggs laid by a female pine bunting in a single brood per year, which are incubated for 13 to 14 days before hatching. When the young are approximately 15 days old, they are nested for around 13 days until they take their first flight.
In their first year, they often have to rely on their parents for food since they have difficulty breaking open seeds. Eventually, though, young birds must find food on their own or starve to death.
During this time, bunting will be trying its best to learn how to fly very well while also exploring its territory. And by age 1 to 3, it becomes independent and can produce offspring of its own.
The typical lifespan of the Pine Bunting is less than three years.
Movements and migration
In the winter, the pine bunting migrates to central and southern Asia, although there may be an overlap between the breeding and non-breeding areas of the species.
Diseases and threats
The first and foremost threat to pine buntings is habitat loss. At present, their habitat is declining because the land in much of Russia and Europe has been turned over to agriculture for crops like wheat, corn, barley, oats, etc.
These birds are threatened because there’s simply not enough land to go around anymore. Pine buntings are also threatened by wind turbines that have been built on coastal areas where they roost during winter.
The species’ populations are widespread, common, and appear to be stable across a wide geographical area. Pine Buntings are listed as a “Least Concern” species by the IUCN.
Pine bunting facts
Pine bunting breeding occurs between the Ural and Pacific coasts of the world. This species is closely related to the Yellowhammer. In areas where both species meet, hybridization occurs frequently.
It is unusual to see Pine Buntings in Europe during the autumn and winter months when it is often seen in flocks of Yellowhammers. It is not uncommon for a number of birds to spend the winter in Tuscany, far from their normal wintering grounds.