Silence of the corn bunting

SILENCE, the movie by Cork-born film-maker Pat Collins, is in the cinemas at present.

Filmed in the west of Ireland, it celebrates the few places still free of man-made sounds.

The stars of the piece are birds. Curlews whimbrels and snipe sing and drum as the camera pans lovingly over Lough Hyne, Mullaghmore and Tory. Landscape, it proclaims, offers more than a visual experience; there’s an aural one as well.

Tractors, farm machinery and speeding vehicles provide the soundtrack of the modern countryside. Cuckoos and corncrakes, prominent in the film, were part of the wallpaper when I was a boy. Not so now, though you’ll still hear the corncrake if you visit Tory.

Another iconic song, the corn bunting’s ‘jangling of a bunch of keys’, is gone forever. The bird became extinct here in the 1990s. Now history is repeating itself. Dr Adam Watson, writing in the June edition of Ibis, claims that corn buntings are disappearing from Scotland.

This little seed-eater belongs to a family which evolved in America; most of the world’s 291 bunting species are found there. Some crossed the Bering Strait long ago and set up shop in Asia. A few of them reached Europe. In Ireland, we have only the glamorous yellowhammer and the sparrow-like reed bunting with its jerky little song.

The corn bunting, brown with dark stripes, is bigger than a sparrow. It’s not much to look at, but the jangling song evokes memories of sunny cornfields, threshing machines, balmy meadows and horse-drawn hay floats. Unusually for buntings, the sexes are alike. When territories are in short supply, the more successful males resort to polygamy. Grabbing up to three partners, they leave other would-be daddies without mates. Females reckon they are better off as the mistress of a male with a good territory than nesting monogamously with one of meagre resources. Having to share a husband doesn’t matter that much. He visits the ladies mainly for sex. Although keeping a watchful eye on the spouse while she builds the nest, he doesn’t raise a feather to help her. Nor, despite being well camouflaged, will he incubate the eggs. A largely absent father, he condescends to feed youngsters only when they’re close to fledging. Oddly, males with several wives tend to be more helpful than those with only one. Perhaps they know that females sharing a territory need extra help finding food for their young.

In Ireland’s Birds, published in 1900, Richard Ussher and Robert Warren wrote that the corn bunting ‘may be commonly met with on the small holdings near the coasts where the fences abound in briars’. Surveys carried out by BirdWatch between 1968 and 72, for the BTO/IWC Atlas project, showed that the bird had disappeared from most of the country. There were still a few areas, mainly coastal, where it was still found. The Mullet peninsula, I remember, had a healthy population into the 1970s. Nowadays, with the bunting’s demise, the place seems sad and empty. When the Atlas survey was repeated 20 years later, there were only 30 or so breeding pairs left in Ireland.

Watson has monitored the bird in Scotland, one of its last remaining strongholds in these islands, for the last 20 years. The Aberdeenshire population, he says, fell from 134 pairs to 12 during the period. But what is causing the decline? Watson blames the usual suspects; pesticides and changing farm practices. He also implicates another one; the amalgamation of small fields into larger ones.

The elimination of hedges, combined with a reduction in the abundance of weeds, reduces nesting cover and eliminates many of the insect larvae which corn buntings feed to their chicks. Earlier mowing and harvesting of silage in fields where buntings are trying to nest are other likely factors.

Changing farming practices were no doubt implicated in the bunting’s demise in Ireland but are they the whole story? Western counties, at the end of the great famine of the 1840s, had lots of tiny deserted fields, many of which remain to this day. The lazy-beds, so characteristic of that tragic time, were soon colonised by bracken or clothed in American conifers but surely enough little meadows, with adjoining patches of scrub, survived to meet the bunting’s needs?

With the demise of the Celtic Tiger, nature is reclaiming some of the landscape; if the corn bunting had survived, would it perhaps have brighter prospects now?

We’ll never know. As Hamlet said; ‘the rest is silence’.


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