YELLOWHAMMER (Emberiza citrinella)

Bruant jaune

As all three of the names I give suggest - there is a lot of yellow in this species ! (The term "hammer" is said to be a corruption of the German "ammer" meaning bunting - nothing to do with the implement). The male takes on a brilliant yellow head and breast during the breeding season, with just a few dark markings on the side of the head, the female is more of a yellowish-brown colour, quite streaked all over. In Switzerland it is present all year and is essentially a bird of lowland areas being most common from 500-800m although it can extend up to 1400m. It is therefore most common on the northern plain and in recent years is now more common in the alpine valleys than previously.

The basic song of this bird is a series of rapid chattered notes followed by a long wheezy "tsee" - in English the rendition "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeese" is commonly applied to it, but actually the song is quite variable and rarely if ever do you hear one with exactly the correct rhythm:

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The pattern is quite clear in the sonogram:

But as I say the song is very variable, a common variation in Switzerland is for the base phrase to be followed by a high-pitched note, this does seem to be a central European feature - in Britain I believe these last two notes are reversed:

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You can see these additional notes in the first and third phrases of this sonogram, a very high note starting at about 7.5Khz descending to about 6Khz. The stutter in the second phrase was done by the bird, its not an artifact of the recording - and it gives you an idea of the sort of thing that can go on:


Another common variant is that the song is left incomplete and the "cheeeeeese" notes are dropped or curtailed, and also listen how the phrases here are occasionally of a lower tone:

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I have seen and heard the same bird mix all these variations up in the same singing session. These songs are also reminiscent for me of hot summer days - it can be baking sunshine in July and August and the Yellowhammers seem to be only ones left singing - which they normally do from the top of an exposed perch, shining out like a yellow beacon. One reason for this may be as follows: Yellowhammers will lay several clutches of eggs in one season and the males use song as one way to prevent rival males from mating with "their" female. This extended multi-clutch season and the protection of their mates may be why we hear Yellowhammers singing later than other species.

You may have noticed that in the above samples you also heard various buzzes and "tsip" notes in between the song phrases - these are calls, and again the Yellowhammer seems to have a lot of them. The commonest one that I come across is:

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A noise I describe as its "buzz" call (the timing is shortened a little in the sonogram to save download time):


Cramp and Perrins describe this as an alarm call and my sonograms match very well with theirs in the book, but I am honestly not sure - I have always taken it as a general contact call as I hear it so often from birds who do not seem at all alarmed !

On the other hand this last recording was taken form a bird I recorded in Normandy which did seem agitated or excited as it perched on the branch of a tree and flew off shortly after the recording:

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If you listen carefully you can hear the buzz I showed above, plus some higher notes and more abbreviated buzzes (and I am sorry there is a Chaffinch making its "wink" calls in the background also).

But have a look at the sonogram and you will see what I mean:


and I will provide below a still key to the sounds I hear, try and open the moving sonogram and look at the still image below at the same time. The "buzz" is the call we heard before, this seems to then get shortened into the "trsp" sound, and even shorter into the "chip" - this latter is apparently a flight call which can also be given perched - the very high pitched "tszeee" is a call (it starts at more than 9Khz so older easr may not hear it) I have not seen referenced and really have no idea as to its purpose, maybe another element of an alarm call.

 

 

 

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