“Rice bird” has been a popular item on the gourmet menu—particularly in Southern China, including Hong Kong. Hunting activities are pervasive. The birds like to gather in large flocks to roost, making them an easy target for hunters. Over the last three to four decades, the species’ population has plummeted from abundant to “critically endangered” because of consumption by humans.
The formal name of “rice bird” is Yellow-breasted Bunting (Emberiza aureola). It is a medium-sized bunting, about 15 cm in length. The bird is characterised by brown feathers with streaks and pale yellow underparts. In spring, the male changes to brightly coloured breeding plumage—the brown feathers become reddish brown, the head turns black and underparts bright yellow, as indicated by its Latin name aureola meaning “golden yellow”.
In Southern China, Yellow-breasted Bunting is a migratory bird, occurring in spring and autumn. They were often seen in flocks of dozens of birds, roaming open country, farmlands and grasslands, feeding mainly on seeds. They were once labelled as “pest birds” that damage crops, and were hunted on a large scale—especially as they could be consumed as a delicacy. Over the last few decades, hunting of thousands or even hundreds of thousands each time were common. Before the 1980s, fried “rice birds” were frequently sold in “siu laap” (roosted meat) shops in Hong Kong too.
Conservation urgently needed as population dropped by 90%
By the 21st century, researchers noted that Yellow-breasted Bunting was undergoing a rapid population decrease. A study in a scientific journal showed that between 1980 and 2013, the species’ population declined by 90%, an alarming magnitude indeed. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed Yellow-breasted Bunting as “Critically Endangered” in their update to the Red List of Threatened Species in 2017.
In Hong Kong, there are also concerns regarding the species among local conservation groups. The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has carried out efforts to restore paddy rice cultivation through management of Long Valley wetland. The number of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen here has gradually increased as the area of paddy fields has expanded.
Long Valley is an important habitat and feeding ground of Yellow-breasted Bunting in Hong Kong. The government is launching The Kwu Tung North and Fanling North New Development Area, and took over the farmlands in Long Valley last year. The official plan is to build the Long Valley Nature Park. It is our hope that the future Nature Park will sustain and enhance the ecological value of Long Valley farmland and wetland, and provide ideal habitats for a variety birds in the long run; and that conservation efforts here and outside Hong Kong will allow Yellow-breasted Bunting to be removed from the critically endangered status in the not too distant future.