discover the significance and conservation efforts for the ortolan bunting, a symbolic and protected bird.

Ortolan Bunting: A Symbolic and Protected Bird

GardenBy May 29, 2024

Who is the Ortolan Bunting?

The Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana) is a medium-sized migratory bird belonging to the bunting family. Known for their striped plumage, buntings are a group of small passerine birds. The Ortolan Bunting is one of the endangered bird species, protected since 1999 in France, but unfortunately, it is still illegally hunted for its culinary qualities. Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful little colorful bird that can travel thousands of kilometers for wintering.

Appearance and Characteristics

The Ortolan Bunting is a small bird, measuring around 17 cm in height with a wingspan of 24 to 27 cm, and weighing only 19 to 27 grams. Like other buntings, the Ortolan Bunting has a striped and colorful plumage. Its head, neck, and chest are characterized by a unique greenish-gray color, while the throat and mustache are vivid yellow. The Ortolan Bunting also has a distinct pale pink color on its belly, chest, and flanks, which gradually turns into a reddish hue. Its back is a warm reddish-brown, and its tail is black with white spots at the tip of the three main feathers.

The Ortolan Bunting has a conical rose-brown beak and orange to pink legs. It is recognizable by the yellow circle around its dark brown eyes. In terms of sexual dimorphism, the female Ortolan Bunting is less colorful than the male. Her head lacks the olive green hue and instead, it is brown with streaks on the crown. The area around her eyes, throat, and breast are cream-colored with brown streaks. Juveniles are even duller, with a brown head and a black-streaked chest.

The Ortolan Bunting has a melodious and slightly melancholic song, particularly during the breeding season. Each male has its own repertoire, showcasing a great variability in their songs, although the pattern remains the same.

Habitat and Distribution

The Ortolan Bunting has a broad distribution range, extending from the western Atlantic coast (specifically the Landes region) to Mongolia in the east, and from the Baltic Sea in the north to the northern Maghreb in the south. However, its distribution is uneven within its range. In France, the Ortolan Bunting is primarily found in the southeastern part of the country and is scarce or absent in other regions.

As a migratory bird, the Ortolan Bunting spends winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Capable of traveling over 7,000 kilometers, it winters from Senegal to Ethiopia, as well as in the Middle East, Iran, and Arabia. The Ortolan Bunting does not have a specific habitat but is commonly found in open areas with scattered trees, such as meadows, cereal fields, moorlands, or clearings with woody vegetation, up to an altitude of 2,500 meters. During migration, it can also make stops in semi-desert and steppe areas.


The Ortolan Bunting has a varied diet. Depending on the season, it feeds on insects such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, spiders, as well as invertebrates like earthworms, which it finds directly on the ground. This diet is complemented by seeds, buds, and tender leaves, which it primarily consumes during migration and wintering, and upon its return to its breeding grounds.


During the breeding season, the Ortolan Bunting becomes gregarious. It forms groups that can reach several hundred members while still in Africa. The birds return to their breeding grounds between early April and June. Once back, the couples establish territories in their preferred sites. The female builds the nest alone, usually on the ground but protected by tall grasses and at the base of a shrub or bush. The nest is made of dry twigs.

The female lays eggs one to two times, from mid-May to June and from late June to July. The eggs, which are cream-colored with brown or black spots, are incubated by the female for 12 to 13 days. The hatchlings, fed on insects, grow rapidly and leave the nest in just about twelve days.

The Ortolan Bunting: An Ally for Gardeners?

The Ortolan Bunting is a rather timid animal that rarely ventures into gardens, especially in urban areas where sightings are infrequent. In rural areas, however, due to its diet, the Ortolan Bunting is a very useful species for gardens. It helps eliminate insects and their larvae that can cause damage to vegetable crops and flower beds. Therefore, it is beneficial to welcome this small bird with open arms as it can naturally and ecologically tackle various garden pests. Avoid using toxic and chemical products in your garden, as they can harm the Ortolan Bunting and other wildlife.

The Conservation Status and Threats

The Ortolan Bunting is a vulnerable species in Europe and in sharp decline in France, leading to its inclusion in the “orange list” of endangered species. It is a victim of intensive agriculture, extensive pesticide use, and illegal hunting, despite being protected by the law. Its habitat is shrinking rapidly, and the remaining spaces are highly vulnerable, posing a severe threat to this beautiful and useful bird.

Protected by the March 5, 1999 decree and listed in Annex I of the Bird Directive, the Ortolan Bunting remains a prized target for hunters and gastronomes. In the southwestern region of France, the bird is still consumed, usually as a result of traditional practices. Despite the law, there is a culinary ritual surrounding the consumption of the Ortolan Bunting, where diners cover their faces with a napkin to hide the chewing of the bird, often crushing its head and bones between their teeth. Once synonymous with luxury, the Ortolan Bunting was historically consumed by elites and enthusiasts during feasts and events. Despite legal protections, the bird continues to be hunted, using tradition as a justification.

It is crucial to raise awareness about the symbolic and protected status of the Ortolan Bunting, not only for its role in biodiversity conservation but also in promoting sustainable agriculture and a respectful coexistence with nature.

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I'm Jennifer. My hands are often covered in soil, and my heart is full of passion for nature. Through my writings, I share my personal gardening journeys, tips, and the joy of cultivating both plants and a community of fellow garden lovers. Every plant I grow adds a story to my life, and I love sharing those tales with my readers.