Yellowhammer: the bird profiles


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Can you tell the difference between a yellowhammer and a European serin? Want to know how you can support this delightful bird in your garden? Here’s everything you should know about the yellowhammer.

A yellowhammer perches in a tree
The yellowhammer is a little splash of colour

The yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) lives up to its name. Small and yellow, yellowhammers are a beautiful splash of colour in the country and have a lovely, high-pitched song. They have adapted well to humans, but are now struggling with urbanisation. Unfortunately, like many other bird species, with changing land use and a loss of habitat, yellowhammer populations are steadily declining. Read on to find out how you can help!

Yellowhammer: key facts

SizeAbout 16cm
WeightAbout 30g
Breeding seasonApril-August
LifespanApproximately 10 years
HabitatStructured land and forest edges
Food preferencesSeeds, insects and spiders
ThreatsHabitat loss due to urbanisation

How to recognise the yellowhammer

It is easiest to spot yellowhammers during breeding season, when males display their brilliant plumage. Think olive-brown wings and a long, olive-brown tail, both striped black, which contrast to bright yellow areas on the head, breast and belly. A yellowhammer’s upper back is also olive, brown and black, whilst the rump shines chestnut.

How to tell the difference between male and female yellowhammers

Female yellowhammers are far less conspicuous than males. While the male’s face is yellow, bar a few black stripes, a female’s face is olive-brown and striped yellow. Only her throat and belly are a lighter, dirty yellow (they have nothing on the male!), as her breast is also olive-green and striped black. Outside of breeding season, however, male yellowhammers are as colourful as their partners.

A female yellowhammer stands in snow
As is so often the case, the female yellowhammer is less conspicuous than the male [Photo: Erni/]

How to recognise a young yellowhammer

Yellowhammer chicks are even less colourful than their mothers. Young yellowhammers are olive-brown, and sport black stripes on their backs, tails and wings – yellow they are not. Only a pale, dashed belly hints at their future vibrancy.

A yellowhammer chick is fed on the ground
A young yellowhammer being fed [Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/]

How to recognise a yellowhammer egg

A yellowhammer lays 3 to 5 eggs per clutch. The eggs vary between blue, grey and brown, and tend to be marked with purple-black spots and scribbles. Yellowhammers build their nests close to the ground, out of stalks, leaves and other plant fibres, and such that the hollow in which the eggs are laid is padded with soft animal hair.

Five yellowhammer eggs in a nest
Five yellowhammer eggs in a nest [Photo: Vishnevskiy Vasily/]

How to tell the difference between a yellowhammer and a serin

Despite their distinctive shape, it is easy to confuse yellowhammers with other bird species. Top of the list is the European serin. This small songbird has similar plumage to the yellowhammer, but differs in a number of ways. Firstly, serins are slightly smaller than yellowhammers, and their faces are marked with a dark olive patch on each cheek and a parting of the same colour. A male yellowhammer’s face, on the other hand, is almost completely yellow. What is more, the serin’s rump shines bright yellow, while the yellowhammer’s is a rusty brown.

A European serin perches on a branch
A European serin’s face is much less yellow face than a yellowhammer’s [Photo: John Navajo/]

What is the perfect habitat for yellowhammers?

Yellowhammers love open, cultivated land, broken up with hedges and small trees. You can also spot them at the edges of forests that border open fields. Outside of breeding season, yellowhammers often forage together in groups in meadows.

Where do yellowhammers build their nests?

Yellowhammers use hedges or bushes as protected nesting sites. The nest is either constructed on or near the ground in dense vegetation. Females decide which nesting sites are most suitable, though partners build the nest together.

A yellowhammer looks over its 4 newborns
A yellowhammer nest is usually on the ground [Photo: Vishnevskiy Vasily/]

When is breeding season for yellowhammers?

Yellowhammers breed between April and August, raising 2 to 3 broods. The mother incubates the eggs for about 14 days, while the father provides food. Yellowhammers are born featherless and blind, and are fed in the nest for up to 14 days until independence.

Where do yellowhammers spend winter?

UK yellowhammers are resident year-round, although populations from more northerly regions in Scotland move south over winter. During the colder months, yellowhammers gather in small groups, searching for food together and warming one another in a common roost.

A group of yellowhammers search for food in the snow
Yellowhammers often gather in small groups during winter [Photo: serav/]

What does a yellowhammer’s song sound like?

The yellowhammer has a very unique song, which makes it a perfect way to identify the little songbird. The song consists of bright, clear and fast notes that end with a long, triumphant final tone. Yellowhammers also have many calls, but they are much more difficult to recognise.

Help the yellowhammer!

Like many wild birds, urbanisation is threatening the yellowhammer. Their populations depend on structurally rich fields and meadows, which are preserved through organic farming techniques.

However, you can do your part! Find out everything you need to know about food and nesting aids below.

What do yellowhammers eat?

Yellowhammers feed mainly on tree and plant seeds. In spring, and especially during breeding season, the songbirds also gorge on insects, such as beetles or caterpillars, as well as spiders and other small animals.

If you would like to offer additional food to the songbird over winter, reach for grains. Sunflower seeds, by themselves or combined with wild herb seeds, are a great choice.

Which birdhouses are suitable for yellowhammers?

Yellowhammers like space to breed, so are unlikely to use a classic birdhouse (unlike, for instance, starlings, tree sparrows and great tits). For the yellowhammer, it is a good idea to allow your hedges and bushes to grow out, providing enough undergrowth for the songbird to feel protected.

How can I support yellowhammers even more?

Yellowhammers rely on a healthy supply of protein-rich insects and other small animals to feed their young. And do try to avoid chemical sprays. They tend to poison insects and birds.

The goldcrest will also love a bird-friendly garden, take a look!

Subscribe to the Plantura newsletter