Smaller than a sparrow, but able to fly farther - let's get to know the European stonechat!

2021. október 06.

This tiny bird demands your attention not only with its colourful appearance but also with its voice. The European stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) prefers large, rough grasslands; it can rarely be spotted in forest areas. Of course, not in many other places either ashuman activity has made this chirping herald of spring move again.


The European stonechat is a migratory bird; it spends autumn and winter in the Mediterranean or in the North African heat, returning to its European habitat in the first rays of spring, around March. The European stonechat can be found all over Hungary, nesting everywhere from the Great Plain to the fields around Budapest, but its population has declined significantly; their number has dropped by more than half since 1999.

Today, Hungary is home to a population estimated at 200,000 nesting pairs, compared to the former half a million, which is partly a consequence of the fact that the shrubs preferred by the bird are often eradicated when an area is converted to arable land. And not only then: the nationwide practice of gas burning is forcing these birds to seek refuge elsewhere.

Yet they really don’t need a lot of space, as they are tiny; 12.5 centimetres long, weighing 13-17 grams. The male has a black head, an orange throat and a puffed out breast. They are more often spotted than the brown-coloured females, when they sing their high and twittering song in the meadows during the mating season. Although the call of the European stonechat is not particularly unique, it stands out from the spring hustle and bustle due to its intensity and long-lasting chirping that can sometimes last for hours.

Once mated, European stonechats breed twice a year, laying five or six eggs, which are cared for by both parents. European stonechats first breed when they are one year old. They feed on small insects and arachnids, which they swoop onto from a great height, whereafter the prey is transported cautiously to their nest in the shrubs, as the open areas they prefer, also harbour many predators.

In 2021, the European stonechats was named the Bird of the Year in Hungary. The bird won this recognition based in an online vote organised by the Hungarian Ornithological and Nature Conservation Association (MME). This “recognition” has been awarded annually since 1979 and serves primarily serves to raise awareness and disseminate information: it draws attention to bird species struggling with nature conservation problems, and the European stonechats population is declining in Hungary despite the fact that it is not an endangered species anywhere else.

But at least it is now considered a separate species; Until 2002, there was a scientific consensus that the Siberian and African stonechats were the same as the European species, but a genetic study found that they are different birds. However, if we are not careful, they will no longer sing so beautifully in the bushes.


Cover: Getty Images