Which British bird is supposed to have influenced the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and is the name given to Alabama’s state bird?
Growing up in Britain on a farm during the 1950s, I was always fascinated by the sight and sound of the yellowhammer that belongs to the bunting family and is 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) in length. The males would sing from the tops of hedges “tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-e-e-e-se” (last note drawn out), which was translated into English as “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese”. It was all part of the countryside charm. Supposedly, the song inspired the four-note opening motif (dit-dit-dit-dah) of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with the legend that Beethoven heard the yellowhammer sing as he walked in Prater-park, Vienna.
The male yellowhammer is identified by a lemon-yellow head, neck and underparts, a chestnut rump, greenish olive on the nape, wing feathers a dull red-striped black, and white on the outer tail feathers. The female is similar but not as colorful. Walking home from school, these birds regularly greeted me from among hedgerows and herbaceous road margins that they frequented. They were delightful. At the time, there was probably around 4 million of these birds across the British countryside, and in the late 1950s, the bird was described as “abundant in the York area”, with the addendum that “no walk or cycle ride in the York district fails to disclose the presence of these birds in hedgerows, especially during the breeding season”. They are generally resident and non-migratory, and gather in large mixed flocks during winter with other buntings, finches and sparrows.
Then the situation began to change, slowly at first, but by the 1980s, it had accelerated, and yellowhammer numbers were under threat from agricultural interventions. Hedgerows were removed to increase the acreage of farmland, changes in agricultural practices reduced the amount of seed available and when it was available to the birds, urbanization took away habitat, increased usage of fertilizer and pesticides harmed the population, and crows and cats found it easier to catch these birds. If I revisit the farm today, that was my home for the first 10 years of my life, I witness many of these changes.
Today, the number of British yellowhammers has fallen to approximately 1.5 million, and the species is now on the “red list” of most endangered species. For unknown reasons the yellowhammer has not discovered bird feeders in back yards.
Additionally, the yellowhammer has not become present in North America. It was introduced by humans many decades ago to New Zealand (where it is widespread and common), South Africa and the Falkland Islands. There are buntings in North America, but not many that I get to see. Of the 9 species, only the Lazuli bunting is seen in California, although it is uncommon where I live.
Curiously, you will hear people in North America talk about yellowhammers, but they are not the bird that I grew up with. It is the local nickname given to the northern flicker (or eastern yellow-shafted flicker) which is present across Alabama. The underside of its wings and tail are bright yellow feathers and it “hammers” away (drums) with its beak when searching for food. The rumor is that the bird’s nickname was first given to Confederate soldiers in Alabama who wore pieces of yellow cloth attached to their uniforms as they went off to battle. It became recognized as Alabama’s state bird in 1927.