Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami 鳳頭鵐

Category I. Rare late autumn migrant and winter visitor. Previously much more numerous and bred in the hills, but now extinct as a breeding species.


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Jan. 2013, Martin Hale. Adult male.

Large bunting with obvious crest. Adult male has longer crest and is dark grey to blackish with chestnut wing coverts, basal two-thirds to the tail and edges to remiges and tertials.

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Jan. 2021, KWOK Tsz Ki. Female.

Female is greyish brown above with darker streaks and has duller chestnut on wings and wholly dark tail apart from chestnut edges; underparts are buff diffusely streaked darker.


The song is short and simple but lively and comprises 3-5 introductory notes followed by a sweeter terminal phrase.

The call is a rather deep and loud ‘chup’.


Previously Crested Bunting bred on grassy hillsides in upland areas. The largest numbers were recorded on Tai Mo Shan (12 pairs in 1959) and on Sunset Peak, Lantau (ten birds in 1963). However, there were also summer reports from lower altitudes, including Kowloon Hills, Castle Peak, Sharp Peak, the Pat Sin Leng range, Tai Lam Chung, the Dragon’s Back, High West and Buffalo Hill (Ho Chung), as well as Bluff Island and Lamma.

Breeding numbers gradually declined from 1970, and from 1980 there were rarely more than five or six birds reported at scattered breeding sites. The 1993-96 breeding bird survey suggested that the population was very small and concentrated at Tai Mo Shan, Pat Sin Leng and around Tate's Cairn. However, there were no records in the 2016-19 surveys, and it is now extinct as a breeding species in HK.

In winter, the Crested Bunting tended to move off the hills and occur at lower elevations. It was formerly found in relatively large numbers between November and April, with most records in agricultural areas, often where these were near the uplands. Regular locations used to be Sai Kung, especially at Ho Chung and Three Fathoms Cove, Lam Tsuen and Kam Tin, but records were widespread, including several sites on the west and south of HK Island, on Lantau and Lamma and in the Deep Bay area. In the 2001-05 winter atlas it was only recorded in two 1km squares, at the edge of Deep Bay and in Lam Tsuen valley, and there were no records in the 2016-19 atlas.


Since 1999, apart from one record of a male in song on Tai Mo Shan on 2 July 2000, Crested Bunting has occurred less than annually mainly from 13 November to 21 January, with a further two records on 14 March. Most records have occurred in the second half of November and first nine days of December suggesting passage of migrants; there were only two records in January, each of birds present for about a week at Long Valley. All records were of one or two individuals.

This pattern of occurrence is a continuation of a gradual long-term decline. Swinhoe (1861) considered it to be present ‘in excessive numbers’ in HK and Kershaw (1904) stated that it was a common resident in the Pearl River region. Vaughan and Jones (1913) wrote that it was resident in Kowloon and was present in considerable flocks in winter. It does not appear to have been scarce during the 1930s, but a comment by Herklots (1937) to the effect that it is most often seen in spring in parties of up to 20 birds suggests that it was no longer as abundant as during Swinhoe’s time. Similarly, Dove and Goodhart (1955) referred to records in all months except for October and November, but specifically stated that it bred in hills to the north of Fanling, so it could no longer have been ubiquitous.

From 1958 to 1982 Crested Bunting was recorded in a five-year mean of least 11 weekly periods per year; from 1985 to 1998 it was recorded in no more than six with the decline more marked in the breeding season. It is now recorded less than annually. When it was more numerous, the pattern of records did not suggest a high proportion of seasonal visitors to HK. Numbers were higher in winter, but it is presumed these were breeding birds down from the hills gathering in more accessible areas. The largest flocks recorded were generally of up to 50 birds, though the highest was 120 at Three Fathoms Cove on 29 November 1971. However, after 1976 the only double-figure counts were 26 at Tung Chung, Lantau on 26 December 1986 and 13 at Tan Shan valley on 15 November 1992.

The reasons for the decline are obscure but, since the Crested Bunting is largely resident throughout its range, must be sought in HK. Formerly, it appears to have been associated with rice fields and it may be that the disappearance of rice cultivation in HK has had an adverse effect. For example, Herklots (1937) stated that it appeared to be particularly abundant in spring when the young rice in the seed beds was only an ‘inch or two’ high, and it may not be a coincidence that the flock of 13 seen in 1992 and nearly all records in recent years have occurred in rice fields (recently at Long Valley).

There is also a possibility that this species was adapted to breeding on hillsides subject to regular burning. Breeding sites included Pat Sin Leng range, which was burnt frequently, and Tai Mo Shan at Chuen Lung, where the presence of numerous graves also resulted in frequent fires. In general, however, public education has resulted in many hill areas being burnt less often than in the past and, consequently, grassland is being progressively replaced by shrubland.


Herklots (1934) reported finding a nest with three chicks at approximately 365m at Pat Heung among grass on the bank of an abandoned hillside rice terrace; a nest containing three eggs was found at 450m altitude on Buffalo Hill above Ho Chung on 26 June 1964.


Rather an upright stance on the ground, and fond of perching prominently on wires etc. Feeds on a variety of seeds, including rice.


Monotypic. Largely resident from northern parts of the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayan foothills east to China from the Yangtze floodplain south and south to north Indochina; some birds winter in west Himalayan areas (Madge 2020). In China resident from the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) floodplain south to the coast (Liu and Chen 2020).


IUCN: Least Concern. Population trend stable.

Dove, R. S. and H. J. Goodhart (1955). Field observations from the Colony of Hong Kong. Ibis 97: 311-340.

Herklots, G. A. C. (1934). Notes and Comments. Ornithology. Hong Kong Naturalist 5: 226-228.

Herklots, G. A. C. (1937). The birds of Hong Kong. Part XXVII. Family Fringillidae, finches and buntings. Hong Kong Naturalist 8: 65-72.

Kershaw, J. C. (1904). List of birds of the Quangtung Coast, China. Ibis 1904: 235-248.

Liu, Y. and Chen, Y. H. (eds) (2020). The CNG Field Guide to the Birds of China (in Chinese). Hunan Science and Technology Publication House.

Madge, S. (2020). Crested Bunting (Emberiza lathami), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Swinhoe, R. (1861). Notes on the ornithology of Hong Kong, Macao and Canton, made during the latter end of February, March, April and the beginning of May 1860. Ibis 1861: 23-57.

Vaughan, R. E. and K. H. Jones (1913). The birds of Hong Kong, Macao and the West River or Si Kiang in South-East China, with special reference to their nidification and seasonal movements. Ibis 1913: 17-76, 163-201, 351-384.

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