This is an unusual bunting because the sexes appear similar in plumage, although the males are approximately 20% larger than females. This large bulky bunting is 16–19 cm long, has male and female plumages similar, and lacks the showy male colours, especially on the head, common in the genus Emberiza. Both sexes look something like larks, with streaked grey-brown above, and whitish underparts. The song of the male is a repetitive metallic sound, usually likened to jangling keys.
It breeds across southern and central Europe, north Africa and Asia across to Kazahkstan. It is mainly resident, but some birds from colder regions of central Europe and Asia migrate southwards in winter.