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Northern Wheatear { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 1, 2015

Northern wheatear



The Northern Wheatear belongs to the Passeriformes {perching birds} Order and the family Turdidae [ Chats and Thrushes} within that order.The scientific name of Oenanthe oenanthe derives from the name Oinanthe a bird mentioned by Aristotle.

They were formerly placed in the order Sylvidae and referred to as Saxicola oenathe. Even today some ornithologists consider them to be more like the Muscicapidae {Old world flycatchers}, and they were once also referred to by the scientific name of Motacilla oenathe

In the UK, they are classed as a migrant breeder,and a passage visitor.They are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years} with an estimated 230,000 pairs in summer {2009} It is also on the Amber list in Ireland. {Source BTO}

In Europe they are of 3 concern , most in Europe declining. The estimated European is between 4.1 and 11.5 million pairs. populations vary from country to country and there follows a few examples. Austria 4,500-9.000. Belgium 28-31. Croatia 5,000-6,000. France., 15,000 45,000. Germany 7,000-13,000. Spain 326,00-361,000 and Ukraine,140,000-170,000.{ source { Birdlife}

The Gaelic name for the bird is Bru-gheal, the Welsh Tinwen y Garn and the Irish Clochran.

In North America they occur in Canada and Alaska.

Chats and Wheatears

Thorburn         British Birds
Thorburn British Birds

What are Chats and Thrushes {Turdidae}

Birds in this group are characterized by rather short ,but strong bills, stout legs,relatively large heads, large eyes and an all round solid appearance. Some are very common, some are rare,some are resident and others are migrants.

They occupy a wide range of habitats from gardens to mountains, moorland and forests, this group also contains some of Europe's finest songsters. The Chats are smaller than the thrushes and less stoutly built, their plumage varies with the season. The Wheatears occupy open places from high bleak moors to the Mediterranean heaths.

There are many species of Wheatear,here we review the Northern Wheatear and as always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Wheatear and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Northern Wheatear

The wheatear is a small ,mainly ground dwelling bird. It hops or runs on the ground. It is generally blue grey above with black wings and white below with an orange flush to the breast. It has a black cheek. In flight it shows a white rump and a black 'T' shape on its tail when in breeding plumage.

In the past the complete change of plumage in this species at the annual moult which takes place in August led to some confusion in determining the sexes and the age of the birds. Lord Lilford says " It can be described as a general change from a blue grey to a light rufous and is effected by a true moult,or shifting of the old feathers for new, and not by an alteration in colour of the original feathers.

One of the distinguishing characters is that the head of this species appears to be much to large for the body. The timidity and wariness of this bird is a noticeable trait in its character,it has the habit of constantly moving its head from side to side and looking in all directions,as though always in a chronic state of apprehension.

The female has a general resemblance to the male,but the colours are more of a uniform light,tawny brown.

Courtesy of WildVision

None breeding plumage


Fantastic migration

The Northern Wheatear was subject to a tagging experiment, in North America. They had satellite {GPS} fitted. It was discovered that the birds, which weigh a mere 25 grams, undertake a 9,000 mile journey twice a year.

They average 181 miles per day and can spend up to 91 days travelling from Alaska to Africa where they spend the winter.Allowing adjustments for the body weight, scientists describe the journey as one of the longest round trip migration of any bird on the earth.

Other larger birds such as the Albatross have large wings equipped for long flight journeys, but the journey of this little song bird id truly amazing.

General information and historical observations.

Before the March winds have subsided, and while the trees and vegetation are still in their winter sleep, the first of the wheatear's appear in the south west of England. The wheatear is one of our our earliest spring visitor's,arriving in the first week of March,and almost always to be found about the same week year after year in or close to the same spot.. It is a passage migrant and a summer visitor to the UK. It breeds mainly in the western and northern Britain and Western Ireland,although small numbers do breed in southern and eastern England. Our wheatear's over winter in central Africa.

The wheatear loves open country, dry moor lands,divided by old stone walls,rolling downs,sandy rabbit warrens,grassy mountainsides,strewn with rocks and boulder stones. It is a restless fidgety bird and very much enlivens some of the dreary remote places in which it is often encountered,as for instance parts of the Peak District in Derbyshire,where,with the exception of a few Lapwings and the occasional Meadow Pipit** or Kestrel** the wheatear seems to be the only inhabitant,flitting from stone to stone,or along miles of dry stone walls,uttering a low 'wailing'note and occasionally darting down to pick some insect food from the ground.

The name of wheatear,derives from the words white and the Anglo Saxon aers {rump}. In some parts of England country people formerly referred to them as Whitus,it was also known by the names of 'Stone Clatter' and ' Clacharan'.

Butler reveals that in June 1866,he saw a considerable number of wheatear's -" They were flying about the broken cliffs between Yarmouth and Caister {southern England},where sand and patches of reedy grass are commingled over irregular slopes and hollows, an expanse desolate indeed in appearance, but the home of numerous rabbits,whose burrows in every direction are traps for the unwary pedestrian"

In Scotland it was once very common especially in the Limestone dostricts. The fact was taken notice of by Mr. Selby so long ago as 1834,when he wrote of this bird in Sutherland " generally distributed over the county,but I think most abundant in Limestone Districts. Its cheery pleasant song enlivens the rugged hills."

The wheatear is a beautiful small passerine

Taken in Iceland
Taken in Iceland | Source

Diet of the Wheatear

The wheatear is in the main an insectivorous bird,capturing much of its food on the wing in the manner of the flycatchers**. It also eats larvae of various insects,spiders,and small worms. However, in the autumn it will also take the wild moorland fruits.

It is a pleasing sight to see this little bird perched upon an old stone wall.its tail swaying up and down like that of the wagtail**. Presently you see it jerk its head upwards and of it darts with graceful fluttering flight after some passing beetle or fly,which it procures without difficulty.

As an instance of the service given to the farmer by this and similar birds I turn to Swaysland's, Familiar Wild Birds, { 1883 } where he shares the following notes-" A field of eight acres in extent which one season was so infested with wire worms that cultivation was almost useless. The field was ploughed and harrowed about the end of April or the beginning of May,and at this stage large numbers of wheatears' congregated there daily. Indeed they seem to have forsaken the surrounding localities for this particular spot. Their services in the extirpation of the above mentioned wire worms may be best imagined from the fact that after the arrival of the birds the field became productive,and a first rate crop was the result of their labours and assiduity"

** These birds have already featured in this series {Birds of Europe}

Wheatear in natural habitat

Originally posted on Flickr uploaded by Ariefrahman
Originally posted on Flickr uploaded by Ariefrahman | Source

Keeping Wild Birds Was Once a Popular Pastime


Wheatear in captivity.

In the days before wild birds became protected by law, it was a common past time,indeed even considered an employment, to capture wild birds to be sold as cage and aviary birds, for food and even to taxidermists. Thankfully these days the capture of wild birds is now illegal in many civilized countries with a few exceptions.

However, it was a part of our natural history and as such the following notes on the subject are included in the review of this species. Wheatears were formerly caught about the end of summer on the Sussex downs {southern England}, in very large numbers by the Shepherds in very simple though ingenious traps, but, according to Yarrell, it appears that, whereas the selling price for them in 1802 was one shilling the dozen, by1872 the price demanded by Brighton poulterer's was three shillings and sixpence.

It appears that the reason for this price increase was a consequence of the ploughing up of the virgin downs and other open spaces which were formerly their breeding haunts.At that season at which the birds were taken,chiefly young birds of the year, they were considered to be " very fat and certainly most exquisite food ". Survivors would have left the country by the middle of October.

Butler relates-" In confinement the wheatear or 'Clod' as the London Bird catcher's call it,soon gains confidence in the goodwill of the owner and flies up to the wires to take flies or meal worms from his fingers. It is a peaceful ,law-abiding subject,but when some favourite morsel has been snatched from under its very bill,it sometimes shows its annoyance,by the sharp click of its mandibles,which is characteristic of most insectivorous birds. "

Butler goes on to tell the story of the first wheatear he had, " The first wheatear that I ever possessed was brought to me one evening by a small bird dealer,who informed me it had been caught that afternoon,and that, if I did not care to give him ninepence for it, he meant to kill it and stuff it for one of his customers. of course I bought it,turned it into a large flight cage in my study and hoped to reconcile it to captivity. Unlike many birds when newly caught,the wheatear appeared to be quite at home at once, but I could not induce it to eat anything but meal worms and house flies. berries it would not look at and soft food it regarded with utter contempt"

" A second specimen was brought to me,about nine years later by a friend who had already kept it for a week in a room with other British birds. I turned it out with wagtails and other birds in a large unheated aviary. It took kindly to soft food from the first,and ate a good many cockroaches daily. It passed through the winter without mishap,came into its breeding plumage and commenced to sing in spring. Sometimes, but rarely,it sang on the wing. It usually preferred to sit close to a wide encasement which it kept opening in mild weather,and warble at intervals."

" When a fly past into the aviary,it had little chance of escaping. The wheatear, the Redstart** and a Grey wagtail** were all after it at once,and the Redstart was usually the winner, the wheatear coming second and the wagtail rarely getting a chance,in spite of its marvelous aerial acrobatic powers. Unfortunately the bird did not live long,before I had kept it for a year it died suddenly,although ,the day previously ,it had appeared in excellent health."

** These birds are already featured in this series {Birds of Europe}


Taken in Norfolk {East Anglia } England
Taken in Norfolk {East Anglia } England | Source

Nest eggs and young with historical references.

The males reach our shores a little earlier than the females,but they usually begin their nesting activities during April,and the nest may be encountered from this time until about the middle of May.However, these birds frequently have two sometimes three broods per season and thus the breeding season may be greatly extended. The nests of further broods are usually much more difficult to find than those of the first one.

The nest of the wheatear is generally placed in the crevice of a stone wall,or a crack or hole in a stone quarry,sometimes under a rock or boulder. According to Yarrell " When a nest is in a rabbit burrow it is not infrequently visible from the exterior,but when under a rock it is often placed a long way from the entrance and out of sight."

The eggs 5-6 in number are of a very pale blue and for the most part spotless,but now and then marked with a few rusty red spots. They are incubated by the female with occasional relief from the male. he is however, in constant attendance in the vicinity of the nest,frequently uttering his song and call note.

After about fourteen days the young hatch and both parents carry out their parental duties with conviction. The young are jealously guarded and fly around showing great excitement if they are approached to closely. Once the young have fledged in a further sixteen to eighteen days the parents. Once the young have fledged and become independent the parents immediately commence the task of raising a second brood and in some instances another two broods before they leave our shores.

The young birds are spotted above and below, the feathers on the wings and tail being edged and tipped with buff.

Juvenile Northern wheatear | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, thank you they are cheerful little birds of bleak places. Hope you see your Alaskan birds some day. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is another little beauty that you've chosen. I just looked at the wheatear in this country. There are several Alaskan birds that I would like to see.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika, so glad you liked this little bird they are charming little creatures. Thank you my friend for your vote up,interesting, useful and awesome, you are very kind. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A cute little bird with such an interesting outlook on its behavior and character. I like the photos and have learned about another bird from you. Voted up, interesting, useful and awesome.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi,good to meet you, Thank you so much for your kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.


      hello my friend, this species only occurs in Canada and Alaska. Thank you for your usual kind and appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Beautiful and very well done as is your usual. I do not know our comparable bird hear in the SW USA.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Absolutely excellent. I once had a wheatear show up in my local park, which is in the suburbs of Birmingham. It was an absolute thrill to see. Fantastic work.


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