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Whinchat {Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 2, 2015

Whinchat on heather

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Dudubot.
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Dudubot. | Source


The Whinchat, Saxicola rubetra, belongs to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes {perching birds} and the family Turdidae {Thrushes} within that order. Some authors place them in the family Muscicapidae.

The genus name of Saxicola indicates stone or rock {dweller} while the specific name of rubetra alludes to it being a type of small birds {Latin}

In the UK it is placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so} with an estimated population of 47,000 pairs in summer. In Ireland they are also on the Amber list of conservation concern due to declines in breeding populations.{ Source BTO}

The European population is currently regarded as being secure. However, populations vary from country to country there follows a few examples with the numbers representing breeding pairs. In Austria the estimated population is between 3,500-7,000, in Belgium 168-325, Croatia 5,000-10,000, France, 15,000-45,000. Germany 37,000-90,000. Spain 15,000-20,000. Sweden, 200,000-400,000. Ukraine 435,000-640,000. {Source Birdlife}.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Gocan-conaig, the Welsh Crec yr Eithin and the Irish Caisl n Aitinn.

Yellow breasted chat of North America

Image taken in Oregon. USA.
Image taken in Oregon. USA. | Source

What are Whinchats ?

Chats, sometimes referred to as Chat Thrushes are a group of 'old world' insectivorous 'fly catchers'. The name is generally applied to the more robust ground feeding species of Europe and Asia,and most northern species are strong migrants. There are a large number of genera and these birds in particular make up most of the sub-family Saxicoline.

The American chats of the genus Granatellus of the Cardinal family Cardinalidae, were formerly mixed with the wood warbler family. The yellow breasted chat Icteria virens is an enigmatic North American song bird tentatively placed in the Wood warbler family Parulidae.

Chats are smaller than thrushes and less stoutly built. They are varied and have different seasonal plumages, with males and females looking different during the summer and juveniles looking like the winter adults. Here we review the Whinchat and as always we will commence with a description of the subject under review.

Whinchat 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 Whinchat Saxicola rubetra

The Whinchat above is blackish brown, the feathers edged with a sandy buff colour,slightly redder on the upper tail coverts. The wings are dark brown,smaller coverts white. The two central feathers of the tail are dark brown,white at the base, the other tail feathers with the basal half white and the terminal half dark brown with buff margins.

There is a clear whjite streak over the eyes,the lores,ear coverts and cheeks are a dark brown, the chin white,continuous with a streak linking the lower part of the back,cheek and sides of the neck, the throat and a broad reddish fawn colour shading into buff towards the centre of the belly. The under tail coverts are also buff. The bill and feet are black the iris is brown.

As the season advances the plumage gradually becomes darker, the pale edge of the feathers wearing off. The wings become more uniform but a lighter brown, the neck in front and the breast paler,and the white more pure. During the autumn these alterations become more evident.

The female resembles the male but her colours are less bright and the white patches less distinctive,however, they are difficult to tell apart in the field.

Illustration of whinchat

Familiar Wild Birds  Swaysland 1883
Familiar Wild Birds Swaysland 1883

Line drawing of the Whinchat and the Stonechat


General and back ground information with historical observations

The bird is commonly seen on broad open commons,heathery mountain slopes { from which its much older name of Grass chat derived}, meadows and wild briar-clad wastes. It haunts both mountains and valley,hill and dale,and wherever vast tracts of furze-covered land exists. { Furze and Whin are alternative names for the Gorse}, it may be looked for. To this it owes its old common name of furze chat, the only title by which the London -recognized it by during the 17 and 1800's.

In some districts it was referred to as the 'Utick' on account of its call notes which are described as ' u-tick,'u-tac' or u-chack'.

Butler, 1898, makes these observations " I first met with the Whinchat in fair numbers,about the middle of May, among the Gorse bushes covering a wide expanse,not far from Detling, on the road from Sittingbourne to Maidstone .{ Kent Southern England}. The birds were dotted about here and there on the top most sprays of the gorse,whence every half minute or so they darted off after some insect, returning almost invariably to the same perch. Every few minutes one of them would flit off,warbling softly, to some distant bush, under which it would dive.

" But when I imagined that its nest was there concealed,and walking straight to the point,began carefully to seek for it, I invariably found that there was not only no trace of the nest, either in or under the bush, but that the mischievous bird had simply passed through an opening and onwards, perchance in some new direction with the distinct purpose of misleading me, or else had sought some fresh article of diet below the shelter of that prickly cover."

The Whinchat is in the main an insectivorous species, its food consisting of insects, their larvae and spiders, it will also take some small worms and small snails and slugs. Because it feeds on wire-worms when farmland is lying fallow it may be regarded as a friend to the farmer,it also feeds on the destructive Turnip fly.

The flight of the Whinchat is graceful and undulating {bounding} and during the breeding season consists of short forays from bush to bush,varied by aerial revolutions in pursuit of small winged insects. Suddenly,it will sweep downwards,takes its victim, it may fly for a moment with hovering wings,before darting off to the top most spray of a gorse bush,where it will watch with an ever watchful eye for its next victim. To those unacquainted with this species their activity is a revelation to observe.

Seebohm, in his 'History of British Birds', 1885, relates " Although the Whinchat will often choose a perch near the ground it by no means shuns trees,and, especially towards the end of summer, it is seen with its young brood,high among the branches. The bird does not show that partiality for walls and rocks which is so striking a feature of the Redstart** and Wheatear**.

" In pastoral districts the Whinchat,directly upon arrival,frequents the fallows which are being worked for the turnip crops, and on these places is found almost continuously until the neighbouring pastures afford it sufficient shelter. The Whinchat never roosts in trees,but always on the ground.

" In the wilder parts of its haunts the Whinchat roosts among the heath and the tangled undergrowth of gorse cover and brake {bracken}. Another remarkable trait in the character of this bird is its activity in the dusk of the evening, a time when probably when some insects, that forms its favourite food is abundant,and its well known call notes may be heard long after other birds themselves are concealed from view by the falling shadows of the night"

** Species already reviewed in this series Birds of Europe.

Whinchat courtesy of Pete Hines

Female Whinchat


The Whinchat in captivity.

In the days before catching and keeping wild birds became illegal {with a very few exceptions}, Bird-catchers made a good living by capturing birds by any means, and then selling them to people as aviary and cage birds or for food at the markets. Thankfully these days are long gone but as it was a part of our avian history a few paragraphs ,I feel, are justified on the subject.

Butler conveys to us that " My second captive Whinchat was given to me in early September 1893, and I turned it into an aviary with other British birds and a pair of Rosa's Parrakeet. I found it very shy,but unfortunately I was unable to keep it long enough to judge whether it was likely to overcome its shyness,for within a week one of the Parakeets caught it and crushed its skull, they not only killing it but rendering it useless as a cabinet specimen.

" It took readily to the usual soft food mixture, commencing,like all soft billed-birds with the eggs and cocoons of ants,and only eating the bread and potato when these failed. It was especially keen on meal-worms,probably not discovering any difference between them and its natural diet of native worms and it devoured a considerable number of small cockroaches,flies and small moths it pursued and caught on the wing.It usually passed the night either on the earth or upon some twigs stuck into the earth.

" At times it uttered its thin piercing ry and its singular call note, but at that season, I ,of course could not expect it to sing. When anyone entered the aviary it flew wildly from side to side, but, at other times contented itself with keeping a respectable distance ,never showing any anxiety to escape, or even that restless impatience of captivity characterised by the Dunnock and many other small birds, when freshly caught"

The species according to Morris was esteemed as an article of food for the table. Meyer, 1864, made these observations. In a cage their flight from perch to perch is light and noiseless and performed with so quick a motion, that the wings, when in the act of fluttering,are not perceptible.

Anne Pratt, ' Our native Songsters' 1893, recalls " Mr, Sweet, whose successful training of many of our wild songsters is very well known, was very fond of the Whinchat and Mr, Sweet ,stated ' It was one of the best birds I have ever kept of any kind, singing the whole year through and varying its song continuously. Its only fault was its strong voice. At last our favourite was turned out of its cage by a mischievous servant ,on a cold winter's day,when we were from home for about an hour. As we could not entice it back it probably died from the cold,or took its flight to warmer regions"

Whinchat pair

Henrick Gronvold
Henrick Gronvold | Source

Nest and eggs

The nesting season of the Whinchat commences in May or a month earlier if conditions are favourable.The parents are very wary about the discovery of their nest and they will never approach the nest if they detect the presence of an intruder. Should one approach the parent birds will fly round ones head showing signs of anxiety while uttering their call of distress. They will also feign injury by dropping into the grass in the hope of distracting the attention away from the nest.

The nest is usually placed on the ground among grass or heather ,sometimes in the middle of a field or under the shelter of a hedge,frequently under a gorse bush, either on the ground or just above it among the branching stems. It is large and rather loosely constructed formed of grasses,fibrous roots and sometimes a little moss and lined with finer grasses,and, or hair.

The eggs which number from five to six ,the latter being the more general number encountered are of a greenish- blue colour not unlike those of the Dunnock, but generally less perfectly oval, than those of that species, the smaller extremity being somewhat pointed. They are finely speckled with reddish brown, the spots forming a pale zone round the larger end.

The incubation period lasts for about 13 days and the task is undertaken in the main by the female, the chicks are ready to leave the nest in a further 14-15 days.

The young birds.

The young in their nesting plumage are mottled with grey and white. However, when they fledge in the autumn they resemble the female,until then the bill is greyish brown. The white streak over the eye is lacking and the well defined black band through the eye.

The head, crown and neck on the back and nape are a dull yellowish brown streaked with dark brown, the tips of many of the feathers are paler. The throat has the feathers margined with dusty white. The breast on the lower part is yellowish brown passing into brownish white, the back is dull. The legs and toes are greyish brown.

Meyer, 'Coloured illustrations of British Birds and their Eggs' 1850, makes the following observations on a young family of Whinchats-" One evening in the summer of 1841, we watched for some time a young family of this species on Shepperton Range, a tract of open meadow land on the borders of the Thames,in Middlesex {southern England}, a spot much frequented by these birds. The young ones had probably come out for their first flight. ,as we had not seen them previously,although the place was daily visited by us.

" They flew, by short flights,from bush to hedge,and from hedge to railing,fanning their short tails and occasionally settling on the ground. They were anxiously attended by their parents,who showed no disposition to leave them. We did our best to secure one or two of them, but although they could not fly more than a few yards in a single flight, they were too nimble for us, and kept themselves safely out of reach"

The Whinchat is ready to leave our shores by the end of September as the call of migration readies them for warmer climes.

Young whinchat



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, You are very welcome and thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, It came as a complete surprise HotD!, thank you for your visit and your encouraging comments they are appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, Thank you your comments are much appreciated, Best wish to you.


      Hi, wow, your kind and encouraging comments means a lot and your votes are truly appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      You are very welcome, your comments are most encouraging and your vote is much appreciated .Best wishes to you.


      Hi, you are welcome, and thank you for your kind and encouraging comments. HotD! came as a very appreciated surprise. best wishes to you.


      Birds are beautiful creatures that enhance our lives .so glad you enjoy them too. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, Blue tits are fascinating little birds that give many hours of entertainment, best of luck with writing. Thank you for your visit. Best wishes to you.

    • micko27 profile image

      Mirjan Stojanovic 2 years ago from Belgrade

      Nice hub. I plan soon to write about Blue Tits as I have them around my house and feed them for some time already so by time I became an expert for blue tits and started to like birds a lot! :)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We love birds and have several bird feeders around our cottage, shared by all the other wildlife around. However, the goldfinches and red finches always feed on it so they add so much colour to our day. Your hub is really very comprehensive.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 2 years ago from Norfolk

      Congratulations on your HOTD - very very well deserved with yet another beautiful Hub, thank you.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Congratulations for HOTD!

      Wonderful and well researched hub! These little creatures look so cute. I enjoyed going through the information by you. Nice pictures too.

      Voted up!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      Another beautiful bird in another beautiful hub. I truly enjoy all the facts you give us and the beautiful pictures.

      Congratulations on HOTD!

      Voted up, useful, and awesome.

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 2 years ago

      Great selection of photos and images that are right for framing for wall displays, and further supported by a well-researched content. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • bui quang thanh profile image

      bui quang thanh 2 years ago wap tai tin nhan xep hinh, sms kute, sms chuc ngu ngon

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Congrats on HotD! What a gorgeous hub this is with so much great info. Thank you for my introduction to the whinchat!

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb,Glad to have introduced you we learn from each other.There will be many more to come. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This is a lovely little chat, which I didn't know existed. Thanks for the introduction and I am looking forward to more.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika , glad to have introduced you to another species. Your visit comments and votes are all very much appreciated. Best wishes to you..


      Hi thank you for your usual and welcomed kind comments. I try to link with American species for the reasons you have given. Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Excellent article about the little birds. I especially appreciate you tying your articles into our American birds, it really helps me get a handle on the types.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I listen and see birds every day around my home. I enjoy listening to the beautiful sounds of these lovely creatures. Another wonderful insight to a unique bird. Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.