Black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica)

Also known as: black-throated wheatear, eastern black-eared wheatear, Spanish black-throated wheatear, Spanish wheatear, western black-eared wheatear
Synonyms: Motacilla hispanica, Oenanthe melanoleuca
French: Traquet oreillard
GenusOenanthe (1)
SizeLength: 13.5 - 15.5 cm (2)
Weight12 - 21 g (2)

The black-eared wheatear is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The male black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica) is an attractive small bird, its largely yellowish-ochre plumage contrasting with a black mask over the face, black wings, and a white tail, which has black central feathers and a black tip. The lower underparts are whitish, and the black mask and wings are separated from the ochre upperparts by a narrow white border (2). The beak and legs are black (2). Outside of the breeding season, the male black-eared wheatear has a more greyish mask and two creamy bars on the wings (2). Breeding females resemble the male, but are duller and have a less contrasting, more blackish-brown mask and wings, with buff edges (2) (3). Non-breeding females have an orange-buff breast and lack the dark face mask, while juveniles are similar but have some barring on the back, and have scaling and stippling on the breast (2). Both the male and female black-eared wheatear occur in two colour morphs, one with a pale throat and the other with a dark throat (2) (3) (4).

Two subspecies of black-eared wheatear are recognised: the western black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica hispanica) and the eastern black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica melanoleuca), which is greyer in colour and has a more extensive black face mask (2) (3) (4). The song of the black-eared wheatear, given from an elevated perch or in flight, usually consists of short, rather scratchy phrases, and sometimes includes mimicry of other species. Longer phrases of whistles and call notes are also sometimes given, and the calls of this species include a low, grating gsch, a tack, a plaintive-sounding, whistled wiii and a hoarse schrrr (2) (3) (4).

The black-eared wheatear occurs in southern Europe, North Africa, and through the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East into Asia, as far east as the Caspian Sea, southwest Kazakhstan and Iran (2) (5). It is also occasionally recorded as a visitor to other parts of Europe and Africa (5). Subspecies O. h. hispanica is found in northwest Africa and southwest Europe, east to Italy and Croatia, and winters in the western African Sahel (2) (3) (4). O. h. melanoleuca is found from Italy eastwards into Asia, and winters in the central and eastern African Sahel and in northeast Africa (2) (4).

The black-eared wheatear inhabits open, rocky areas with scrubby vegetation, on slopes or foothills (2) (3) (4) (5). It also occurs in gardens and agricultural land, although it requires at least some low, shrubby vegetation (2) (4).

As is typical of wheatear species, the black-eared wheatear commonly forages from a perch up to three metres above the ground, flying down to the ground to catch prey, sallying out from the perch to catch insects in flight, or bounding over the ground to grab prey (2). In addition to feeding on a range of insects and other invertebrates, the black-eared wheatear will also eat berries and seeds (2).

The breeding season of the black-eared wheatear varies with location, but usually runs between March and July (2). The nest consists of a flat cup of plant stems, moss and fibres, lined with hair or down, and may be built on the ground under a stone, rocky overhang, tussock or thick bush, in a burrow, or in a hole in a ruin or a wadi bank. Small sticks are often placed at the entrance and around the nest (2). The female black-eared wheatear lays between 3 and 6 eggs, which hatch after 13 to 14 days. The young leave the nest at 11 to 14 days old, but remain dependent on the adults for up to a further 22 days (2).

The black-eared wheatear is a widespread species and is not currently considered to be threatened with extinction (5). However, its populations in western Europe have undergone a decline since 1970, particularly in Spain (2) (5) (6), probably as a result of habitat changes including agricultural intensification and afforestation schemes, combined with droughts in its winter range in Africa (2) (6).

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures in place for the black-eared wheatear. However, this species is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), which aims to undertake actions to conserve migratory species throughout their range (7).

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2005) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 10: Cuckoo-Shrikes to Thrushes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Barthel, P.H. and Dougalis, P. (2008) New Holland European Bird Guide. New Holland Publishers, London.
  4. Jonsson, L. (1982) Birds of the Mediterranean and Alps. Croom Helm, London.
  5. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
  6. Mestre, P., Peris, S., Santos, T., Suárez, F. and Soler, B. (1987) The decrease of the black-eared wheatear Oenanthe hispanica on the Iberian Peninsula. Bird Study, 34: 239-243.
  7. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (November, 2010)