Desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti)

French: Traquet du d├ęsert
GenusOenanthe (1)
SizeLength: 14 - 15 cm (2)
Weight15 - 34 g (2)

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

As its name suggests, the desert wheatear (Oenanthe deserti) is a desert-dwelling bird, with largely sandy-brown plumage which matches well with its arid habitat. During the breeding season, the male desert wheatear has a contrasting black face and throat, black wings and an almost all-black tail, while the lower back and rump are creamy white, and there are whitish streaks above the eyes and on the shoulders (2) (3) (4) (5). The beak and legs are black (2) (4). Outside of the breeding season, the male has a more greyish face (2). The female desert wheatear is duller than the male, with brownish rather than black markings (2) (4), while the juvenile is similar to the female, but has buff spotting above and fine brown scaling on the breast (2). The song of the male desert wheatear, given in flight or from the ground, is described as a distinctive series of short, variable phrases of slightly mournful-sounding whistles, interspersed with grating churrs and dry or twittering trills (2) (3). The female also occasionally sings, with more uniform phrases. The calls of this species also include a whistled swiii, a hard tuk and a rolling chrr (2).

The desert warbler is sometimes divided into a number of subspecies, including Oenanthe deserti deserti, Oenanthe deserti homochroa, Oenanthe deserti oreophila and Oenanthe deserti atrogularis, which vary slightly in size and colouration (2) (3) (4). The male desert wheatear resembles the related black-eared wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), but is distinguished by a black line linking the black of the wings and throat, a blacker tail and a less distinct white line above the eye (3) (5). Female and juvenile desert wheatears closely resemble the female Isabelline wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina), but are smaller, and have a black wing lining and a blacker tail (4) (5).

The desert wheatear occurs across North Africa, through the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, and into Asia, as far east as China (2) (4) (6). It is also sometimes recorded outside of its normal range, in parts of Europe (2) (5) (6). This species is migratory, with populations generally moving southwards in winter (2) (4).

The desert wheatear inhabits rocky or sandy dry steppes, desert and semi-desert plains with sparse vegetation, as well as salt flats, dry riverbeds and wadis, and arid cultivated land (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). In sandy areas, this species requires either a hard substrate for burrow-nesting, or bushes or rocks in which to nest in shelter (2).

This desert-dweller spends most of its time on the ground, perching on stones or low bushes and hopping to the ground to catch prey, which includes a range of insects and other invertebrates (2) (3) (4). It will also dart into the air to catch flying insects (2) (4), and occasionally also eats small seeds (2).

The desert wheatear nests in burrows (such as old rodent burrows), under bushes, in holes in walls or rock faces, under stones or among exposed roots. The nest is constructed from grass, roots, twigs and other materials, and lined with wool, hair, feathers or grass (2) (4). Breeding usually takes place between February and July, although the exact timing depends on the location (2). Between 3 and 6 bluish-green, reddish-speckled eggs are laid, and hatch after 13 to 14 days (2) (4). The young desert wheatears leave the nest at 15 to 18 days old, and are dependent on the adults for up to a further 3 weeks (2).

The desert wheatear is widespread and is common throughout most of its range (2) (6), and is not currently considered at risk of extinction (6). This species is not known to be facing any major threats.

There are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the desert wheatear. However, it is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species, which aims to protect migratory species throughout their range (7).

To find out more about the desert wheatear, see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  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. Jonsson, L. (1982) Birds of the Mediterranean and Alps. Croom Helm, London.
  4. Whistler, H. (1963) Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh.
  5. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  6. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
  7. Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (November, 2010)