Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Also known as: black-throated wheatear, common wheatear, European wheatear, Greenland wheatear, Seebohm’s wheatear, wheatear
Synonyms: Oenanthe phillipsi
French: Traquet motteux
GenusOenanthe (1)
SizeLength: 14.5 - 15.5 cm (2)
Weight18 - 33 g (2)

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

A small, mainly ground-dwelling bird, the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) is a rather attractive species with marked differences in seasonal plumage. During the breeding season, the male northern wheatear is blue-grey above with black wings, and white below with an orange flush to the breast (2) (3) (4). The rump and tail are white, with the latter having black central feathers and a broad black band near the tip, such that a distinctive ‘T’ is visible in flight (2) (5). The breeding male also has a white forehead and a white eye stripe, with a narrow black facial mask that is bordered below by a white line and yellowish-buff shading on the chin. The breeding female northern wheatear is similar to the breeding male, but with pale brownish-grey upperparts, grey-brown wings and duller facial patterns (2) (3) (6). 

Outside the breeding season, the male northern wheatear has a buffy-brown crown and back, yellowish-buff underparts and golden edging to the wing feathers (2). The female is generally buff-brown above with buff and white edging to the wing feathers. Juvenile northern wheatears are similar in appearance to the adult non-breeding female (2) (3).

A migratory species, the northern wheatear breeds across northern Europe, North Africa, Asia, Alaska, north-eastern Canada and Greenland. After the breeding season, it migrates to sub-Saharan Africa, where it is found across a broad belt that stretches from Mauritania and Mali through northern Nigeria, Central African Republic and Sudan, to Ethiopia and southern Somalia (3). 

It is possible that the northern wheatear is the only regularly breeding passerine of North America that migrates to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, crossing either the Atlantic Ocean or Eurasia (3).

During the breeding season, the northern wheatear is typically found around habitats with short turf, such as moors, cliff-tops, tundra and rocky fields (3) (5). It uses a variety of open habitats whilst migrating, including cultivated areas and desert, as well as human settlements. In its winter range, the northern wheatear favours short grass steppe and degraded savanna, but may also be found on cultivated land, on barren rocky hills and among coconut palms (2) (3).

After sighting its insect prey from an elevated perch, such as a conspicuous rock, the northern wheatear bounds between vegetation and stones to catch its prey on the ground. It may also scoop slow low-flying insects from the air after a short run or a low jump (2) (3). 

A largely solitary species, outside the breeding season the northern wheatear defends a small feeding territory against other wheatears (3). Breeding birds tend to return to the same nesting site each year (3). The male arrives around one week before the female, and courtship begins soon after the arrival of the female. Breeding pairs engage in unusual courtship dances, usually in a depression in the ground, when the male flutters and glides in the air, singing constantly (3). Once a pair bond is established, the female chooses a nest site (3) and the pair set about constructing the nest, which is a simple unlined cup of leaves, stems, moss, lichen, feathers and hair, built on a foundation of dried stems and grasses. The nest is usually placed in a well-sheltered rock cavity, narrow crevice, rodent burrow, hole in a wall or under stones. Between 4 and 8 eggs are incubated for 12 to 13 days. The chicks fledge at 15 to 17 days, but do not reach full independence for a further 12 or 13 days (2).

Widespread and abundant, there are no known major threats to the northern wheatear. However, the global population is in a moderate decline (7). North American populations, which inhabit remote regions far from human settlements (3), are thought to be stable, but in many European countries the species declined between 1990 and 2000 (3) (7). Habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanisation are thought to be the main agents of this decline, while habitat degradation from a reduction in sheep farming, which had kept turf short and ideal for the northern wheatear, also negatively affected this species (2) (3).

The northern wheatear is protected in Russia and most European countries. Artificial nesting sites have been created in some parts of its range, including the United Kingdom and Turkmenistan, which has increased the number of breeding birds in these areas (3).

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More information on the northern wheatear and other bird species:

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  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2006) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 11: Old World Flycatchers to Old World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Kren, J. and Zoerb, A.C. (1997) Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - Northern wheatear (February, 2011)
  5. BirdGuides - Northern wheatear (February, 2011)
  6. Barthel, P.H. and Dougalis, P. (2008) New Holland European Bird Guide. New Holland Publishers, London.
  7. BirdLife International (February, 2011)