Red-tailed wheatear (Oenanthe chrysopygia)

Also known as: Afghan wheatear, rufous-rumped wheatear, rufous-tailed wheatear, rusty-tailed wheatear
Synonyms: Dromolaea chrysopygia
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMuscicapidae
GenusOenanthe (1)
SizeLength: 14.5 cm (2)
Wingspan: 26 - 37 cm (2)
Weight18 - 29 g (3)

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

A small territorial songbird, the red-tailed wheatear (Oenanthe chrysopygia) has rather drab plumage despite its colourful name. The male red-tailed wheatear is indistinguishable from the female, with greyish-brown plumage on the crown and back. The tail has a black band at the end and central black feathers, forming a distinctive T-shaped marking (3). The name ‘red-tailed wheatear’ comes from the rust-tinged tail, and the ear-coverts, chin and breast are also rusty red. This species has black legs and a black bill (2) (3).

Characteristically tame, the red-tailed wheatear has an uncomplicated song of short simple phrases separated by short pauses (3) (4). The song of the male is usually slow and serene, whereas the female may give a distinguishing ‘snore’ in antagonistic situations. The male will usually have around three different posts throughout its territory from which it sings whilst the female is feeding or nesting (2).

The red-tailed wheatear has a large range and is native to fourteen countries from Saudi Arabia to Oman (5). During the breeding season the red-tailed wheatear occurs in northeast Turkey, Armenia, northern Iran, southeast Tajikistan, Afghanistan and western Pakistan. Outside the breeding season, the red-tailed wheatear is found across the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in southern Iraq, Iran, eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India (2) (3).

The red-tailed wheatear inhabits arid upland mountainous regions with steep, bare terrain. It is commonly found on boulder-strewn hillsides, on rocky outcrops that provide good cover from predators and excellent song posts. The red-tailed wheatear breeds in areas with convenient burrows, fissures and scree for nesting or taking cover, and has even been known to take cover in gerbil holes (2) (6). This species occurs at elevations of 2,500 to 4,000 metres (2).

In winter the red-tailed wheatear generally favours much flatter areas with gentle sloping ground (2).

The red-tailed wheatear feeds primarily on insects, surviving mainly on a diet of ants, beetles and larval moths and butterflies (2). It also takes a variety of other insects, from locusts to solitary wasps, and has even been recorded taking a small lizard. Plant material such as seeds, fruits and the leaves and stems of grasses also sometimes form part of its diet (3).

Food is obtained using a variety of methods, but the red-tailed wheatear will commonly use a ‘dash-and-jab’ technique, where the bird will launch an attack on prey on the ground from an elevated perch (2). This species is also known to pluck prey off vegetation, or dig food such as beetle larvae from the ground with its bill. A technique known as ‘wing-flashing’, where the bird flushes insects from underneath rocks by beating its wings and calling, is also sometimes used (7).

During the breeding season, the red-tailed wheatear is generally solitary, but when breeding it usually forms monogamous pairs (2) (8). Breeding usually starts between April and June, but in eastern Turkey breeding can be quite late, occurring between June and August (9). The red-tailed wheatear nests in rock crevices or among stones, creating loosely constructed shallow cups of grass for the nest. The nest is lined with fine fibres stripped from plant stems, and rests on a thick base comprised of small, flat stones (2). The eggs of the red-tailed wheatear are very pale blue with sparse, light red-brown spotting (3). The clutch of 4 to 6 eggs is usually incubated for around 13 days, and both of the adults feed the nestlings (8) (10).

The red-tailed wheatear is not currently known to be facing any major threats, and its population is thought to be stable (5).

There are no known conservation measures currently targeting the red-tailed wheatear. However, 391 sites have been identified as ‘Important Bird Areas’ (IBAs) in the Middle East, and conservation programmes to protect the habitats of more endangered birds in these areas may indirectly benefit the red-tailed wheatear (5).

More information on the red-tailed wheatear:

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:
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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cramp, S. (1988) Handbook of the Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Volume V: Tyrant Flycatchers to Thrushes. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. 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.
  4. Christison, A.F.P. and Ticehurst, C.B. (1942) Some additional notes on the distribution of the avifauna of northern Baluchistan. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 43: 478-487.
  5. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/
  6. Ali, S. and Ripley, S.D. (1973) Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Volume 9: Robins to Wagtails. University Oxford Press, Oxford.
  7. Loskot V.M. and Petrusenko A.A. (1974) On nutrition of the Red-tailed Wheatear (Oenanthe xanthoprymna Hempr. et Her.) in Badakhshan. Vestnik zoologii, 5: 59-65.
  8. Erard, C. and Etchecopar, R.D. (1970) Some notes on the birds of Angola. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club, 90: 158-161.
  9. Helbig, A. J. (1984) Bemerkenswerte ornithologische beobachtungen in der Turkei im sommer 1981. Bonner Zoologische Beiträge, 35 (1-3): 57-69.
  10. Panow, E.N. (1974) Die Steinschmätzer der nördlichen Paläarktis. Gattung Oenanthe. Die Neue Brehm-Bücherei 482, Ziemsen, Lutherstadt Wittenberg.