The wryneck (Jynx torquilla) is an unusual-looking bird, at times resembling both a large warbler and a small bird of prey. Both male and female birds are alike, having a mottled brown and grey upper body, and a rather dirty white underside. The plumage is barred irregularly with dark brown markings and the bird has a noticeable dark line running from the base of the bill, through the eye and down the side of the neck, virtually to the shoulder of the wing. The song is a series of whining ‘tie-tie’ notes, and there is usually a pause between sets of calls. The alarm note is a hard ‘teck-teck’ sound, but the bird also hisses like a snake and can twist its head in a rather snake-like manner, hence its common English name. Like other woodpeckers, its ability to climb the vertical surface of a tree is aided by the stiff tail and the fact that two of its toes point forward and the other two face backwards.
Wrynecks usually nest in a natural hole in a tree, but they will also make use of holes in walls and nest boxes. They have been known to evict other species of birds already in residence and their noisy activities at the nest site sometimes give away their presence. They lay up to ten pale grey-green – almost white – eggs during May, which are usually incubated by the female bird for 12 to 14 days. The young wrynecks are fed on ants and ant larvae for about three weeks, both parent birds attending to the task. If food supplies are good, the birds may attempt a second brood during July and August.
As ants make up the bulk of their diet, many sightings of wrynecks are of the birds searching the ground or along stone walls in pursuit of their prey. Their habit of twisting their heads in a peculiarly snake-like manner gives them a rather mechanical appearance.
The wryneck is distributed across most of Europe, into Russia and parts of central Asia. It breeds as far north as Northern Finland, but the UK is at the extreme north-western edge of its European range and it is most often seen here as a passage migrant. It was thought that there were upwards of 200 – 400 pairs in Britain during the 1950s, but this figure dropped during the 60s and, by 1973, there was only a single breeding pair. Since then, numbers of wryneck breeding in Britain have been low and sporadic.
Wrynecks have a preference for old woods and orchards, the chief requirement being a reliable source of ants, the birds’ main food. On passage, however, they can turn up almost anywhere across the UK, and have been reported from gardens, woods, and coastal paths.
The wryneck is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Specially protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and is listed on Appendix II of the Bern Convention. Protected as a migratory species under the EC Birds Directive.
There seems to be no single reason why wrynecks appear to have declined in the UK, although it is known that their numbers have been falling for over a century, with a marked reduction since the 1950s. Their favoured breeding habitats still exist in many areas, apparently sufficient to support a reasonable-sized population of the birds, whilst there does not seem to be a shortage of ants. However, increased pesticide use, coupled with changes to habitats in some areas, may be the main cause of the birds’ disappearance.
The wryneck is listed as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. In recent years, the birds have bred occasionally in the Scottish Highlands although, as elsewhere in the UK, this has been sporadic. The lead partners for this species, the RSPB, are pledged to retain the wryneck as a British breeding bird, and are monitoring its progress each year. However, the best that can be done at the present is to protect those sites where the birds attempt nesting, and guard against possible disturbance to the nest itself.
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