WHEATEAR (Oenanthe oenanthe)

FAMILY: MUSCICAPIDAE (Old world flycatchers)

This handsome little chat is a summer visitor to our shores, arriving in early March and leaving in September. Some individuals only stop off here on their way from Africa to Greenland, these individuals look slightly different than our residents and undertake one of the longest migrations of any songbird. In the UK it prefers open, rocky areas, moorland, and heath, mainly in the Northwest of the UK. Populations have fluctuated over time and have been placed on the Amber list.

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Alert Status:

Amber - 32% decrease ↓

Estimated number of UK breeding

pairs: 170,000 (updated 2016)

Listen to Wheatear song:


Wheatears are about the size of a robin, mainly seen running or jumping along the ground. The male has a grey back which contrasts the black wings, they have pale buff breasts with some orange colouration on the throat and bib. The crown is grey and they sport a black eye stripe which looks like a bandit mask. When in flight they show a characteristic white rump with a black ‘T’ shape on the tail. Females resemble males, but their underparts are a more dull brown colour.

Average Length: 14.5-15.5 cm

Average Lifespan: 2 Years

Average Wingspan: 26-32 cm

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Wheatear diet

Wheatears primarily eat invertebrates such as beetles, ants, and worms but in autumn they will supplement their diet with berries.

Wheatear breeding and nesting information

Breeding begins almost as soon as they arrive in April, the female builds an open nest from leaves, stems, moss, and other materials under rocks or in a natural rock crevice. 5-6 eggs are laid and incubated primarily by the female, but the male will occasionally help out, for 14 days. Once hatched the chicks are fed by both parents until they leave the nest 15-17 days later, however, they depend on their parents for another 12-13 days. They will often produce 2 broods before the breeding season ends in June.

Threats to Wheatear

Wheatear populations have declined as a result of habitat change caused by agricultural intensification and urbanisation. This has reduced the suitable short vegetation on which the species relies. Further reductions have been seen in areas where populations of other grazing animals such as rabbits and sheep have reduced. Reduction in burrowing animals also drives decreases due to loss of nesting sites. As with many of our summer visitors who spend the winters in Africa, climate-driven droughts in these areas have driven population declines and will likely drive further declines in the future.

How you can help

Create an insect-friendly garden and avoid using harsh chemicals to remove insects and weeds.

Petition local areas to create suitable habitats for these birds.

Keep dogs on leads when walking near a population to avoid direct damage to nests.

Fascinating Fact

The scientific name for the wheatear comes from the Greek for ‘wine-flower’. The English is somewhat less romantic, coming from the old English for ‘white-arse’ referring to its white rump!
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BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Oenanthe oenanthe. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/northern-wheatear-oenanthe-oenanthe. Accessed: 10/10/2023.

British Trust for Ornithology (2023) Wheatear | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/wheatear.  Accessed: 10/10/2023.

Currie, D., Thompson, D. B. A., & Burke, T. (2008). Patterns of territory settlement and consequences for breeding success in the Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. Ibis, 142(3), 389–398. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1474-919X.2000.TB04435.X  

Kämpfer, S., & Fartmann, T. (2019). Breeding populations of a declining farmland bird are dependent on a burrowing, herbivorous ecosystem engineer. Ecological Engineering, 140, 105592. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.ECOLENG.2019.105592  

Paquet, M., Arlt, D., Knape, J., Low, M., Forslund, P., & Pärt, T. (2019). Quantifying the links between land use and population growth rate in a declining farmland bird. Ecology and Evolution, 9(2), 868–879. https://doi.org/10.1002/ECE3.4766  

Pärt, T. (2001). The effects of territory quality on age-dependent reproductive performance in the northern wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe. Animal Behaviour, 62(2), 379–388. https://doi.org/10.1006/ANBE.2001.1754  

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