Male whinchats have mottled brown upperparts and crowns with some white streaking and a short black tail. Their belly is pale buff with orange flanks, throat, and bib. Their heads are mottled brown with a white collar, white eyebrows, and black cheeks. The female looks similar to the male but is paler with less contrast between the colours.
Average Length: 12.5 cm
Average Lifespan: 2 Years
Average Wingspan: 21-24 cm
Whinchats mainly eat invertebrates such as spiders, dragonflies, and worms. In autumn they will supplement their diet with seeds and berries.
Breeding begins in April when a cup-shaped nest is built in low vegetation or on the ground. The nest is usually made from grass and leaves and lined with finer material. 5 to 6 eggs are laid in the nest and incubated by the female alone for 13 days. Once hatched the chicks are fed by both parents for 13-14 days until they fledge. As the chicks remain dependent on the parents for some time after they leave the nest, pairs will usually only produce one brood every season.
Declines in whinchat populations are attributed to changes in agricultural practices. The main driver is earlier mowing dates of grassland areas. This not only causes the direct destruction of active nests but makes the nests more visible to predators. Furthermore, the young take a while to fly and avoid predators by sitting still in long grass and so they will likely be caught by early mowing. Damage to grassland habitats through the reduction in vegetation diversity and application of pesticides is also likely to decrease this population. As with many of our migrants who spend the winter months in Africa, climate-driven droughts are likely to cause declines in the future.
Petition local areas to protect grassland habitat and if you own land, delay mowing until after the breeding season.
If walking near a population, keep dogs on leads and be careful not to damage active ground nests.
Avoid using harsh chemicals in your garden and petition local areas to do the same.
Whin is another name for gorse, which is often found in habitats that this bird uses, which could be where it got its name from.
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Saxicola rubetra. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/whinchat-saxicola-rubetra. Accessed: 10/10/2023.
British Trust for Ornithology (2023) Whinchat | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/whinchat. Accessed: 10/10/2023.
Britschgi, A., Spaar, R., & Arlettaz, R. (2006). Impact of grassland farming intensification on the breeding ecology of an indicator insectivorous passerine, the Whinchat Saxicola rubetra: Lessons for overall Alpine meadowland management. Biological Conservation. 130(2): 193-205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2005.12.013
Broyer, J. (2009). Whinchat Saxicola rubetra reproductive success according to hay cutting schedule and meadow passerine density in alluvial and upland meadows in France. Journal for Nature Conservation, 17, 160–167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2009.02.004
Grüebler, M. U., Schuler, H., Spaar, R., & Naef-Daenzer, B. (2015). Behavioural response to anthropogenic habitat disturbance: Indirect impact of harvesting on whinchat populations in Switzerland. Biological Conservation. 186:52-59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2015.02.031
Muïler Reto Spaar AE Luc Schifferli Lukas Jenni, M. A. (2005). Effects of changes in farming of subalpine meadows on a grassland bird, the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra). Journal of Ornithology. 146:14-23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-004-0059-0