Sparrow-sized summer visitors to rocky uplands across Scotland, Wales and parts of England, wheatears are distinctive orange, black and grey songbirds that nest at ground level in burrows or crevices between rocks.
With a bandit-style black facial stripe, male wheatears certainly have a striking appearance. Other distinctive features include a white stripe above the eye and a grey crown. Their breast is pale orange, graduating into paler buff-white underparts.
Male wheatears in breeding plumage have a grey back, black wings, and a contrasting white rump marked with a black T-shape on their tail.
Females share the white and black tail markings and the orange-washed breast. Instead of black wings and black facial markings, those of female wheatears are dark brown, and rather than a pale grey crown and back seen on the male, the female’s are more of a dusty brown-grey shade.
Out of the breeding season, male wheatears moult into a non-breeding plumage and become less easy to distinguish from females, although the males’ wings remain black rather than dark brown.
Juvenile wheatears look quite different from adults: they are speckled brown all over, with grey-brown underparts, brown wings, and a mottled grey-brown head.
Overall measurement ranges for the species are as follows:
Northern Wheatear calling whilst perched on a rock
Male wheatears have a number of distinct songs and subsongs that vary according to purpose and situation, including a territorial song, a conversational song and a perched song.
These cover an array of notes, from high pitched rapid notes, to repeated phrases, incorporating scratchy sounds and crackling noises.
Calls made by both males and females include a ‘tuc’ call given as alarm, and an excited ‘weet’ call, heard frequently during nest-building and defence of eggs or young.
Wheatears spend a large proportion of their lives hopping on the ground, foraging in short grass or stony land for insects, larvae and spiders. They use a ‘hop and peck’ tactic to catch prey, particularly beetles, grasshoppers, woodlice, caterpillars, and sometimes snails.
In late summer and autumn, berries are also eaten, especially those growing on low shrubbery including blackberries, crowberries and bilberries. Rowan, juniper and elderberry are also taken, as well as a variety of seeds.
Studies show that juvenile wheatears follow a similar diet to their parents, with spiders, larvae, bees, and beetles being fed. Within three weeks of fledging, young wheatears begin to have moderate success in catching their own prey.
Wheatear gathering insects for hungry chicks in the nest
Typical breeding habitats for wheatears are upland landscapes with sparse vegetation and rocky landforms. Grassy meadows, heathland, dry plains, steppe lands and tundra, are all characteristic breeding sites. Long grass and densely forested regions are avoided.
In winter, barren rocky land and cultivated fields provide the necessary foraging opportunities for wheatears, while large trees that offer shade are important in their non-breeding territories.
Wheatears’ breeding range extends from Iceland in the west to Mongolia in the east.
Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia form the northern extreme of their range, while the species regularly breed across the Pyrenees, the Alps, Greece, and Turkey. Breeding grounds are also established in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Wheatears have a scattered presence in North America, with some breeding occurring in Alaska and in parts of northern Canada.
The non-breeding range of wheatears spreads from Mauritania and Mali in West Africa, to Sudan and Somalia in the east, and south to Tanzania. Less commonly, overwintering wheatears are observed as far south as Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa.
Wheatears tend to prefer upland landscapes with rocks and sparse vegetation
According to population estimates in the 1990s, around 2 million breeding pairs of wheatears lived in Scandinavia, with up to 10 million more pairs in European Russia, and as many as 500,000 in Turkey.
Wheatear numbers in the Netherlands witnessed a dramatic decline of around 87 percent between 1990 and 2010, while in Germany the species now is threatened with extinction.
Up to 280,000 wheatear pairs arrive in the UK to breed each year, remaining on their local territories between March and October.
During this time, and in the appropriate environments of rocky uplands, the species is considered relatively widespread, and sightings are not classed as anything too unusual.
The UK’s presence of wheatears reaches its peak in the summer, with arrivals of the species from March onwards, and departure for wintering grounds underway by October.
The highest concentrations of wheatears in the UK are found on open uplands throughout much of Scotland and Wales and also in northern, western and south-western England.
Some breeding occurs in southern and central England. You may also stand a chance of seeing the species in coastal regions during migration passage.
Upland habitats, mainly in parts of northern, western, south-western England, as well as Scotland and Wales are where Wheatears are present in the Summer
The typical lifespan of a wheatear is between 1 and 2 years, with breeding occurring for the first time at 1 year. Less than 2 percent of birds survive longer than 5 years, although the longevity record for the species was recorded in 2017 by a 10-year-old wheatear.
As a ground-nesting species, wheatears are particularly vulnerable to predation by mammals and snakes that share their habitats, including foxes, weasels, badgers, and domestic cats.
Birds of prey, in particular merlins and peregrine falcons, are among the chief avian predators of juvenile and adult wheatears, while their nests and young hatchlings are commonly targeted by gulls, crows and ravens.
As is typical for the majority of wild bird species that breed in the UK, wheatears are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. This legislation makes it an offence to knowingly kill, injure or capture a wheatear, or to damage or destroy their nests and eggs.
Across their entire range, wheatears are classified as a species of least concern. However, in the UK, they are ranked in the Amber category as a Bird Species of Conservation Concern.
In Germany, wheatears are threatened with extinction, and their numbers have fallen dramatically in Sweden and the Netherlands.
In the UK, Wheatears are listed in the Amber category
It’s most common for wheatears to use nest sites at or close to ground level, and abandoned animal burrows, cracks or crevices between rocks, gaps in wood piles, and hollows at the base of tree roots are the top choices.
Nest sites are chosen by females, and a complicated nest structure, featuring a foundation, a cradle and an inner cup are crafted using stems, roots, feathers, moss and animal hair.
Eggs are pale blue to blue-green, smooth and slightly glossy and mostly unmarked, although some slight red-brown speckling may be present.
The earliest clutches are laid in early May, and contain between 4 and 7 eggs. Females alone are responsible for incubation, although males remain nearby, and once the young have hatched (after 13 to 15 days), both parents work together to feed their hatchlings.
A typically seasonally monogamous species, wheatear pairs raise up to two broods together before departing for their wintering grounds. Some examples of polygamous breeding have occasionally been observed.
A nesting pair of Wheatears bringing food back to the nest for the hungry chicks
Territorial aggression may be witnessed during the breeding season with hostile displays to reinforce a territory or warn other males off a female mate.
Aggressive warning calls may be heard, and plumage displays, showing off the white tail rump, are characteristic of clashes between rival males.
Wheatears roost singly in clumps of grass or tucked into heather tussocks, on low perches, or in crevices between or beneath rocks.
Wheatear (male) looking away from his demanding fledgling offspring
Wheatears are a fully migratory species, with almost the entire global population heading to sub-Saharan Africa in the autumn.
Central Africa, south of the Sahara, is the winter destination of the vast majority of the world’s wheatears, with a small population overwintering in Iraq.
A pair of juvenile Northern Wheatears
An estimated 280,000 pairs of wheatears arrive in the UK each spring ahead of the breeding season. By October, breeding is complete, and all of these visiting birds have departed for their African wintering territories.
Wheatears seek a rather specific landscape for nesting, and are unlikely to turn up at your back garden feeders or in heavily residential areas. They live on rocky uplands, moors and heaths, and forage on cultivated fields and grassland meadows.
Contrary to what you might initially think, the wheatear’s name has no association whatsoever with ears or wheat. Instead, the name’s roots lie in the Old English for ‘white’ and ‘arse’, referring to the white rump of the wheatear’s plumage.
14.5cm to 16cm
26cm to 32cm
17g to 30g
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