Whitethroats are active warblers that can be seen and heard in hedgerows around Britain during spring and summer months, as they raise their young and busily forage for insects. Each autumn, they depart for wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, returning in April to breed once more.
As you might expect, a white throat is one of the key distinguishing features of a whitethroat. Male whitethroats have a grey head, grey-brown back and wings, and a pinkish-off-white breast, belly and underparts.
Their eyes are olive-brown, surrounded by a thin white eye-ring, and their bill is yellowish, tinged with grey.
In female whitethroats, the white throat patch is smaller and less prominent, and their head is brown instead of grey. Females have grey-brown legs, in contrast to those of the male, which are a yellowish brown.
Juvenile whitethroats have buff-brown upperparts. Their chin and throat are off-white, and their underparts are a dull buff shade, with some sandy edges to wing feathers.
A similar species, the lesser whitethroat, is smaller and has dark patches on its cheeks.
Whitethroats are active birds, with large heads and long flicking tails. They are around the same size as house sparrows and great tits. There isn’t any noticeable difference in size between male and female whitethroats.
Greater Whitethroat perched in a tree
Whitethroats are classed as warblers, and naturally have a wide and diverse range of calls and songs. A common song is a rapid-fire, scratchy warbling song, with alternating high and low notes. Calls include a harsh, buzzing churring alarm call, and a “wheet-wheet-wheet” contact call.
Whitethroats’ diets change throughout the year, with insects and invertebrates being of most importance during the spring and summer, and the focus shifting to berries during the autumn and winter.
Insects, particularly beetles, bugs and caterpillars, are the main element of a breeding whitethroat’s diet, while during migration and into winter months berries, in particular redcurrants, blackcurrants, sandalwood, and buckthorn, form an important share of their food intake.
Young Whitethroat chicks are fed on insects and invertebrates, with parent birds selecting softer prey to feed to their offspring. The early diet of young whitethroats contains spiders, larvae and caterpillars. As they become more independent, beetles and bugs are also introduced.
Whitethroat with a caterpillar in its beak, ready to feed hungry chicks
Open countryside at lower altitudes is the preferred habitat of whitethroats. Scrubland bushes and hedgerows provide ideal nest cover and foraging opportunities. Woodlands, dense tree cover of more than 3m to 4m (10 ft to 13 ft) in height, and busy residential areas are avoided.
Whitethroats breed across northern Europe, with Ireland and Britain forming the western extreme of their range, which stretches as far as southern Norway, Sweden and Finland in the north, western Russia and into central Asia in the east, and south as far as northern Spain, Italy and across Greece and Turkey.
Winters are spent in West and Central Africa, from Senegal in the west, to Sudan in the east, and as far south as South Africa.
Whitethroats generally avoid both mountainous and urban areas, but can be seen in open countryside and hedgerows along railway lines, footpaths and bramble patches. They are most common in central, southern and eastern parts of England.
Across their wider range, the largest populations of breeding whitethroats are found in Switzerland and Ukraine, with much of western and central Europe recording slight declines in numbers.
In winter, the Sahel region of Africa is the final destination of most of Europe’s breeding whitethroats, and environmental conditions such as desertification have caused changes to the population and settlement patterns of the species.
Whitethroat (male) in its natural habitat
During the spring and summer, whitethroats are relatively widespread across Britain, with over 1.1 million breeding pairs arriving from wintering grounds in the Sahel, just south of the Sahara Desert in central Africa.
They are common visitors during the breeding season, but it is unlikely that you’ll spot one after late September, as migration south begins from August onwards.
During spring and summer, whitethroats are widespread across the UK and are only really absent from the highest terrain, including the Pennines, Cairngorms and Snowdonia.
Whitethroats breed as far north as Shetland, but are most numerous in southern, central and eastern England, where they can be seen between April and September each year.
Close up of a female Whitethroat perched on a branch
On average, whitethroats enjoy a lifespan of around 2 years, breeding for the first time at one year of age. A ringed whitethroat was recorded as having reached 7 years and 9 months in 2011.
Birds of prey, particularly tawny owls and sparrowhawks, are among the main predators of whitethroats, as well as carrion crows. Predatory mammals also pose a threat, including martens, weasels, stoats and foxes.
Whitethroats are included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which protects wild birds in England, Scotland and Wales against being intentionally killed, injured or captured.
Their eggs and nest sites are also protected against by law, meaning they cannot be destroyed or damaged.
In their wider range, whitethroats have a secure and stable population and are rated as a species of least concern by the IUCN. In Britain, they are categorised as Amber on the Birds of Conservation Concern species list.
The inclusion of whitethroats as a species of moderate concern reflects a decline in breeding in the UK of 63 per cent between 1967 and 2020.
On average, Whitethroats usually live for around 2 years in the wild
Perfecting the ideal nest is of great importance to breeding whitethroats. Males build several nests in a territory which are then examined by the female for suitability, before she ultimately chooses the one that she thinks will stand up to the task of raising young.
Occasionally none of the male’s efforts will impress, and a female will take over, constructing a new nest in a different location.
Nests are constructed low down in bushes, particularly brambles, or concealed deep into long grassy thickets. Deep cup-shaped nests are crafted from grass, leaves, moss, hair and spiders’ webs.
A typical whitethroat clutch contains 4 to 5 smooth, glossy pale green-blue eggs, which are marked with dark olive-brown speckles. Eggs measure 18 mm by 14 mm (0.7 in by 0.6 in) and weigh around 1.8 g (0.06 oz).
Incubation is shared between both males and females, with young hatching after between 11 and 13 days. Whitethroats raise either up to two broods each season, with the earliest eggs laid in May.
Whitethroats are typically a monogamous species, although males may occasionally breed with a second mate in a separate territory. It’s uncertain whether the pair bonds continue from one season to the next.
Males return to breeding grounds ahead of females, and do exhibit strong loyalty to territories they have successfully bred on in previous years.
Whitethroat gathering nesting materials
The nest of a Whitethroat, with five unhatched eggs inside
Whitethroats are curious and inquisitive birds that actively explore their surroundings – when they come across a threat or an intruder to their territory, their response is usually an aggressive churring call. Aggression is also observed during courtship and the breeding season.
Whitethroats are observed to be one of the earliest species to roost each evening, settling into their bramble thickets or thorny hedgerows close to dusk, and not surfacing until after many of their neighbouring birds have already awoken to join in with the dawn chorus.
Close up of a Whitethroat
Whitethroats are a fully migratory species – no whitethroats are native to Britain, and they arrive here in spring to breed, before returning to their winter territories in sub-Saharan Africa each autumn.
Whitethroats are summer visitors to the UK, arriving ahead of the breeding season in mid-April, raising their young and then departing for wintering grounds in Africa by October.
Common whitethroat, Greater whitethroat
14cm to 17cm
18.5cm to 23cm
12g to 18g
An elusive reedbed-dwelling songbird, the moustached warbler breeds in marshlands across southern Europe. Rare reports of breeding in the UK do exist, although no sightings of the species have been confirmed in Britain since the 1940s.
This small but long tailed, large headed warbler, is a resident of the Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean where it is common, although is not present on the island of Menorca.
Widespread across southern Europe and North Africa, Sardinian warblers are known for their chattering, fast-paced song, commonly heard throughout Mediterranean areas.
Yellow-browed warblers are rare winter visitors to the UK, with fewer than 30 birds arriving after their breeding season in Siberia has drawn to a close. A few hundred sightings of these tiny migrants are also recorded in passage each year, along the east coast of Scotland, and eastern and southern coasts of England.
Wood warblers are tuneful breeding visitors, arriving in British woodlands from April onwards. Well hidden in their preferred tree-filled landscapes, their bright yellow breast makes them easily distinguishable from other similar warbler species.
The diminutive Willow warbler is a small bird from the Leaf Warbler family Phylloscopidae which contains 80 species. Willow warblers are primarily insectivorous and are energetic, constantly moving birds that dart their tree and hedgerow habitats. They possess soft and subtle green plumage with a pale green-grey back, wings and tail with a pale grey stomach that has a slight yellow tinge.
Widespread and common breeding visitors to the UK, sedge warblers arrive on marshlands and reedbeds in April, and spend up to 6 months on British soil (or wetlands, to be more accurate), raising their young, before preparing for lengthy migrations to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa each autumn.
Savi’s warblers are long-distance migratory songbirds, breeding across continental Europe and north-west Africa, and spending winters in West Africa. Extremely rare in the UK, with only around 5 breeding pairs a year, Savi’s warblers are mostly found in marshlands and habitats with dense reed cover.
A wetland songbird with a rather unremarkable appearance, the reed warbler is a spring visitor to the UK, raising young in wetland reedbeds across England and Wales before returning to African wintering grounds at the end of the summer.
Seen only very occasionally in the UK, the marsh warbler is a long-distance migrant, breeding across central and eastern Europe and spending winters in south-eastern Africa. Sightings in Britain are limited to coastal areas, where up to only around 8 pairs are recorded as breeding each year.
Smaller and less common than the closely related whitethroat, the Lesser Whitethroat, is a hard-to-spot breeding visitor to the UK, due to its unremarkable plumage and favoured habitats of dense hedgerow vegetation.
A well-camouflaged visitor to grasslands and reedbeds, grasshopper warblers arrive in Britain to breed each spring. You may stand a better chance of hearing one than actually getting a sighting, as their secretive nature of creeping through vegetation makes them almost impossible to spot.
Garden warblers are unobtrusive, inconspicuous songbirds that are most commonly found foraging in woodlands during spring and summer months, before heading south to wintering grounds in Africa each autumn.
Mainly confined to lowland heaths in southern England, the Dartford warbler is an elusive little resident breeder with distinctive plumage and physical characteristics.
Until recently this small, solitary, old world leaf warbler was classified as being a member of the family Sylviidae, but following extensive research and reclassification, now falls within the family of Phylloscopidae.
A particularly hard-to-spot bush warbler, the Cetti’s warbler bred in Britain for the first time in the 1970s and now is an established species, with an expanded breeding range in wetland reedbeds around the southern, eastern and south-western coasts of England, and the south and north coasts of Wales.
Within its range and to differentiate it from other similar species, it is often referred to as an Eurasian Blackcap. This sexually dichromatic, stocky little warbler, is a member of the genus Sylvia and is sometimes nicknamed the Northern Nightingale due to its beautiful and frequent song.
Aquatic warblers are rare and temporary migrants to parts of southern England each autumn, en-route from their breeding grounds in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus to their winter territories in West Africa. Only around 40 sightings are reported each year, with the species classed as vulnerable and in decline.
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