Once a common breeding bird in the UK, the Wryneck is now only a brief visitor en route between Northern European breeding grounds and African overwintering sites. What they lack in colour and song is made up by wonderfully textured plumage and some truly bizarre behaviours.
Wryneck with a beak full of larvae
Wryneck extracting prey with its tongue
Wryneck in-flight on the way back to its nest
Eurasian Wryneck, Northern Wryneck
16cm to 18cm
25cm to 27cm
30g to 50g
The Wryneck is a distinctive bird, unlikely to be mistaken for any other in the United Kingdom.
The Wryneck is a small woodpecker-like bird with cryptic grey and brown camouflage. Their most prominent features are a dark stripe along the back and crown, a brown streak through each eye, and another across each shoulder.
The crown, back and upper tail are grey, while the wings are mottled brown. Their underparts are whitish and finely marked, becoming buff at the throat and cheeks. Wrynecks have brownish bills, eyes, and legs. Like other birds of their family, these birds have zygodactyl feet.
Male and female Wrynecks have very similar plumage. Juveniles appear similar to adult birds but have darker plumage, with heavier barring on the upper parts, underparts, and tail.
Wryneck perching on the stump of a tree
The Wryneck is a small bird, intermediate between a Robin and a Starling.
The Wryneck has a total body length of 16 to 18 centimetres.
Their weight varies from 30 to 50 grams.
They have a wingspan of 25 to 27 centimetres.
Wryneck perching on wood at ground level
The Wryneck is rarely heard in the United Kingdom, although its song may be confused for a small bird of prey.
The Wryneck’s song is a simple series of ‘Kwee-kwee-kwee’ notes repeated about a dozen times. The effect is similar to the call of the Kestrel. They also produce various other vocalisations, including greetings and alarm calls.
Wryneck in song
Wrynecks may be related to woodpeckers, but these birds do most of their foraging on the ground. Continue reading to learn about their specialised diet.
Wrynecks feed predominantly on ants and their larvae which they catch on the ground. They use their bill to open ant nests and their long sticky tongue to extract their prey. These birds also feed on various other insects, invertebrates, tadpoles and birds’ eggs.
Wryneck chicks eat ants and their larvae. Both parents feed the chicks for 20 to 22 days until they leave the nest and then another week or two until they become fully independent.
Wryneck with a beak full of ant larvae
The Wryneck has a wide distribution range, although they are difficult to find in the United Kingdom.
Wrynecks occupy various habitats, including short grassland, open woodlands, and old orchards. They choose areas with abundant ant colonies that provide their primary food source.
Wrynecks used to be widespread in the United Kingdom, although they are now seen only near England’s south and east coasts. They also turn up on Scotland’s Orkney and Shetland islands.
These birds have an extensive global range, encompassing the mid-latitudes of Europe and Asia to the Pacific Coast, large parts of Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, and a wide band across Central Africa.
Wrynecks spend much of the day and night in trees. Unlike other birds from the woodpecker family, they rarely cling and climb tree trunks. These birds may look for food among the branches, although they generally descend to feed on the ground.
Wryneck perching in natural habitat
Wrynecks are scarce but regular visitors to the United Kingdom. Less than 300 individuals are believed to pass through the UK each year on migration.
Wrynecks are most often seen near the south and east coasts of England. You are most likely to spot these rare ant-eating birds in the Autumn months of August and September, although smaller numbers pass through in April and May.
Wryneck clinging on to the side of a tree trunk
Adult Wrynecks have an average lifespan of about two years and a maximum lifespan of about ten years.
Wrynecks could fall prey to a variety of birds of prey, carnivorous mammals, and reptiles. Sparrowhawks, stoats, and weasels are all potential predators in the United Kingdom.
Wrynecks are a Schedule 1 species on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Sadly, the Wryneck has declined massively in the United Kingdom and is now extinct here as a breeding bird. The cause of their decline is not fully understood, although changes in rainfall, pesticide use, and habitat destruction could be to blame.
At a species level, the Wryneck is a ‘Least Concern’ species with a vast global range. Although not endangered, their population is believed to be in decline.
Wryneck perching in natural habitat
Wrynecks nest across most of Continental Europe and through Asia to Japan. Active nests have not been confirmed in the UK for over 20 years. However, it is possible that some still breed in northern Scotland. They nest in natural tree cavities, old woodpecker nests, or artificial nest boxes.
Wrynecks lay seven to twelve white eggs, each measuring approximately 20 millimetres long and 15 millimetres wide.
Wrynecks are generally monogamous in the breeding season, and females are highly faithful to their partners. However, males may begin nesting with a second female before the first season’s offspring have fledged.
Wryneck returning to its nest to feed its young
Wrynecks use deception to defend themselves from predators rather than aggression. Even as nestlings, these birds know how to hiss and move in the manner of a snake to frighten would-be predators.
Wrynecks usually roost in tree cavities.
Wryneck looking out from the inside of a tree trunk
Despite their local extinction as a breeding species, these birds can still be seen on passage through the United Kingdom. Continue reading to learn more about Wryneck migration.
Wrynecks are highly migratory across most of their range. The birds that pass through the United Kingdom do so on their annual spring and autumn migrations.
Wrynecks that nest in Europe and Western Asia fly south to overwinter in Africa, while central and East Asian breeders overwinter in south Asia. Populations in the Mediterranean and North African regions migrate short distances or move between high and low altitudes according to the seasons.
Wrynecks are no longer a breeding species in the United Kingdom. Those that pass through are only temporary visitors as they move between breeding and overwintering grounds in Europe and Africa.
Wryneck perching on the side of a tree trunk
Wrynecks have a strange and unique way of defending themselves against predators. These birds extend and twist their neck in a sinuous, snake-like fashion to fool their enemies into thinking they are more dangerous than they really are. They may even hiss to complete the ruse.
You only have to look at the Wryneck’s generic name (Jynx) to know there’s something mysterious about these birds! Their extraordinary snake-like movements when confronted with a predator led to the old belief that these birds could put a spell on people.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
There are eleven separate subspecies of the lesser spotted woodpecker. They are spread over a vast area from Europe, across central and southern Russia, into Northern China. This profile is limited to the recently reclassified subspecies of Dryobates minor comminutus (still known as Dendrocopos minor within some authorities) which is a resident of the United Kingdom. It is otherwise known as the British Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.
European Green Woodpecker
Woodpeckers belong to the family Picidae. There are over 230 recognised species of woodpecker from 33 genera, to be found across the world, albeit many species are specific to relatively small, isolated areas. As a family they can be found in almost all regions of the globe apart from Antarctica, Greenland, Madagascar and Australasia. This profile is limited to the 3 species of Picus viridis otherwise known as the Eurasian Green Woodpecker and concentrates on the Picus viridis viridis subspecies, common throughout the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia and western Russia.
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