Photo: Michael P. Gage/Vireo

Northern Wheatear

Oenanthe oenanthe

On fall weekends in the northeast, birders sometimes hope (but never expect) to find a Wheatear. This small chat enters the North American arctic from both directions, via both Greenland and Alaska, but almost all go back to the Old World in winter; only the occasional straggler appears south of Canada. Northern Wheatears can be found in summer on rocky tundra, where they are inconspicuous until they fly, flashing their tail pattern. In the Old World there are almost 20 species of wheatears, most of them in desert regions.
Conservation status North American population probably stable; may be increasing as a breeder in northeastern Canada.
Family Old World Flycatchers
Habitat In summer, rocky tundra, barren slopes. Breeds on dry northern tundra with many exposed rocks and boulders, especially where these are near mats of dwarf shrubs a few inches high. Migrants may be seen on any kind of open ground, including vacant lots, barren fields, coastal meadows. In Eurasia, very widespread in open country.
On fall weekends in the northeast, birders sometimes hope (but never expect) to find a Wheatear. This small chat enters the North American arctic from both directions, via both Greenland and Alaska, but almost all go back to the Old World in winter; only the occasional straggler appears south of Canada. Northern Wheatears can be found in summer on rocky tundra, where they are inconspicuous until they fly, flashing their tail pattern. In the Old World there are almost 20 species of wheatears, most of them in desert regions.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male, breeding
  • adult female, breeding
  • immature (1st winter)
  • immature (1st winter)
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly on the ground, running short distances and then stopping to pick up items. May run and flutter in pursuit of active insects. Also often watches from a perch a couple of feet up, then flies down take item on ground. Sometimes flies out to catch insects in mid-air.


Eggs

5-6, sometimes 3-8. Pale blue, either unmarked or with fine reddish brown dots at larger end. Incubation is mostly or entirely by female, about 13-14 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings, but female may do more. Young leave nest about 15 days after hatching. Probably 1 brood per year.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings, but female may do more. Young leave nest about 15 days after hatching. Probably 1 brood per year.

Diet

Mostly insects, some berries. Diet in North America not known in detail. In Eurasia feeds mostly on insects, especially beetles, also ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers, true bugs, flies, and many others. Also eats spiders, centipedes, snails. Often feeds on berries, perhaps mainly in summer and fall.


Nesting

Male defends territory by singing, often in song-flight display. Song often includes imitations of other birds. In one courtship display, female crouches on ground while male leaps back and forth above her, very rapidly, with wings and tail spread. Also other postures and displays, many showing off tail pattern. Nest site is on ground on dry tundra, usually in hole under rock, in crevice among large stones, or in old rodent burrow. Nest, probably built by female, is placed within this shelter; variable cup of grass, twigs, weeds, lined with finer material such as moss, lichens, rootlets, fine grass.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Birds from eastern Canada migrate east via Greenland and Europe, to winter in Africa. Birds from Alaska and northwestern Canada cross Bering Strait and make long westward flight across Asia, also going to wintering grounds mostly in Africa.

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Migration

Birds from eastern Canada migrate east via Greenland and Europe, to winter in Africa. Birds from Alaska and northwestern Canada cross Bering Strait and make long westward flight across Asia, also going to wintering grounds mostly in Africa.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Harsh chak-chak! Song is a jumble of warbling notes.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

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