Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Scientific name definitions

Erica H. Dunn, David J. T. Hussell, Josef Kren, and Amelia C. Zoerb
Version: 2.1 — Published October 25, 2022



Walking, Running, Hopping, Climbing, etc.

Hops rather than walks (JK, DJTH), and “gallops” (165) with an asymmetric running movement intermediate between hopping and striding.


Undulating, with rolling of body that allows glimpse of underwing. Lands on ground with stretched-wing stall, and swoops upward to land on perches (2). Flight is important in communications and displays.

Swimming and Diving

Not known to swim or dive.


For development, see Breeding: Fledgling Stage.

Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Sunbathing, Bathing, Anting

Water bathing is infrequent. More commonly, movements typical of bathing (wing shuffling, brief shakes of fluffed plumage) accompany preening, in which feathers are run through the beak ( ). The head is scratched with the foot lifted over the drooped wing (4, JK) ( ). Simple sunning behavior consists of crouching in a sheltered spot with belly to the ground, but occasionally involves more ruffling of feathers and slight raising of the wings (4). Dusting and anting behavior have not been recorded (2, JK).

Sleeping, Roosting

Females roost on the nest when brooding young (2). Otherwise, birds roost singly in grass or heather tussocks, near burrow entrances, on low perches, or under rocks (4, JK). Each individual usually has several roost sites (191). Minimum nocturnal rest period of adults feeding nestlings in continuous daylight is 4.5–5 h (see Breeding: Parental Care).

Daily Time Budget

For details during nest attendance, see Breeding: Incubation and Breeding, Parental Care. No differences reported between daily time budgets of males and females during the late nestling period (170).

Birds go to roost well after sunset, often in darkness. In hot, arid countries activity is reduced mid-day and birds rest in shade, whereas activity levels in arctic regions are almost uniformly high.

During post-fledging care at Öland, Sweden, females spent an average of 65% of daylight hours perching, 27% standing, 6% flying and 1.5% walking or running (170). Migrants on stopover at Helgoland Island both in spring and fall spent 51–67% of the day foraging (independent of day length), and most of the remainder in resting or vigilance (83).

During overwintering in Senegal, daily activity period begins about 20 min before sunrise and continues after sunset until it becomes too dark to continue feeding—approximately 12 h overall (A. Tye in 4). Some birds spend up to 10% of their time singing, likely in association with territorial defense.

Agonistic Behavior

Conspecific males are highly aggressive to one another; females interact less frequently. A paired male may help his mate repel an invading female, but she does not help expel males (2). During fall migration adults and males largely dominate first-year birds and females from feeding sites, but during the overwintering period this dominance is absent, regardless of subspecies (192).

Nearly every agonistic display exposes one or more contrasting patterns of plumage, especially on the rump and tail but also between the black wing and/or face patch and adjacent pale feathering. Elements of display are often combined in different ways and vary in intensity depending on the situation and motivation; only prominent elements are described here. For detailed description and illustrations of the wide variety of fighting and threats summarized here, see Panov (182, 193, 1) and Conder (4).

Migrants are more aggressive in spring than in fall and attack a variety of other passerines, including Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), Eurasian Linnet (Linaria cannabina), and Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (4, 136). In intraspecific encounters, larger individuals tend to dominate (158). During fall migration adults displace first-year birds at food sources, and males displace females (192).

Physical Interactions

Fights usually start over territorial disputes when an intruder persists after threats have been made. Resident birds fly at rivals; then both rise up 2–3 m, cuffing each other’s wings and pecking at one another. Sometimes one bird is pinned on the ground (2). There may be repeated fights over several hours, though mostly consisting of males jumping toward or sitting close to each other for 10 or more minutes at a time (T. Pärt, personal communication). One fight lasting some hours was recorded between a resident male oenanthe and a migrant male leucorhoa (4). Fights between females may also be long and fierce (T. Pärt, personal communication).

Communicative Interactions

Relaxed birds have horizontal, hunched postures. In Alert (or Erect) Posture, the bird stands fully upright, stretching head, neck and body at angle of about 70–80° (4). This expression of alertness and anxiety may be accompanied by up and down pumping of the closed tail , the latter often accompanied by tuc tuc calls (or when mated, tuc tuc weet). At a higher level of excitement, Bobbing of the whole body sets in; the body held close to horizontal and head stretched upward. Sometimes bobbing is accompanied by flicking of wings and flashing of the white rump. Intensity both of calls and depth of bobs increases with level of anxiety (4).

Appeasement/submissive displays are uncommon, but a trespassing male may crouch, making himself inconspicuous to the territory holder (2).

Territorial Behavior

Territories are held both on breeding and overwintering grounds, and often during migration stopover as well. Young birds try to establish mobile individual areas shortly after leaving the nest (see Breeding: Immature Stage). For details on size of breeding and overwintering territories, see Demography and Populations: Population Spatial Metrics.

Territories are set up by males upon arrival to breeding grounds and are maintained until young are independent (4). A lone female returning to her previous year territory can repel single birds, but probably cannot drive away pairs (2). Floaters and failed breeders of both sexes, especially yearling males, establish prospecting territories which commonly encompass one or more territories occupied by pairs that are successfully feeding young; typically the prospectors will breed there the following year if the original breeders of the same sex do not return (194).

Territorial behavior involves both general advertisement and active exclusion. Territorial Song (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocal Array) is usually delivered from a prominent perch, usually higher than those used for foraging, such as a telephone wire or house top (DJTH). It is sometimes given during normal flight (2), though usually during a characteristic Song Flight. The male ascends at an angle of 30–40° using uniform, deep, and leisurely beats of fully extended wings, delivering a song at the peak then gliding down at a slope without a pause (1). Alternatively, he may hang momentarily at the highest point, where short bursts of rapid wing beats make him dance slightly up and down. A variation of the initial ascent of Song Flight is for the male to rise jerkily at an angle of 60–80° using short bursts of wing beat, fanning the tail or flicking it rapidly open and shut to display the tail pattern (2). On descent the male may fly directly toward a rival and circle briefly with slow wing beats and fanned tail (Butterfly Flight).

Flying intruders may be simply chased away; those on the ground elicit a variety of displays (detailed in 4 and 1). Birds in Threat Posture bow deeply and erect the tail almost vertically, sometimes fanned but not always. The bird may face the intruder, turn sideways, move about or remain still. Before fighting, females usually adopt Erect Posture. Other displays include Ground Threat (territory owner lands near intruder and adopts Erect Posture, accompanied by Quiet Subsong, Loud Subsong, and Territorial Song (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocal Array); Flashing Display (individual turns towards or away from rival with head raised, exposing throat and breast, and giving Loud Subsong); and Oblique Posture (individual crouches or bows, legs partly bent, wing drooped, tail upright, and usually closed, head may be thrust forward and bill slightly open). Several flight displays normally directed at the female are also used with intruders, including the Dancing Display and Zigzag Flight (see Sexual Behavior).

Breeding territories can be quite stable over time, regardless of occupant, if they have features that commonly serve as boundaries, such as prominent stones, walls or fences. The birds themselves, however, often switch territories between years; Arlt and Pärt (105) reported territory switching by 72% of females (n = 116) and 54% of males (n = 135). Females were more likely to move between years because they arrived later and often found their previous-year sites either already occupied or not yet claimed by a male (65.0% of 40 cases), resulting in a larger average distance between successive nests for females than for males (105). Nonetheless, most territory shifts are short-distance (see Movements and Migration: Dispersal and Site Fidelity).

Temporary territories may be established to defend high quality food patches at spring and fall migration stopover sites (124), without regard to subspecies, sex or age (165, 4). Newly-arrived spring migrants in western Europe gradually establish territories over a day or two, though sometimes immediately (4). Zigzag Flight in the context of migration probably reflects territorial behavior. Aggressive chases and fights on Helgoland Island occurred at the rate of 0.17/min, 81% of them directed at conspecifics (n = 480 two-minute observations; 124). The duration of temporary territories ranges from a few hours to a week or more (4). Migrant leucorhoa are able to set up temporary territories inside breeding territories of oenanthe, enabled perhaps by their larger size (4).

On overwintering grounds, both sexes defend territories (195, 2, 44). Over about 2 months in Nigeria, 80% of 41 marked birds (n = 41) were resighted at the same location at least once (65% at least twice), singing, chasing, and responding strongly to playbacks for as long as 53 d (94). It is unknown whether individuals use the same territories between years.

Sexual Behavior

Mating System and Operational Sex Ratio

Usually socially monogamous (4), but many authors report occasional polygyny (male plus 2 females); at least one case in most years at a site in Sweden (D. Arlt, personal communication). At Skokholm Island, polygyny was more common in second broods, possibly related to a male-biased sex ratio. Second mates there were usually adjacent neighbors (4), but polygynous nests can be separated by up to 1,400 m (1). Polygyny has been documented in first broods of leucorhoa in Canada, where second broods are rare (Appendix 2).

Courtship, Copulation, and Pair Bond

Displays are as described by (4), unless otherwise specified.

The male’s Dancing Display is performed during courtship, though sometimes directed at intruders. The male delivers Loud Subsong or Territorial Song as he flutters and glides, usually about 0.15–0.60 m above the ground, moving rapidly and erratically from side to side in a 10–20 cm arc over the female as she stands or crouches and scarcely touching the ground on either side. The full display lasts 5–10 s and maximizes exposure of underwing and tail patterns. It may be followed by Song Flight and, upon landing, fanning of the tail (1). Immediately after the display, the male may approach the female in wing-quivering crouch and follow her after she flushes (B. McCaffery in 56).

Zigzag Flight is performed by breeding male in a variety of circumstances, but most frequently involving his mate. The bird fans its tail and briefly flies erratically 0.5–1.0 m above the ground, twisting and turning from side to side.

The Greeting Display is given by either sex when the pair meets, often near the nest; usually initiated by the female. One bird moves towards the other with horizontal body posture, tail slightly lifted but unfanned, head and neck stretched up. Wings may briefly shiver or flick, and the display may include Loud Subsong (Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocal Array; 182). This display lasts 5–15 s and is sometimes performed at the beginning of the breeding cycle, though more commonly when both parents are feeding young.

Courtship feeding has not been observed (4).

Females choose nest sites (4), but during courtship males may display during females’ investigations, walking by sites with feathers of the breast and belly ruffled, tail fanned, head and bill pointed up (1). When the female approaches, he adopts a horizontal posture with bill pointed forward and either remains still or runs towards her waving fully extended wings. If the female lingers inside a cavity, he may hover over it with bill pointing towards the entrance, and may briefly enter the cavity after she exits.

Copulation is difficult to observe, resulting in few descriptions (4, 1). In one report, the female solicited; the male landed nearby and, after a meeting ceremony, copulated with her. Afterwards the female threw her head up vertically and quivered her wings clear of the body; the male wagged his tail for about 1 min (4). In another single observation the male performed a Dance Display, and prior to mounting he adopted the precopulatory posture: wings extended outward horizontally, head and tail pointed upward. Following copulation, the female immediately mounted him briefly, which he did in return before performing another Dance Display (1).

During her fertile period the female is guarded closely by her mate, who stays close to her, following or watching wherever she goes and staying near the nest cavity when she is inside (4, JK).

Pair bonds persist only for the breeding season. A new mate may be chosen for renesting after a failure (D. Arlt, personal communication), or for true second broods (4, 28). In two cases of within-year mate switch on Skokholm Island, the first male disappeared; in the other, the male was present but molting (4).

Extra-Pair Mating Behavior/Paternity

A study in Germany found that 26% of young in 46% of 242 broods resulted from extra-pair copulation (EPC; 30). EPC in Wales accounted for 11% of young in 29% of 17 broods (187), almost all sired by males from directly adjacent territories; no more than one extra male contributed to a single brood. Migrant males never tried to copulate with resident females (n = 33 observations; 187).

Most EPC’s occur when males begin trespassing into other territories after their own females’ fertile period (196, 187). The male performs Dancing Displays before soliciting copulation. If a non-mate female intrudes into a paired male’s territory he will approach, display, and try to copulate with her. Females do not solicit extra-pair males, and reject most EPC opportunities; only 7 of 54 male intrusions in one study resulted in attempted EPC and only one of these was accepted (187). Experimental removals of males showed females were more likely to accept EPCs from males in better body condition than their removed mate (197), but this finding was not supported by Kudernatsch et al. (30).

Brood Parasitism of Conspecifics

Intraspecific brood parasitism occurs. A genetic study in Germany detected no cases among first broods (n = 10), but found one young unrelated to the nesting female in 2 out of 9 second broods (30). In one case, the genetic parents were identified; they belonged to a territory about 300 m and two territories distant.

Brood Parasitism of Other species

None recorded.

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree of Sociality

Generally solitary except for breeding pairs. There is a degree of social attraction during migration, shortly after arrival on breeding grounds and to some extent post-breeding, such that birds are often seen in loose groups that lack flock cohesion. Individual distance of about 3–5 m is maintained, though less in the face of potential danger (4). During spring and fall migration, flocks of a few individuals to 50 are not uncommon (T. Pärt, personal communication); unusual weather events can result in numbers into the thousands (see Movements and Migration: Migratory Behavior).


No evidence.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Kleptoparasitic shrikes sometimes target the Northern Wheatear, including Lesser Gray Shrike (Lanius minor) (198) and, in northern Senegal, the Great Gray Shrike (Lanius excubitor) and Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) (164).

Among sympatric wheatear species in all seasons, subspecies oenanthe is dominant to Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti), and Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka), but subordinate to Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii), and Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina) (199). In breeding areas, inter-nest distances among sympatric wheatear species is similar to that for pairs of Northern Wheatear themselves (Demography and Populations: Population Spatial Metrics): Northern Wheatear and Desert Wheatear nests were found to be separated by 168 m ± 12 SD (minimum 80, n = 18); Northern Wheatear and Isabelline Wheatear by 136 m ± 11 SD (minimum 80, n = 13); and Northern Wheatear and Pied Wheatear by 104 m ± 10 SD (minimum 56, n = 13).

Northern Wheatear is more aggressive than Desert Wheatear and Pied Wheatear in terms of the number of conflicts they initiate against other small passerine species (199). During the breeding season they may attack many species using the same area; in the United Kingdom, Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis), Eurasian Linnet (Linaria cannabina), Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis), European Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), and European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (4); in a high-mountain region, Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) and Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris) (200); in Arctic regions, Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus), and American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) (29, 76, DJTH); in Alaska, Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis), and Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) (B. McCaffery in 56). In Slovakia, Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) were sometimes chased away from their own young (157).

Migrant individuals defending temporary territories on Heligoland were also aggressive towards other species, including White Wagtail (Motacilla alba), Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) (124).

A study on overwintering grounds found the Northern Wheatear to be subordinate in interspecific interactions with resident African species (n = 13), but dominant in 47% of interactions with other Palearctic migrants (n = 125) (201). They are subordinate in the non-breeding period to shrikes (Lanius spp.), Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), and Western Yellow Wagtail (2, 44).


For population impact, see Demography and Populations: Causes of Mortality.

Kinds of Predators

Corresponding to their wide distribution, wheatears are preyed upon by a broad range of species. Most predation of young and adults in the nest is by species that can enter nest cavities (e.g., mustelids, snakes) or dig them out (foxes); whereas predation of flying adults is mostly by birds of prey.

Species known to kill or attack Northern Wheatear include red fox (Vulpes vulpes), short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), domestic cat (Felis catus), Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) (88); Eleonora's Falcon (Falco eleonorae) (202, JK); Red-necked Falcon (Falco chicquera), Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (4, 44); Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica), Little Owl (Athene noctua), and Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (29, 76, 203, 2, DJTH; D. Arlt, personal communication).

Manner of Predation

Nest predators are likely attracted by activity, then enter the nest or dig it out. Avian predators will attack both sitting and flying individuals (JK).

Response to Predators

Individuals flee when under attack, but reactions to raptors flying overhead may be mild: looking up, crouching on the ground, moving to a lower perch or flying to cover in a bush or hole (44). At a site in Greenland, individuals avoided nesting within about 400 m of a Peregrine Falcon nest (204), but there are also records of nesting individuals ignoring avian predators nesting nearby (e.g., within 15 m) (157 ; D. Arlt, personal communication).

Early reactions to terrestrial threats, including approaching humans, are to display anxiety with alert posture or bobbing, or move to a position where the body is hidden but the bird can still keep an eye on the threat.

When a nest is threatened, birds may perform loud Territorial Song or Rattle, with addition during high excitement of high-pitched elements something like the weet call and harsher, more guttural tones (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocal Array; 4). Mammalian predators approaching nests, such as foxes and mustelids, may be mobbed by birds from nearby territories circling around the predator giving alarm calls, with the local pair showing particularly strong response, making weet-tuc or twang and tuc alarm calls, and hovering or landing closer to the predator than their neighbors do. An individual may continue to follow and mob a fox for > 400 m (B. McCaffery in 56).

Alarm calling by males causes females on the nest to retreat to the back of nest cavity (2). Nest sites in rubble and rock crevices often have more than one exit, allowing adults to escape invading predators ( ). Older nestlings can often save themselves by scrambling into nooks and crannies of the nest cavity that are inaccessible to predators (DJTH).

Distraction-lure displays have rarely been reported, but one bird feigned injury at a recently destroyed nest (4), and one migrating individual displayed a “broken-wing” posture to a weasel for about 1 min, fluttering along in front of it (205).

Recommended Citation

Dunn, E. H., D. J. T. Hussell, J. Kren, and A. C. Zoerb (2022). Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), version 2.1. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norwhe.02.1