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


Field Identification

Medium to small ground-dwelling passerine (length 14.5–15.5 cm, wingspan 26–32 cm, mass 18–33 g). In Definitive Alternate Plumage, adult male is pale blue-gray above, whitish below; face mask blackish; wings black; rump white. Distal portion of tail black; proximal portion white laterally, black centrally. Black area forms inverted T-shape on tail. Distinctive tail pattern is easily seen as bird fans and bobs tail. Adult female in Definitive Alternate Plumage is similar to male but duller overall; face mask largely lacking; wings paler and browner; upperparts browner. First Alternate Plumage in each sex resemble those of adults but average duller, with browner and more worn juvenile remiges and tail feathers.

In Definitive Basic Plumage, adult male loses bold plumage pattern, becoming gray brown on crown and back; underparts darker and buffier; most wing feathers tipped boldly with buff to buffy white; obvious wingbar across greater coverts, and pale panel on longest tertials and inner secondaries; tail pattern as in alternate plumage. Adult female in Definitive Basic Plumage shows colors more muted than in definitive alternate female. First-fall birds in formative plumage similar to adult female but often show contrasts between formative and juvenile wing coverts and have thinner and more pointed juvenile remiges and rectrices.

Similar Species

Although Northern Wheatear is unlikely to be confused with any other species in North America, identification is difficult in Eurasia and Africa where other similar Oenanthe species occur, including Atlas Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi), Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina), Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka), Western Black-eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica), and Finsch's Wheatear (Oenanthe finschii).

Adult male Northern Wheatear in alternate plumage is identified by gray upperparts and black auriculars, but identification is more difficult in other plumages. Adult male Atlas Wheatearhas a black face and throat; female and some formative male Atlas Wheatears are highly similar to female-plumaged Northern Wheatear (see 9). Isabelline Wheatear is also similar, but is paler and averages grayer (less brown) in these plumages, with less contrast between the tertials and the upperpart coloration. Pied Wheatear and Western Black-eared Wheatear are similarly duller and plainer than Northern Wheatear in female-like plumages, and show a slightly different tail pattern with more black to the outer rectrices and less black to the medial rectrices on each side of the tail. Female-plumaged Finsch's Wheatear is paler and grayer; for more information on distinguishing these species, see 2, 10, 11, and 9.

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