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The Northern Wheatear is among the most studied passerines of the Old World (1). Its basic life history is well documented (2, 3, 4), though among its four subspecies, nearly all work has focused on oenanthe and leucorhoa, with relatively little research conducted on libanotica and seebohmi. The Northern Wheatear has a nearly circumpolar breeding range in the Northern Hemisphere, extending from eastern Canada, Iceland, and Greenland across Eurasia, south to North Africa and the Middle East, and east from Siberia to Alaska and the Yukon Territory, with a gap in central Canada. The species breeds in habitats ranging from flat tundra to mountains and desert, wherever there is open, broken terrain with relatively short vegetative cover and scattered rocks or boulders (1); within such habitats, it often coexists with humans.
The Northern Wheatear is one of very few breeding passerines in North America that migrates to the Old World; nearly the entire global population overwinters in sub-Saharan Africa. Breeders from Alaska and the Yukon (oenanthe) reach Africa by migrating westward across the whole of Asia and the Middle East, whereas leucorhoa from eastern Canada make epic trans-Atlantic flights eastward.
The remarkable seasonal journeys of this species have contributed to it becoming a model for the study of migration (5, 6, 7). Subspecies oenanthe and leucorhoa differ in features related to migration, particularly size and physiology, and are good subjects for research because both are abundant as migrants in western Europe, can be captured with relative ease and are readily maintained in captivity.
The Northern Wheatear is ranked as Least Concern (not globally threatened) because it is abundant and widely distributed (8). However, populations have declined markedly in western Europe, largely as a result of changes in land use and agricultural practices.