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

Priorities for Future Research


In the parts of Europe where populations are threatened or extirpated, conservation priorities should focus on conservation action and assessment of success. The causes of decline are quite well understood, and enough is known about means of improving survival prospects of local populations to justify commitment of resources to conservation efforts.

At the global scale, conservation interest should be directed towards identification and protection of key migration stopover habitat. Electronic tracking of migrants has already identified several regions where lengthy stopovers occur, such as environs of the Mediterranean Sea and Caspian Sea (63, 68). More such work could guide preservation of high-quality habitat across key regions. Similarly, because the global population of this species concentrates in sub-Saharan Africa where habitat is affected by human activities and climate change, there should be more study of the frequency, causes and consequences of the extensive movements made by wheatears within the overwintering period (see Movements and Migration: Dispersal and Site Fidelity).

Continued research on control of migration in the Northern Wheatear is likely to provide insight relevant to all migratory birds. The suitability of the species for migration studies (5, 6), and the amount of research already completed (see Movements and Migration: Control and Physiology of Migration), ensures that such work will continue. Ground-work has already been completed that should contribute to further progress, such as partial transcriptome analysis at three stages of migratory preparedness (278, 279), identification of future directions for research on endocrine regulation (280), and evidence that Northern Wheatear could be a good model species for research on magnetoreception (153).

Despite the amount already known about this species, gaps remain in our knowledge that merit additional research.

The broad distribution of Northern Wheatear and the degree of geographic variation in body size, coloration, and migratory physiology suggest there may be interesting variation in other characteristics. Are there metabolic differences between birds breeding in different regions? How is thermoregulation adjusted seasonally to cope with change from cold to hot environments? Is there geographic variation in egg color? Does song vary geographically beyond the differences in tone quality already recognized?

Vocal mimicry of other species is mentioned often in the literature, but has not been the subject of detailed study.

Interactions among taxa where their breeding ranges meet remain unstudied; particularly the nature of the contact zone between oenanthe and libanotica. Ongoing genetic studies (38) cast doubt on whether Atlas Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi) should be considered a separate species (44, 281), or if is best treated as a subspecies as has sometimes been suggested (e.g., 37). O. o. leucorhoa on Jan Mayan and Faroe Islands may be intermediate to oenanthe, but this has not been documented, and it remains unclear whether there is a cline in body size of leucorhoa across its range (see Appearance, Measurements). Some DNA sequencing has been completed, which may prove helpful in studies of population differentiation (282, 38).

Research on leucorhoa in Iceland could answer questions about the interactions between individuals that breed in Iceland and those continuing on to breed in Greenland and eastern Canada. Is there interchange between these groups, and if so, what factors lead an individual to choose how far it will migrate? Might an individual breed in both regions within its lifetime? How do through migrants interact with breeders while in Iceland? Do any leucorhoa that breed in Canada and/or Greenland stop over in Iceland during fall migration, and if so, what proportion? Advances in tracking technology that overcome the seasonal limitations of geolocators, including automated radio-telemetry, could help answer some of these questions, and should make it possible to determine what proportion of individuals (if any) make trans-oceanic flights in fall that take them from Canada or western Greenland directly to West Africa.

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