SPECIES

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

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

Vocalizations

Development

Young begin to call 3 days after hatching, and by day 15 they have a basic vocabulary of 3 calls. The Food-Begging Call is a thin, high-pitched ee-ee-ee (4) or srri (183) that is used throughout nestling period. Contact Calls begin at day 11, at first a vibrant tchi or tchie, developing by day 12 into tchee, tzee, or a nasal zweng or zwang, (XC147722); described for leucorhoa as “like the twanging of a very stiff bit of wire against iron” (29: 330). The Contact Call is frequently given after young have left the nest and are still being fed by parents (4, DJTH). Alarm Calls are first heard on day 13 as an unmusical tchuk, changing over next few days to tuc or tac. At about 1 month, fledglings develop Quiet Subsong (4).

Vocal Array

Songs

Descriptions are from (4), except where noted. Although three types of song, two subsongs and six calls were described (4), combinations and gradations are possible and it can even be difficult to differentiate between songs and calls.

Territorial, or Loud Song. As described by 4, often consists of up to three sections, the first with 1 or 2 notes, the second with 2 or 3 but up to 10 rapidly repeated notes, and a third section that often repeats the first, usually more quietly. However, though each male's song has some constant elements, songs vary widely in composition, volume and rate of delivery (2). Song phrases are quite short, but may be repeated with variations as many as 10 times in one song burst. Scratchy, harsh elements are commonly incorporated, as well as a variety of ‘snaps, crackles and pops’ that are audible only at close quarters. A long recording here ( ) illustrates the variety of phrases and timing.

Songs are sometimes divided into Short and Long (167); short forms are typical of low Song-flights, while song is longer and more continuous in undulating Song-flights (2, XC472214; see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior).

There is remarkable variation in rate of singing and song content both within and among individuals, both in refrains and in the scratchy elements, although each male has several constant phrases in his repertoire (183). Territorial Song often includes mimicked vocalizations of other species, particularly their alarm calls (examples here). Species mimicked in the United Kingdom included 8 local breeders, 10 regular visitors, 21 occasional visitors, 2 vagrants, and 2 species not recorded at the study sites (184, 4); mimicry of non-avian sounds included the squeal of young rabbit and squeak of a pulley on a flagpole. In the Balkans, bill-clattering of the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) is mimicked, perhaps by libanotica (2). Observations suggest that mimicked calls can be recalled months after they were last heard (4).

Perched Song. Usually short, with long intervals between songs. This is an assemblage of calls, whistles, and rattles, often incorporating mimicry of other species.

Subsong in Northern Wheatear is not a developmental stage of adult song, but rather is an identifiably different form of adult vocalization, employed in contexts different than for the songs described above. It is usually sung in the absence of intruders. Two types were recognized (4), but because of very low volume and gradation they are difficult to distinguish in the field.

Quiet Subsong. A rambling, often rapid, warble of individual notes, some harsh and scratchy, some squeaky, and others sweet and piping. Mimicry of other species may be included. Quiet Subsong is used most often in sexual situations throughout the breeding season by both male and female, but also by juveniles, as well as by males before arrival of females.

Loud Subsong. A harsher version, with more scratchy notes. Though louder, it is still quiet relative to Territorial Song. Because it is used in aggressive situations it has also been called a “battle song” (167).

Conversational Song. Has the same basic structure as Territorial Song, but is quieter and more musical, with a repeated eu twirra, zeewirru, zeeu widdlu yu and lacking harsh, scratchy, or vibrant notes. Usually given by males in close contact with females, who may answer with Quiet Subsong. The female may leave the nest after her male sings quietly at the cavity entrance.

Calls

Bree Call. A vibrant call used by both sexes, usually when together. It may function as a contact or location note with sexual overtones, as when occasionally used in intervals of displays that lead up to copulation. Males use the Bree Call as a prefix to song delivered either in Song Flight (see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior) or from the ground, but it is rarely used in aggressive situations.

Tuc (or Chack) Call. This harsh call is the most common call given by adults, older juveniles, and first-winter individuals of both sexes. The call is most commonly given as a loud, harsh, double tuc-tuc, with intervals of 2–3 s between each note, but may also be given quietly as a single element ( ). Though primarily a signal of alarm or warning, it is used in variety of circumstances: in low-intensity chases between individuals; in more intense territorial disputes; in intervals of song contests; in gaps in song phrases on ground or in flight; in fights with intruders; when an intruder is in the vicinity of caller or the nest; in any situation that generates sexual and aggressive excitement, alarm, or fear; and, by the male, when the female is searching for nest sites or building a nest.

Weet Call. Another indicator of excitement, used during breeding season by both sexes when expressing anxiety or fear related to adults, nest, eggs, or young. It is often combined with tuc-tuc notes). The combined weet-tuc notes ( ) are used in a wider variety of situations than are the tuc notes alone. Intensity and volume of the call, and of accompanying bobs and tail flashing, increases with proximity of threat and progression of the nesting cycle. At highest intensity, weets (with no tucs) may be given at rate of > 80/min (2).

Rattle Call, or tetetetete Call. A hostile call, used by a male as he swoops 1–2 cm over female’s head if she has been inactive for about 30 min during nest-building; and used by female when her mate fails to attack an intruder. Both sexes may use this in flying attacks against other species or conspecifics.

Tset Call. Protracted rhythmic series of tset-tset notes; slightly accelerated, more intense form of Tuc Call. Given in high excitement near nest or young (2).

Nest Call. A very quiet prrt given by female while incubating and with young nestlings; ceases by 10 days, once young are able to see parents approaching down the nest hole (2).

Geographic Variation

No dialects identified in Europe (2), but information on geographical variation across the entire range is very limited. The Tuc call as given by leucorhoa has been described independently by various researchers as Tac (4), Chack (185, DJTH), or Check (76). Voice seems to be deeper farther south in the breeding range (186).

Phenology

Territorial Song and Song Flights (Behavior: Agonistic Behavior) begin after birds are mated (4), in far northern regions almost immediately after arrival (2, 84). Males start to sing before sunrise; song flights may occur in darkness. After a break for foraging at sunrise, there is often a bout of preening (4), and singing is resumed. Song is interspersed with foraging through the rest of the day (1).

Males sing more frequently during fertile periods of their mates, though not significantly so (n = 12) (187); song is most intense during egg-laying and incubation (4). Males sing very little once eggs have hatched, but those in condition to attempt a second brood start singing again a day or two after juveniles leave the nest (4).

Many of the vocalizations used during breeding are also used throughout the non-breeding season, evidently for defense of individual territories. Some older males spend up to 10% of their time singing in overwintering areas (188). Both sexes use Quiet Subsong while holding territories on migration (4), and females occasionally use it in winter quarters, albeit less often than males (189, 4).

Daily Pattern of Vocalizing

Songs may be heard throughout daylight hours (4). Males are well known to sing frequently during dawn and dusk when females are incubating, the so called ‘night song’ (190; T. Pärt, personal communication) Cold weather and high winds appear to inhibit singing, while on days with little or no wind some males sing regularly; in one instance, a male sang 141 refrains in 27 min. (4).

Places of Vocalizing

Other than during Song Flights, most singing is from low perches or the ground, though high perches are also used (such as utility poles in Arctic regions; DJTH). Territorial Song and Perched Song are normally delivered from low perches, whereas Conversational Song is used at nest entrances. Subsongs are also delivered from low perches and, occasionally, from the ground. Females use Quiet Subsong at the nest. Tset Calls are given either while standing or flying.

Sex Differences

Females are not known to sing Territorial Songs, and their use of Subsong is less frequent than by males.

Nonvocal Sounds

None known.

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