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


Systematics History

First described by Linnaeus in 1758 as Motacilla oenanthe.

Vieillot named the genus Oenanthe in 1816 (34). Synonyms for Oenanthe oenanthe (Linnaeus, 1758) include: Motacilla leucorhoa Gmelin, 1789; Motacilla vitiflora Pallas, 1811; Saxicola rostrata Hemprich et Ehrenberg, 1832; Saxicola libanotica Hemprich et Ehrenberg, 1832; Saxicola oenanthoides Vigors, 1839; Saxicola oenanthe argentea Lönnberg 1909; Oenanthe oenanthe schioeleri Salomonsen 1927; Oenanthe oenanthe integer Clancey 1950 (1).

Oenanthe oenanthe has in the past been considered conspecific with Somali Wheatear (Oenanthe phillipsi) (35), but the two do not appear to be particularly closely related (36). In addition, Oenanthe oenanthe has long been considered conspecific with the Atlas Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi) (e.g., 37). Its taxonomic status is still contentious, and available genetic evidence suggests very low divergence; mitochondrial DNA, both traditional sequence data (36) and whole mitochondrial genome data (38), show Oenanthe seebohmi as embedded within Oenanthe oenanthe, and fail to recover any of the subspecies as distinct genetically. The genetic results stand in contrast to strong difference in plumage, as well as ecological and vocal differences, which support recognition of Oenanthe seebohmi as a distinct species (see 9). Wang et al. (38) suggested that this discrepancy could be due to recent introgression and a subsequent sweep selecting for a single mitochondrial lineage; additional genetic data sampling the nuclear genome are needed to resolve the status of these taxa. In their assessment of the taxa, Shirihai and Svensson (9) noted the strong morphological differences, especially the black bib of adult males, the smaller size (proportionally shorter wings and long tail), and vocal differences, with Oenanthe seebohmi described as having longer but more measured and melodious song than Oenanthe oenanthe, as justifications for recognizing Oenanthe seebohmi as specifically distinct.

Geographic Variation

Populations breeding in arctic Canada, Greenland, and Iceland average larger than populations elsewhere in the species' range. Body size in Eurasian populations varies clinally (2), with larger size in Alaska, Yamal Peninsula (northern Russia), and Siberian tundra; and smaller in Crete, the Balkans, Transcaucasia, Iran, and Europe. Shape of wing and tail are related to migratory distance (31; see Appearance: Measurements).

Individuals in more northern populations tend to be slightly more rufous-tinged in fresh autumn plumage (9).


Three subspecies, diagnosed on the basis of plumage color and pattern (15). Note that Ripley (39) recognized six subspecies, two of which are here accorded species status (see Related Species). Thumbnail diagnoses herein are for the male in breeding plumage. For measurements, see Appendix 1.


Northern Wheatear (Greenland) Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Motacilla leucorhoa Gmelin, 1789 (40). Type locality = Senegal River. Includes Oenanthe oenanthe schioleri Salomonsen, 1927.


Breeds in arctic and northeastern Canada east through Greenland and Iceland to Jan Mayen and the Faroe Islands; overwinters in west-central Africa.

Identification Summary

Ventrum (including throat) rusty buff; underwing coverts buff; dorsum brownish gray; black tail band wide; larger than other subspecies.


Northern Wheatear (Eurasian) Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe/libanotica


Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthe Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Motacilla oenanthe Linnaeus, 1758 (41). Type locality originally given as "Europae apricis lapidosis" but restricted to Sweden by Hartert (42). Includes Saxicola rostrata Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1832; Oenanthe oenanthe oenanthoides Vigors, 1839; Oenanthe oenanthe argentea Lönnberg, 1909; and Oenanthe oenanthe integer Clancy, 1950.


Breeds from northern and central Europe east across northern Eurasia to eastern Siberia, extending east to Alaska and northwestern Canada (Yukon); overwinters in Central and East Africa.

Identification Summary

Like leucorhoa, but ventrum creamy buff and dorsum grayer (less brown); averages smaller.


Oenanthe oenanthe libanotica Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Saxicola libanotica Hemprich and Ehrenberg, 1833 Type locality given as "Syria" but later restricted to Lebanon by Mackworth-Praed and Grant (43). Includes the proposed subspecies Oenanthe oenanthe nivea, southern Spain and Balearic Island, and Oenanthe oenanthe virago, islands in the Aegean in southeastern Europe (35).


Breeds from Iberia east through the Middle East and southern Asia from Kazakhstan, where there may be some mixing with O. o. oenanthe (44), south to northern Iran and east to southern Transbaikalia, Mongolia, and northern China. Reaches Siberia where it mixes with O. o. oenanthe (44). Overwinters in sub-Saharan Africa.

Identification Summary

Like nominate oenanthe, but overall paler and more silvery gray, with a narrower black tail band.

Related Species

Oenanthe oenanthe is most likely sister to Atlas Wheatear (Oenanthe seebohmi), as the two are indistinguishable based on mitochondrial DNA sequence data (36, 38). Outside of these two taxa, however, relationships are less clear; they may be most closely related to Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina) (45), with which they share various morphological, ecological, and ethological characters (36); or they may be closely related to Somali Wheatear (Oenanthe phillipsi) (46, 47), which formerly was lumped with Oenanthe oenanthe (39); or they may be in a clade that includes Oenanthe isabellina as well as Buff-breasted Wheatear (Oenanthe bottae), Rusty-breasted Wheatear (Oenanthe frenata), and Capped Wheatear (Oenanthe pileata) (48).


The name Oenanthe derives from Greek words for ‘wine’ and ‘flower,’ referring to the spring return of the Northern Wheatear to Greece just as grapevines blossom. The common name ‘wheatear’ is unrelated to wheat or ears, but is rather a bowdlerized version of ‘white-arse,’ referring to the prominently visible white rump (49). Synonyms of the English name include Common Wheatear, Eurasian Wheatear, European Wheatear, Greenland Wheatear, Northern Wheatear, and Wheatear.

Fossil History

Information needed.

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