Photo: © goean. Northern or common wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) pair: note the female’s light brown plumage (left) in comparison to the male’s black mask and wings


Often travelling thousands of miles from its winter home to summer breeding grounds, the northern wheatear’s aviary setting should ideally reflect its need for space, says Bill Naylor, if you’re to keep this active bird suitably entertained


IN NORTHERN Europe, the white conspicuous rump on a small ground-dwelling grey and white songbird is enough to identify it as one of our earliest summer visitors: the northern, also called the common, wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe).

It is the most wide ranging of the wheatears, wintering in Africa and migrating to breed though most of Europe and Asia. Its range has extended east and west, and it now breeds in northern Canada and Alaska. The Greenland race (O. o. leucorrhoa), a larger, more colourful bird, also visits the UK, arriving in about April on one of its stopovers on its 8,700-mile (14,000km) migration to its breeding grounds in Greenland and Canada.

Frank Meaden kept this race and remarked on its more intense plumage and size, which distinguishes it from the northern wheatear. He found that the requirements in captivity for the Greenland race and northern wheatear were identical. Although the wheatears are now classified with the flycatchers, the former was once considered to be related to the thrushes. It’s easy to see why.

Notable names

The male’s black mask and wings are easy to identify, while the female, like all wheatears, is generally light brown except for a white eye stripe, white rump and black primaries.

It also has a much fuller body shape and rounder head than your typical flycatcher, and its numerous old country names like “Clodhopper” and “Furze chat” comply with that. “Chak bird” and “Check bird” derive from its characteristic “Chack-chack” call. “Coney chuck” comes from its habit of hiding and nesting in rabbit (coney) burrows. Wheatear is thought to be similar to another old country name “Straw mouse” linked to the ripening of wheat. But this is far off the mark. The name wheatear actually combines two Anglo-Saxon words “hwit” and “oers”, the polite translation being “white backside”. The names “White tail” and “White rump” are still used in Norfolk and Cornwall respectively.

It is curious that the wheatear’s long legs have never earned it a nickname, because its habit of speedily hopping along among heather and other ground cover is a notable wheatear characteristic. When it does fly, it almost skims the top of ground cover.

Spring visitor

This species will cover distances of 8,000 miles (12,900km) or more during its twice yearly migrations. The first wave of males arrive on the south coast in early March, with others appearing up until May. Older birds show up before the younger ones, which are then followed by the females.

It’s a mystery why the wheatear arrives in the UK so early prior to breeding. It often loiters in low-lying or coastal areas for several weeks, before moving inland and heading northwards to its ideal breeding location, which is open rocky country, moorland and heath.

An aviary ideally should replicate this type of habitat with minimal perches and lots of ground cover. Ensure adequate space is given to accommodate this active, restless songbird. Vertical posts or tree stumps will provide vantage points for the male to sing and announce his claim to a territory.

The ground in an aviary should be well drained and not prone to waterlogging.  Barren pebbled areas attract wheatears in the wild and a combination of shingle, sand and gravel on the aviary floor will provide the correct type of dry area these birds prefer.

Nutritious and crunchy

In the wild, wheatears are almost entirely insectivorous, eating even large insects, but they are particularly fond of moths, grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars. In captivity they take mealworms and wax moth larvae, but they especially like locusts and crickets. Individuals vary on the amount of insectivorous mixture they eat. Some like grated cheese, but others won’t touch it. Small snails are consumed and these are a good source of calcium when breeding. Elderberries can be offered in autumn.

In the wild, babblers and other insectivorous migratory birds, like wheatears, switch to berries prior to migration to build up fat stores that sustain them on their arduous journey. This is good insurance, because wheatears are known to lose a third of their weight following migration.

Family time

Intense fighting among captive wheatears will break out, sometimes resulting in death, when the hen is not ready to receive the male’s attention. Captive pairs are often separated in adjoining flights outside of the breeding season. The male will sing a warbling song, sometimes including excerpts from other birds’ songs, provided they are not in the area. This is to enrich their vocabulary, not to attract the songs’ owner.

The male displays to the hen by fluttering his tail and quivering his wings. Only when she is responsive and shows excitement, should she be allowed into the flight with the male. In the wild, the nest is usually built in a cranny or hole in the ground. Rabbit burrows are a favourite location and sometimes holes in dry stone walls are used. In an abandoned rabbit burrow, the nest is located about 46cm (18in) inside.

In Victorian times, when songbird keeping was popular and bird catching was at its height, the preferred method of catching wheatears was to set net traps inside rabbit burrows. Even when individuals are not breeding, the burrow and other holes are used as a refuge where they can retreat when danger threatens.

The nest is untidy and loosely constructed by both the male and female. It consists of grass, rootlets, leaves and moss, and is lined with rabbit fur and feathers. Three, four or even five to six pale blue unmarked eggs are laid in April or May and incubated by the female for 14 days. Sometimes the male will take part in the incubation duties.

Occasionally there is a second clutch, but usually only one. When they first hatch, the nestlings have long grey down. Wild youngsters are fed exclusively on invertebrates. In captivity, rearing food includes chopped up mealworms, newly hatched locusts, woodlice and wax moth larvae. Young leave the nest at about two weeks and feed independently at 26 days. By this time, they have mottled and spotted brown plumage similar to that of young thrushes. Even at this early age, the telltale white rump is very evident.

This species is solitary by nature and when family parties break up, the young birds are rarely seen together. Although they migrate in large groups, there is evidence that some wheatears overwinter in the UK, and they have been spotted in November and December. In autumn, after the annual moult, the male resembles the hen and he is less hyper than at other times of the year.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.


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