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Northern Wheatear
Oenanthe oenanthe
– Family
Authors: Kren, Josef, and Amelia C. Zoerb

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Adult female Northern Wheatear; Nome, Alaska, June
Juvenile Northern Wheatear; Nome, Alaska, August.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Northern Wheatear in North America.

The Northern Wheatear has a wide breeding range that extends from northern Europe and Asia south to the Middle East and North Africa, and includes Iceland, Greenland, northeastern Canada, Alaska, and the Yukon. Four races are recognized, 2 in North America: O. o. oenanthe breeds in Alaska and northwest Canada, and O. o. leucorhoa in Greenland and northeast Canada. This species spends only a short time on its Nearctic breeding grounds: about 14 weeks in the northwestern part of the continent, and a few weeks more on the northeast coast and Greenland.

This may be the only regularly breeding passerine bird of North America that migrates to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, crossing either the Atlantic Ocean or the continent of Eurasia. Stragglers of both races have been recorded in at least 33 provinces and states of Canada and the United States. American breeding grounds have probably been occupied since the last glacial period (Voous 1960).

Because of the Northern Wheatear’s wide distribution, its habitat, diet, and breeding phenology are very diversified. Nevertheless, it is a typical bird of open and rocky places with limited vegetation, rarely occur-ring in areas with trees. A solitary species, it defends breeding and nonbreeding territories against conspecific and other passerine birds.

It shows strong fidelity to its breeding sites, allowing individuals to reestablish bonds with theirmate of the previous year. Because the Northern Wheatear inhabits remote regions of North America, it is little affected by human disturbances.

The Northern Wheatear is a poorly studied species in North America; to date, no extensive study of its natural history has been done on this continent. Incomplete data on distribution, arrival, and breeding biology were published in several articles and books on birds of specific geographical areas. The most complete summaries of the Northern Wheatear’s life history in the Old World are provided by Cramp (1988) and Glutz von Blotzheim and Bauer (1988).