AppearanceThe whinchat is a short-tailed bird, moving on the ground with small, rapid hops and frequently bobbing and flicking its wings and tail. It is similar in size to its relative the European robin, being 12 to 14 cm long and weighing 13 to 26 g. Both sexes have brownish upperparts mottled darker, a buff throat and breast, a pale buff to whitish belly, and a blackish tail with white bases to the outer tail feathers.
The male in breeding plumage has a blackish face mask almost encircled by a strong white supercilium and malar stripe, a bright orange-buff throat and breast, and small white wing patches on the greater coverts and inner median coverts.
The female is duller overall, in particular having browner face mask, pale buffy-brown breast, and a buff supercilium and malar stripe, and smaller or no white wing patches. Males in immature and winter plumage are similar to females, except that adult males retain the white wing patches all year round.
DistributionThe whinchat is a migratory species breeding in Europe and western Asia from Ireland and northern Portugal east to the Ob River basin near Novosibirsk, and from northern Norway south to central Spain, central Italy, northern Greece, and the Caucasus Mountains.
StatusFairly common across its wide range, the whinchat is classified as a species of "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
HabitatThe whinchat is a largely solitary bird though it may form small family groups in autumn. It favours rough low vegetation habitats such as open rough pasture or similar minimally cultivated grassland with scattered small shrubs such as hawthorn, and bracken or heather stands on rock-strewn ground. It also commonly inhabits new and clear-felled conifer plantations until the new tree crop is about five to six years old and a metre or two tall. It always needs at least a few perching points to scan from for food and for use as song posts.
ReproductionBreeding takes place in late April and May. The nest is built solely by the female, and is made of dried grasses and moss, and lined with hairs and fine bents. It is built on the ground, hidden in dense low vegetation, often at the foot of a bush. The female lays and incubates a clutch of four to seven eggs which hatch after eleven to fourteen days.
Both parents bring food to the young which leave the nest ten to fourteen days later, while still too young to fly. The chicks fledge at seventeen to nineteen days after hatching and remain largely dependent on the parents for a further two weeks.
FoodWhinchats are insectivorous, feeding largely on insects, but also consume a wide range of other invertebrates including spiders, small snails and worms. They also eat small amounts of fruit such as blackberries, primarily in autumn. The birds like to perch on elevated spots such as shrubs, from where they make sallies to catch insects, mostly taken off the ground, but also flying insects. While so perched, males in particular frequently flick their tail and sometimes their wings to show the white tail and wing flashes, for display or territorial communication signals to other whinchats.
PredatorsWhinchats are short-lived, typically only surviving two years, to a maximum recorded of just over five years in the wild; breeding starts when birds are a year old. Predators include weasels, stoats, and small raptors such as the merlin and nest predators such as crows and magpies. Nests are also lost due to agricultural operations such as silage cutting or trampling by livestock, and are sometimes parasitised by the common cuckoo.
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