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Wheatear

WHEATEAR, a bird's name, perhaps of doubtful meaning, 1 though J. Taylor, the " water poet " (d. 1654), in whose writings it seems first to occur, and F. Willughby, explain it (in the words of J. Ray, the latter's translator) as given " because [in] the time of wheat harvest they wax very fat." The wheatear, Saxicola osnanthe, is one of the earliest migrants of its kind to return to its home, often reaching England at the end of February and almost always by the middle of March. The cock bird, with his bluish grey back and light buff breast, set off by black earcoverts, wings, and part of the tail, is rendered still more conspicuous by his white rump as he takes short flights in front of those who disturb him, while his sprightly actions and gay song harmonize so well with his delicately-tinted plumage as to render him a welcome object to all who delight in free and open country. When alarmed both sexes have a sharp monosyllabic note that sounds like chat; and this has not only entered into some of the local names of this species and of its allies, but has caused all to be frequently spoken of as " chats." The nest is constantly placed under ground; the bird takes advantage of the hole of some other animal, or the shelter of a clod in a fallow-field or a recess beneath a rock. A large amount of soft material is therein collected, and on them from 5 to 8 pale blue eggs are laid.

The wheatear has a very wide range throughout the Old World, extending in summer far within the Arctic Circle, from Norway to the Lena and Yana valleys, while it winters in Africa beyond thi Equator and in India. But it also breeds regularly in Greenlai and some parts of North America. Its reaching the former and t eastern coast of the latter, as well as the Bermudas, may possibly explained by the drifting of individuals from Iceland ; but far mo interesting is the fact of its continued seasonal appearance in Alas! without ever showing itself in British Columbia or California, an 1 The vulgar supposition of its being an euphemism of an AngloSaxon name (cf. Bennett's ed. of White's Nat, Hist. Selborne, p. 69, note) must be rejected until evidence that such a name ever existed be adduced. It is true that " whittaile " (cf. Dutch Witsiaart and French Culblanc) is given by Cotgrave in 1611 ; but the older names, according to Turner, in 1544, of " clotburd " ( = clod-bird) and smatch ( = chat) do not favour the usual derivation. " Fallow-chat " is another old name still locally in use, as is " coney-chuck."

without ever having been observed in Kamchatka, Japan or China, though it is a summer resident in the Tchuktchi peninsula. Hence it would seem as though its annual flights across Bering's Strait must be in connexion with a migratory movement that passes to the north and west of the Stanoyoi range of mountains.

Many species- more or less allied to the wheatear have been de- ril>ed. Some eight are included in the European fauna; but the majority are inhabitants of Africa. Several of them are birds of the desert; and here it may be remarked that, while most of these exhibit the sand-coloured tints so commonly found in animals of like habitat, a few assume a black plumage, which, as explained by H. B. Tristram, is equally protective, since it assimilates them to the deep shadows cast by projecting stones and other inequalities of the surface.

Amongst genera closely allied to Saxicola are Pratincola, which comprises among others two well-known British birds, the stonechat and whinchat, P. rubicola and P. rubetra, the latter a summermigrant, while the former is resident as a species, and the black head, ruddy breast, and white collar and wing-spot of the cock render him a conspicuous object on almost every furze-grown common or heath in the British Islands, as he sits on a projecting twig or Hits from bush to bush. This bird has a wide range in Europe, and several other species, more or less resembling it, inhabit South Africa, Madagascar, Reunion and Asia, from some of the islands of the Indian Archipelago to Japan. The whinchat, on the other hand, much more affects enclosed lands, and with a wide range has no very near ally. The wheatear and its allies belong to the sub-family Turdinae of the thrushes (q.v.). (A. N.)

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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