Wednesday, 2nd May 2012
The Wheatear is a migrant from Africa that like the Swallow, visits Waterford every year to breed. A recent mention in this column to the fact that the latest recorded Wheatear in the British Isles was seen at Ballymacaw in December through to January 1971 prompted few e-mails asking for further information on this bird. The following might suffice.
Wheatear (Onanthe oenanthe). The name 'Wheatear' first appeared in in print 1591 as 'thrie whekeres' which is believed to be a misprint for 'wheteres. It was followed in 1653 by 'Wheatears'. Then in 1661 we read 'Wheat-ear is a bird peculiar to Sussex ... it is so called because fattest when the wheat is ripe … whereon it feeds' – they actually prefer insects and worms. By 1678 it had acquired a further two names, 'fallow-smich' and 'white-tail'. From these, the eighteenth century naturalist Pennant took 'Wheatear' which thereafter became the standard common name. The name in Irish is Clochrán – no doubt a reference to the rocky habitat that it likes to inhabit.
In his 'Ornithology' of 1678, Francis Willughby explained that the Wheatear is so called because “at the time of the harvest they wax very fat”. The name in fact derives from the Middle-English 'whiters', literally 'white arse' the word 'arse' was not at that time thought to be in any way vulgar. This refers to the bird's plumage. The rump and the base of the tail flash conspicuously white as the bird flies a little above the ground which also explains the name' 'white-tail'. The habitat and scratchy song of the bird have inspired such other names as chach, stone-chacher and hedge chicker. It is also known as fallow finch, furze chat and fallow smiters.
The official common name of this bird has recently been changed to the 'Northern Wheatear' due to the fact that it has a wide distribution in the world ranging from America, through Europe into Asia and beyond into the Orient.
Many other species of wheatear occur in many of these places and confusion existed when records of 'the Wheatear' were received as they might have been Pied Wheatear,
Hooded Wheatear, Mountain Wheatear, Capped Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Black Wheatear or any one of a dozen others. However, as only one commonly occurs in
Ireland, this is normally referred to simply as the Wheatear!
The Wheatear has a wide distribution in Waterford and is mainly to be found in the summer about rough rocky vegetation on the coast and in the mountains. It usually arrives early in the spring and mid-March sightings are not unusual and this is the case in 2009. It would be unusual to see one in October as they migrate to north Africa where the insect life is greater than that of Ireland at this time. They were commonly eaten in Britain at least up to the nineteenth century and in Italy up to the twentieth century. This is still probably the case with the latter.
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