The European Stonechat or Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) is a small passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, family Muscicapidae. They, with similar small species in the family, are often called chats.
The European Stonechat is somewhat smaller than the European Robin. Both sexes have distinctively short wings, shorter than those of the more migratory Whinchat and Siberian Stonechat. The summer male rubicola has black upperparts, a black head, an orange throat and breast, and a white belly and vent. It also has white patches on the sides of its neck, a small white scapular patch on the wings, and a very small white patch on the rump often streaked with black. The female has paler brown upperparts and head, and no white neck patches, rump or belly, these areas being streaked dark brown on paler brown, the only white being the scapular patch on the wings and even this often being buffy-white.
European Stonechats breed in heathland, coastal dunes and rough grassland with scattered small shrubs and bramble, open gorse, tussocks or heather. They are non-migratory or short-distance migrants, with part of the population moving south to winter further south in Europe and more widely in north Africa.
The male has a clicking call like stones knocking together, for which it was named. The song is high and twittering like a Dunnock.
Two doubtfully distinct subspecies are accepted: the Central European Stonechat S. r. rubicola in the south and east of its range, and the Western European Stonechat of western and NW Europe, notably the Atlantic coastal areas, S. r. hibernans. They are hardly different in appearance, but nDNA microsatellite fingerprinting reveals some degree of separation (Wink et al. 2002). Together, these two races are found throughout western, central and southern Europe, the extreme northwest of Africa and western Turkey.
It is closely related to some species, several of which look also much alike to it:
- Siberian Stonechat, Saxicola maura
- African Stonechat, Saxicola torquata
- Réunion Stonechat, Saxicola tectes
- Fuerteventura Chat, Saxicola dacotiae
In the past, these were generally considered conspecific with the European Stonechat; especially the first two and the present species were long lumped together as "Common Stonechat" (S. torquata). A new review adding mtDNA cytochrome b sequence and nuclear DNA microsatellite fingerprinting evidence (Urquhart & Bowley 2002, Wink et al. 2002) strongly supports their separation into distinct species. Note that molecular data was not acquired from Saxicola torquata torquata specimens but from S. t. axillaris; for a short time, the name S. torquata was thus erroneously used for the European Stonechat.
Together with the Siberian and Fuerteventura species it constitutes eastern and western representatives of an Eurasian lineage; the Asian and European populations separated during the Late Pliocene or Early Pleistocene, roughly 1.5-2.5 mya, and Fuerteventura was colonized by Western European of NW African birds somewhat later in the Early Pleistocene, about 1-2 mya (Wink et al. 2002).