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Scrub Robins, Robin Chats, Forktails, Flycatchers, Bluethroats, Rock Thrushes, Robins, Redstarts, Magpie-Robins, Bush Chats, Stonechats and Wheatears

Recently, several species formerly classified in the Family Turdidae changed and are now included in the Muscicapidae.
Similar behaviours and genetic studies are the main causes of this new taxonomy.
They belong to the Old World species, and are distributed in Europe, Africa and Asia.

The birds of this family are rather small with species ranging from 10 to 22 cm long, and 4/8 to 25/42 grams in weight. They have short bill with wide base and small hook at tip, well adapted for catching insects of all sizes in flight.
Wings are more or less long and pointed, according to the migratory behaviour of each bird, and its feeding habits.
The plumage varies widely within this family, from dull colours (brown or grey), through black and white plumages, to bright coloured species, mainly found in Asia. 

Like numerous birds’ species, the Muscicapidae are threatened by habitat loss due to fragmentation, deforestation, clearing of forests and human developments. However, many species are able to adapt and exploit modified habitats, and even to colonize artificial areas such as plantations, parks and garden or cultivated fields.

Text by Nicole Bouglouan


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Blue-and-white Flycatcher - Cyanoptila cyanomelana
Dull-blue Flycatcher - Eumyias sordidus

Female is usually duller than male, brown and white, and immature is typically similar to her while juvenile have spotted plumage. This feature is shared with the Turdidae

Blue-and-white Flycatcher - Cyanoptila cyanomelana (second winter male right and female left)

Spotted Flycatcher

Muscicapa striata

The members of this family are mainly arboreal species, and frequent wooded and bushy areas, open arid areas with scattered small trees, dry thornscrub, woodlands of various types, primary evergreen forests, swamp-forest and mangroves, but also plantations, parks and gardens, and cultivated fields.
This type of wooded habitat provides perches for hunting. The Muscicapidae perform sallies from perches after flying preys, and forages on branches and among vegetation and foliage.
They often build their nest in trees or among the branches of bushes, or in hollows in tree trunks.

Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher

Cyornis tickelliae

African species frequent drier habitats, shrubby savannahs, bushlands and grassy plains with scattered trees. The larger Marico Flycatcher occurs in acacia savannahs.

Marico Flycatcher -

Bradornis mariquensis

Genus Ficedula has very large range, from Europe to Africa and in Asia. These species breed in the well-wooded forested habitats.

European Pied Flycatcher

Ficedula hypoleuca

During the migrations and after the breeding season, numerous species occur in wider variety of habitats.  The Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (Ficedula zanthopygia) frequents mangroves, while the Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina) breeds in the undergrowth and ranges to the limit of the treeline (Russia) and the subalpine evergreen zone (Japan).

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher - Ficedula zanthopygia
Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina

Muscicapidae are insectivorous, and stay long periods on exposed perch, waiting for flying preys. They perform rapid sallies to catch them. They often are alone or in pairs, even in small family groups, and numerous species join mixed foraging flocks. The birds gleaning among the vegetation are quiet and more secretive. But some species may be conspicuous by their behaviour, being very active and always moving, or calling.
The Afrotropical region’s species Melaenormis and Bradornis, are mainly ground feeders, and frequently hunt from perches or other structures.

Southern Black Flycatcher - Melaenornis pammelaina
Marico Flycatcher - Bradornis mariquensis

Most Muscicapidae forage by day, but many flycatchers in Europe and Asia are also active and hawk insects at the end of the day, well into dusk. The Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) feeds after dark on insects attracted to the streetlamps.
Adults and nestling flycatchers regularly regurgitate pellets of indigestible parts. The Spotted Flycatcher may produce one to six pellets per day.    

Spotted Flycatcher - Muscicapa striata

Many flycatchers flick the wings and jerk the tail in several situations. These movements are used as contact between mates, but also during aggressive displays or when the birds are foraging, in order to disturb the preys and to catch them easily. Such movements may be advertising signals to locate each others and maintain some distance between them.

Anxiety behaviour towards intruders is usually similar, and bill-snapping may be added in some situations such as territorial displays and aggressive behaviour.
The Cassin’s Flycatcher (Muscicapa cassini) adopts first an upright posture before a pre-flight horizontal posture. If alarmed, it flicks its tail and the closed wings with quick jerky movements. Then, it drops the wing tips andgives alarm calls.

Cassin’s Flycatcher

Muscicapa cassini

These birds are not usually aggressive, but several species chase the predators away from the nest-site, by mobbing the intruders, even raptors. The Northern Black Flycatcher (Melaenornis edolioides) mobs snakes such as cobras using an aggressive fluttering flight, calling and bill snapping.

Northern Black Flycatcher

Melaenornis edolioides

The breeding behaviour of the Muscicapidae seems to be a monogamous mating system for most species, however, some of them are polygamous, and others are probably co-operative breeders.
The Sooty Flycatcher (Muscicapa infuscata) has been observed with stable trios of adults including a pair and one adult more (breeding or non-breeding bird, or young of at least two years). In this case, the nest is built by the female(s), but all adults feed the chicks.

Sooty Flycatcher

Muscicapa infuscate

The breeding period is closely associated with availability of invertebrates and according to the rainy seasons in equatorial ranges where the birds breed twice annually during the rains, or during the short dry season between the rainy periods.

Breeding behaviour including pair formation, courtship and mating is well known for African and European species.
The Spotted Flycatcher sings actively and displays at suitable nest-site, in order to attract a female. The male adopts crouched posture with fluffed crown and throat feathers, and then, bows and moves the head in all directions, flicks the tail and shuffles around.

Spotted Flycatcher - Muscicapa striata

Courtship behaviour often involves feeding of the female by the male and also during the incubation.
The Semicollared Flycatcher (Ficedula semitorquata) feeds the female only at nest. She adopts a crouching posture and the male mounts and copulates without any preliminaries. After mating, it perches close to her and sways the head from side to side.

Semicollared Flycatcher

Ficedula semitorquata

The nest is usually an open cup, domed in few species. It is often placed in trees, holes in trunks of large branches. Spotted, European Pied and Collared Flycatchers favour this type of nests.

European Pied Flycatcher

Ficedula hypoleuca

The cup is on top of tree stump or in a fork, usually in dense foliage.
The Narcissus Flycatcher’s nest is behind peeling bark, or in piles of cut branches.  

Narcissus Flycatcher (Ficedula narcissina (Female left and male right)

Other species nest in thick vegetation, in mount of dead twigs, in creepers attached to stump or rock, in crevices or cliff ledges, in walls or in the shelter of boulders on the ground, and sometimes under the overhang of streambanks. Height is very variable, from ground-level up to 2, 6, 15 and 22 metres above the ground.
The nests are typically built by females, and made with twigs, small sticks, moss, dead leaves, plant fibres, rootlets, grass, pine needles and lichen, and finer materials for the lining such as feathers or plant down as in Cassin’s Flycatcher.  

Cassin’s Flycatcher 

Muscicapa cassini

Clutch size is usually 2-3 eggs in tropical and subtropical species, up to 7 or 10 in species which breed in temperate regions. Both sexes seem to share the incubation, except in Ficedula and Muscicapa species where female incubates alone, during 11-15 to 17-18 days. The longest periods are observed in Spotted and European Pied Flycatchers and some others.
Nestlings are altricial and fed by both parents. Fledging period is usually the same as incubation period.

Spotted Flycatcher

Muscicapa striata

The nest-defence is well developed. The European Pied Flycatcher attacks nest-predators by swooping-dives and calls. The larger intruders are mobbed away from the nest.

European Pied Flycatcher

Ficedula hypoleuca

Muscicapidae have not well developed vocalizations, but if several species are mostly silent outside the breeding season, the permanently territorial species sing all year round. The sounds are rather weak, a common mixture of trills, rattles and squeaks, and buzzy, twittering or churring notes.
However, some species such as the Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva) have complex, richer and more melodious song with loud, melodious, silvery advertising notes and made of several phrases with often individual variations.  

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Ficedula parva

These birds are primarily insectivorous, and the flycatchers that breed in temperate regions are largely migratory, whereas those of the tropical areas tend to be sedentary.
The Palearctic flycatchers are long-distance migrants and winter in the tropics. Many African species are sedentary and only perform local movements. The flycatchers of mainland Asia which breed in the Himalayas make altitudinal movements and reach lower elevation in winter.
Nomadism, seasonal and dispersive movements are recorded according to the range.     

Finally, it is necessary to talk about the species coming from the Family Turdidae and now included in the Muscicapidae.
The subfamily “saxicolinae” shows numerous morphological adaptations including upright posture, some short or long-tailed forms and broad-based bill with dense rictal bristles used for aerial flycatching. Others have narrow bill and few bristles adapted for gleaning from substrates.

Except for the bright coloured species with show bright breast patches or underparts, or opposition of black and white in several others, the plumages often are subtle, adapted to understorey habitats.     
Other species such as wheatears are terrestrial chats, and most of them are living in open, rocky or arid areas and do not favour wooded landscapes.

Desert Wheatear - Oenanthe deserti
White-crowned Wheatear - Oenanthe leucopyga
Some birds, such as the White-tailed Rubythroat (Luscinia pectoralis), performs displays in which they cock, shiver or fan the tail in order to expose the bright coloured rectrices, and stretch the neck to display the bright throat patch.

White-tailed Rubythroat

Luscinia pectoralis

European Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) flick their wings when alighting as advertising signal, thanks to the flashing white wing-coverts.
Aggressive postures emphasize the most coloured parts of the body. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) adopts an upright posture in order to display the red patch of the breast in front of intruders, rivals or females.

On the contrary, the male Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicatus) adopts a posture which enhances the rufous-chestnut undertail coverts, with cocked tail until it touches the nape, while giving a squeaky song.      
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula
Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicatus

Their feeding behaviour is almost similar, but differences occur in birds hunting also on the ground by hopping, running and walking. They perform less aerial behaviour than flycatchers, but are able to pursue flying insects.

Northern Wheatear

Oenanthe oenanthe

Breeding behaviours are not so different, and according to the species, the birds nest in trees, cliff ledges, holes in trees, on the ground under roots or between rocks. The nestlings are altricial and fed by both parents. Adults defend and care them together.
The Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) nests in rocky ledges in cliffs, and the Common Redstart favours cavities in monuments or walls. 

Blue Rock Thrush - Monticola solitarius
Common Redstart - Phoenicurus ochruros

As in Muscicapidae, some species migrate and others perform dispersions or altitudinal and seasonal movements.

But the main difference is the song. These birds have melodious and beautiful clear songs uttered during the breeding season, and at dawn and dusk. The most beautiful song is that of the Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos. When males arrive on the breeding areas in spring, they sing at night, and mainly in the middle of the night. Its song is powerful, rich and varied, often mentioned as the finest sound produced by any bird species.

Common Nightingale

Luscinia megarhynchos