Chats and Robins

These birds fly down from a low perch to feed on insects on the ground but remain ready to fly back up to safety if disturbed. I call them fly down and snatch - FDAS feeders. This contrasts with the “fly out and catch” feeders which are rarely seen on the ground.

They are small insect eating birds ranging from shy, secretive birds of the forest to more confident woodland birds, some of which have adapted to live in areas of human habitation. The various groups indicate that they evolved at various times in different places in the world.

These birds provide an ideal example of how a focus on observable characteristics relating to habitat and behaviour can help the “birder” to see a range of birds listed in different families as a coherent group.

The families.

There is a degree of confusion about where they should be placed in the classification system. At one time they were included with Thrushes in family Turdidae but currently the IOC listing has them in family Muscicapidae.

Family Muscicapidae contains 123 species mainly known as Chats or Robins. (The remaining 171 species are known as Old World Flycatchers).

Family Turdidae has 5 species of Alethes, which I regard as early members of the Chats and Robins group, still listed by IOC in this family. Alethes and the Akalats are birds of East Africa and the bird guide for that region shows them both in the general group of Chats and Robins listed in family Muscicapidae.

Family Turdidae – has three species called Bluebirds which are Robin / Chat-like. They are found in North and Middle America.

Family Meliphagidae - has 4 species found in Australia, known as the Crimson, Orange, Yellow and White-fronted Australian Chats. They are placed at the end of this family listing. All the other species are Honeyeaters.

Family Petroicidae has 46 species which are known as Australasian Robins.

Family Incertae Sedis - Ornithologists are uncertain about the placement of 4 species found in the Americas and known as the Yellow-breasted, Red-breasted, Grey Throated and Rose-breasted Chats. The Yellow–breasted was earlier placed in family Parulidae, New World Warblers. These birds are found in the tropical forests of Middle and South America where they seem to favour deep tangled undergrowth.

So I have 178 species in the Old World region and 7 species in the New World region giving a total of 185 birds which I currently regard as Chats and Robins.

Evolution and habitats.

About 55 mya a group of birds which ornithologists call Passeriformes began to evolve in Gondwanaland, possibly from the Piciformes and Coraciiformes. About 5 million years later two groups called Oscines and Sub-oscines began to appear. The primitive Oscines are all birds of Australasia. It is from this lineage that the Australasian Robins (47 mya) and the Akalats and Alethes (45 mya) appear to have evolved.

While this was happening in the Old World region, Sub-oscines in the New World region were evolving. In fact evidence suggests that this might have been as early as 54 mya. This lineage resulted in a major group of birds called the Tyrant Flycatchers and their presence might explain why very few Chats / Robin birds are found in the Americas. The few species which are found there are again forest and woodland birds.

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As this group of birds has evolved they have become less shy and secretive and the habitats they occupy have changed from the ancestral forests to woodland and then to open areas where they can be seen to perch without fear.

Living in the UK the most obvious example is the European Robin (left). This bird prefers the spruce woods in northern Europe, contrasting with its preference for parks and gardens in the British Isles.

Perhaps surprisingly Europe doesn't really have many other Robin or Chat like birds apart from the Common Nightingale, Bluethroat, Stonechats, the Whinchat and Redstarts which I treat separately. So the main regions of the world in which these birds have evolved are Africa and Australasia.

Africa.

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The following examples show the trend from small, secretive forest birds to medium sized confident birds of the open spaces as these birds evolved.

Akalats and Alethes. (13 species).

For me the story of these birds starts with Kenya, in East Africa. Two groups, which are actually very hard to see, are the Akalats and Alethes. They are small, shy, insectivorous birds, which nest and perch close to the ground (seldom higher than 1 m) in thick cover. They fly out from cover to catch insects but fly back into cover if alarmed.

The photograph of the Equatorial Akalat (right) was taken by Robert D in November 2010.

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We saw the Brown-chested Alethe (left) on a trail in the Kakamega Forest (1500-1700 m) in November the previous year.

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Robin-Chats. (10 species).

These are medium sized, shy birds Which are found in forest habitats at various altitudes, some quite high.

A few are found in more open areas. They nest on or close to the ground.

I photographed the White-browed Robin-Chat (right) at Lion Hill Lodge in Kenya.

White-winged Chats. (7 species).

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These are medium sized, reasonably confident birds found in wooded areas, rocky gorges and bushy hillsides. They forage on the ground and sing from prominent perches.

I photographed the Anteater Chat, Sooty Chat and the Mocking Cliff Chat (right) while we were birding in Kenya.

Australasia.

Australian Chats.

These are predominately terrestrial birds whichperch on low shrubs in various types of shrubland: saltbush, blue bush, acacia, and samphire. They nest close to the ground and appear to supplement their diet of insects with nectar. I don’t have any photographs of these birds.

Australasian Robins.

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Birds in this family are known not only as robins but as scrub-robins and flycatchers. They are found in wooded habitats, ranging from sub-alpine to tropical, and swampland to semi-arid scrubland. All are insectivores, although a few will also take seeds. They tend to cling side-ways on a low branch while they scan the ground below for prey.

The White-browed Robin (left) is endemic to Australia where it is found in forest, woodland and scrub often near water. This one was nesting about 2 metres of the ground in the forest edge at Emerald Creek, Cairns, Australia.

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The Eastern Yellow Robin (right) is a bird of the coastal and sub-coastal areas of Eastern Australia. It probably evolved in forested areas but has evolved to inhabit heaths and acacia scrub often near water. I photographed this one, in the typical side-ways pose, in more open forest at O’Reilly’s, Brisbane.

The Jacky Winter (below, left) is found in Australia and Papua New Guinea where its natural habitats are temperate forests, subtropical or tropical dry forests and shrubby vegetation. This one was in open woodland in Scheyville National Park, Sydney.

They prefer woodlands and scrub where there are trees and an abundance of flying insects, beetles, worms, and insect larvae. They dive for insects from a perch and take them either on the wing while in the air or by scooping them up as they fly low over the ground. Sometimes, they will stand and pounce onto their food.

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The Tomtit (right) is endemic to the islands of New Zealand, ranging across the main islands as well as several of the outlying islands. This one was photographed on Tiritiri Matangi, Island.

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They feed on small invertebrates such as beetles, caterpillars, spiders, moths, weta, earthworms and flies. Fruit is taken during the winter and autumn.

Most subspecies feed in vegetation, waiting on a perch and watching for prey.

North and Middle America.

Three species of Bluebird, listed in family Turdidae, are found in woodland and forest regions. They swoop down from an elevated perch to catch insects in the air and to pursue them on the ground.

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I photographed the Eastern Bluebird (left) in the Tuckahoe NP, New Jersey, USA.

The Western Bluebird (right) was found at the top of Mount Lemmon in Arizona. This bird is partial to mistletoe berries in the winter.

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The three Phoebes listed in family Tyrannidae favour similar habitats and feed in a similar manner but I have elected to leave them with the New World Flycatchers for the present.