Australian Chats (Epthianuridae)
Suborder Passeri (Oscines)
Small, rotund, active birds with short tails, slender bills, and upright stance, sexually dimorphic with males often brightly colored
4.3–5.5 in (11–14 cm); 0.3–0.6 oz (9–18 g)
Number of genera, species
2 genera; 5 species
Desert, semi-arid, and coastal shrublands
Endangered: 1 subspecies; Critically Endangered: 1 subspecies of same species; Lower Risk (Least Concern): 1 subspecies
Australia, except for northern and eastern coasts, and including Tasmania
Evolution and systematics
Australian chats resemble the muscicapid chats of Eurasia and Africa in appearance and behavior. Australian chats are related to the honeyeaters on the basis of their brush tongues. This relationship was confirmed in the 1980s and 1990s, and indeed they are now usually classified within the Meliphagidae. Honeyeaters and chats are related to a range of other largely Australian families such as the Petroicidae (Australian robins) and Maluridae (fairy-wrens).
Four species of chats are monotypic, probably because they are highly mobile around often-extensive ranges. The yellow chat (Epthianura crocea), in contrast, shows a series of well-differentiated and localized populations. It inhabits local wetlands, some of which are transient, in arid and semi-arid regions.
Australian chats are small birds with longish delicate legs. Bills are fine and, in some species, slightly decurved. Like the honeyeaters, they have brush tips to their tongues. The gibberbird (Ashbyia lovensis) is larger and more robust than the other species.
Males are brightly or conspicuously colored in the breeding season, with yellow, orange, or red underparts. The male white-fronted chat (Epthianura albifrons) is black, white, and gray. Juveniles, immatures, females, and, in some species, nonbreeding males show more subdued plumages.
Chats occur throughout Australia, with the exception of the forested north and east coasts, and southwestern Tasmania. Orange (Epthianura aurifrons) and crimson (E. tricolor) chats are found throughout the center from the west coast to the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range and from the south coast to the tropics. However, in the moister parts of this range, they are irregular visitors. The white-fronted chat is found across southern Australia and is the only chat in Tasmania. The stony deserts of central Australia are where gibberbirds are found.
Yellow chats display one of the most scattered distributions of any bird species. One subspecies (macgregori) is restricted to a tiny range near the Fitzroy River on the central Queensland coast. A second subspecies (tunneyi) is found only in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The dominate subspecies occurs in isolated populations scattered across the Kimberley region of western Australia, across Northern Territory, and into western Queensland. Reports in northeastern South Australia may refer to small local populations or vagrants.
Chats are most strongly associated with chenopod shrubland, especially saltbush (Atriplex), bluebush (Maireana), and samphire (Halosarcia). They also occur in neighboring semi-arid woodland or shrubland, which is often dominated by acacias. Gibber plains, the home of the gibberbird, are stony deserts with a
sparse cover of grass and saltbush. Yellow chats typically inhabit low vegetation close to swamps, floodplains, and bore drains.
Chats typically occur in small, loose flocks, but pair up during the breeding season. They may defend breeding territories, though a detailed study of the white-fronted chat suggested that males defend the nest and their mate rather than a territory. They display in flight and from perches, where they dip their tails and raise the colorful feathers on their heads or back ends. Calls are mostly simple and metallic, with pretty twittering or piping songs, and, when threatened, harsh churring calls. Crimson and orange chats are highly mobile, displaying a north-south seasonal migration, as well as nomadic movements in response to local rainfall. Chats seem unable to drink saline water. During dry times, they may reach the coast. The other species may be more sedentary, but they also show poorly understood movements in response to local conditions.
Feeding ecology and diet
Insects and spiders are the principal food of the Australian chats, and are usually captured on the ground or from low shrubs. White-fronted chats also occasionally eat gastropods, crustaceans, and seeds. This species gleans its prey from the ground, dry and wet, or from shallow water, and may run after aerial prey. They rarely capture flying insects. The other chats show similar foraging methods, while seeds are a more important component of the diet of gibberbirds. Crimson chats also take nectar.
Although there are detailed studies of the breeding biology of the white-fronted and the crimson chats, the breeding biology of the other species is less well known. This account is based mainly on the white-fronted chat. Chats have long breeding seasons, peaking in late winter and spring (August–November), and breeding again after the rainy season in late summer and fall (March–April). Up to five attempts may be made in a season. There is no evidence of polygamy or cooperative breeding among the chats. Nests are usually placed 1–4 ft (0.3–1.2 m) from the ground in small bushes, often saltbush or bluebush, and occasionally on the ground. Nests are cupshaped, and made from grass, rushes, twigs, and plant fiber, and sometimes with mammal hair or fur and feathers. Eggs are fleshy or pinkish white with small reddish spots at the larger end. Clutches are of two to four eggs, maximum five (mean of 3.1 for white-fronted chats and 2.7 for crimson chats). Both males and females incubate the eggs, which hatch at 13–14 days. Both parents brood and feed the young, with a rate of seven visits per parent per hour. Young fledge at about 14 days in white-fronted chats, and a few days earlier in crimson and orange chats. Approximately 30% of nests succeed. Most failures are due to predation, and known predators include cats, foxes, snakes, and ravens. A small proportion of nests are parasitised by the Horsefield's bronze cuckoo (Chrysococcyx basalis).
Two subspecies of yellow chats are Endangered (one Critically Endangered) due to loss and degradation of their habitats. The third subspecies is secure as are all other species. Overgrazing and increased salinity in inland Australia may have benefited several species.
Significance to humans
Chats may have little significance to humans, although orange and crimson chats are conspicuous and colorful birds observed by many desert travelers.
List of SpeciesCrimson chat
Epthianura tricolor Gould, 1841, Liverpool Plains, New South Wales, Australia.
other common names
English: Tricolored chat, crimson tang, red canary; French: Epthianure tricolore; German: Scharlachtrugschmätzer; Spanish: Curruca Carmesí.
4.7 in (12 cm); 0.4 oz (11 g). Brownish upperparts with white throat and crimson crown and underparts.
Inland, western, and southern coasts of Australia, may break out into southeastern and eastern Australia.
Arid and semi-arid shrubland with saltbush, acacia, or other shrubs; occasionally, grassland or farmland.
Small but highly mobile flocks in nonbreeding season. Metallic, whistling, and twittering calls.
feeding ecology and diet
Takes insects and other invertebrates from the ground and low shrubs, occasionally from the air. Eats seeds and probes flowers for nectar.
Breeds as loosely associated pairs. Builds cup nest in low shrubs up to 3 ft (0.9 m). Clutches are of two to five eggs; incubation by both sexes for 10–14 days; fledges at 10 days. Both parents brood and feed young, and show distraction displays.
Not threatened. Common and widespread, but numbers vary greatly at any locality.
significance to humans
An attractive bird often observed by desert visitors.
Epthianura lovensis Ashby, 1911, Leigh Creek, South Australia.
other common names
English: Gibber chat, desert chat, desert bird; French: Epthianure d'Ashby; German: Wüstentrugschmätzer; Spanish: Curruca Desértica.
5 in (13 cm); 0.65 oz (18 g). Yellow cheek, throat, and underparts; crown and upperparts are sandy brown and used as camouflage on stony terrain.
Borders of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and Northern Territory in central Australia.
Gibber plains, which are sparsely vegetated, stony deserts, and occasionally claypans.
Singly, in pairs, and small flocks. Run along ground and bob tail. Piping and twittering calls, attractive song.
feeding ecology and diet
Gleans invertebrates from ground and sometimes from the air. Eats seeds.
Breeds mostly in spring, but may at other times as well. Cupshaped nests made in depressions in ground. Clutches are of two to four eggs; most aspects of breeding poorly known.
Not threatened. Has possibly benefited from grazing by livestock.
significance to humans
Major, R.E. "Breeding Biology of the White-fronted Chat Ephthianura albifrons in a Saltmarsh near Melbourne." Emu 91 (1991): 236–49.
Major, R.E. "Flocking and Feeding in the White-fronted Chat Ephthianura albifrons: The Relationship between Diet, Food Availability and Patch Selection." Australian Journal of Ecology 25 (1991): 395–407.
Parker, S.A. "The Tongues of Ephthianura and Ashbyia." Emu 73 (1973): 19–20.
Williams, C.K. "Ecology of Australian Chats (Ephthianura Gould): Reproduction in Aridity." Australian Journal of Zoology 27 (1979): 213–229.
Williams, C.K. and A.R. Main. "Ecology of Australian Chats (Ephthianura Gould): Aridity, Electrolytes and Water Economy." Australian Journal of Zoology 25 (1977): 673–691.
Hugh Alastair Ford, PhD