Australian Robins (Petroicidae)

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Australian robins

(Petroicidae)

Class Aves

Order Passeriformes

Suborder Passeri (Oscines)

Family Petroicidae


Thumbnail description
Small, generally plump birds, with big heads and short tails, upright stance, long legs, and delicate feet, that prey on insects

Size
4–10 in (10–25 cm); 0.4–1.4 oz (12–38 g)

Number of genera, species
15 genera; 35 species

Habitat
Forests, woodlands, mangroves, and semiarid scrub

Conservation status
Endangered: 1 species; Vulnerable: 2 subspecies; Near Threatened: 1 subspecies

Distribution
New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific Islands; south and Southeast Asia

Evolution and systematics

Molecular data indicate Australian robins are not closely related to the robins and flycatchers of Eurasia and Africa (Muscicapidae). Rather, their similar appearance and behavior are adaptations to similar ecological niches. The Petroicidae belong within the major adaptive radiation of the endemic Australian passerines, which include lyrebirds and honeyeaters. Petroicidae's nearest relatives are not clear, and the family is probably quite ancient. The number of species and genera is undecided and separation into subfamilies poorly resolved, though scrub robins are clearly separate. The family name Eopsaltriidae also has been used but Petroicidae has precedence.

Physical characteristics

Most species of Australian robins are similar in structure, although distinct in plumage. The genus Petroica has males that are black or gray and white with pink to red breasts, whereas females are grayish brown. Related New Zealand forms lack the red coloring. Many other robins are black and white, and several species are gray and yellow. Almost all are plump with upright stances and resemble the Eurasian robins, flycatchers, and chats. They have small bills, prominent rictal (on the bill) bristles, and short tails. The scrub robins differ from the family in being larger with long tails. They forage and nest entirely on the ground.

Distribution

New Guinea has 25 species of Petroicidae and Australia 20 species. There are three species of Australian robins in New Zealand, and the scarlet robin (Petroica multicolor) is spread widely across the western Pacific. One species of Microeca is found only on the Tanimbar Islands of Indonesia. The flycatchers of Culicicapa occur as far as the Himalayas, Sri Lanka, China, and the Philippines.

Habitat

Most Australian robins are found in forests and woodlands, with the red-capped robin (P. goodenovii) occurring in semiarid scrub. A few species also occur in mangroves, whereas others may be found in agricultural regions, especially during winter.

Behavior

Pairs or family groups defend territories ranging from about 1 to 10 acres (0.5–4 ha) but expand their ranges out-side the breeding season. Many species engage in tail and wing flicking, especially when agitated, but the behavior also could be used to aid foraging. The flame robin (P. phoenicea) of upland Australia and the gray-headed flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis) show short distance and altitudinal migration. Songs are usually attractive whistling or piping notes with some harsh alarm calls.

Feeding ecology and diet

Australian robins employ the perch-and-pounce method of foraging, typically sitting on a low branch or sideways across a tree trunk before flying onto the ground to capture a beetle, larva, or other insect. Some species, such as the hooded robin (Melanodryas cucullata) often use artificial perches, such as fence posts or overhead wires. The Microeca flycatchers and the smaller Petroica species also sally from perches after flying insects, especially during warmer months. Scrub robins remain on the ground, from which they glean their insect prey. Spiders, earthworms, and, more unusually, mollusks, crabs, and leeches also are eaten.

Reproductive biology

Australian robins are probably all socially monogamous, with helpers in cooperative breeding occurring in a few species. These birds build neat, cup-shaped nests in a fork of a tree or on a horizontal branch. Lichen and strips of bark are often added to conceal them. Females build nests and incubate the eggs, although the females often are fed by the males. Clutches in most species are comprised of two or three eggs, although clutches containing only a single egg occur in some New Guinea species and in the southern scrub robin (Drymodes brunneopygia). Breeding biology is poorly known for many species. Many nests of the Australian robins suffer predation, especially from large birds, so that breeding success is often low.

Conservation status

The Chatham Islands black robin (P. traversi) was rescued from the brink of extinction by imaginative management. Many of the robins in Australia have suffered declines due to clearing and degradation of woodlands and forests for agriculture; they may experience difficulty moving between vegetation remnants and suffer increased nest predation due to their simplified habitat. Several New Guinea species are poorly known and may be threatened.

Significance to humans

The tame and trusting nature of Australian robins, as well as the bright colors and attractive songs of some species, make them favorites among bird watchers.

Species accounts

List of Species

Jacky winter
Scarlet robin
Eastern yellow robin
Gray-headed robin
Chatham Island black robin
Gray-headed flycatcher
White-winged robin
Southern scrub robin

Jacky winter

Microeca fascinans

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Sylvia leucophaea Latham, 1801, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Four subspecies.

other common names

English: Brown flycatcher; French: Miro enchanteur; German: Weisschwanzschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo Australiano de Cola Blanca.

physical characteristics

5–5.5 in (12.5–14 cm); 0.5–0.65 oz (14–18 g). Sandy crown and back, white throat and belly, brownish gray and white wings and tail, white around eye and black stripe through eye.

distribution

Most of Australia, except for central and western deserts, and northern Cape York; absent from Tasmania and Kangaroo Island. Also around Port Moresby, New Guinea.

habitat

Wide variety of woodlands and open scrub, lightly timbered farmland and occasionally in gardens.

behavior

Generally quiet but active and tame. Often wags tail side to side or spreads feathers. Sedentary or showing local movements. Song is a loud, repeated "peter-peter"; also makes whistling calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Mostly sallies for flying insects from a perch on a branch, fence post, or overhead wires but also pounces onto ground after

larvae, beetles, and worms, occasionally hovering just above the ground.

reproductive biology

Breeds from July to December and occasionally at other times. Nest is made of grass and roots and placed in a horizontal fork on a living or dead tree branch. Clutch of two to three pale blue eggs, blotched with brown and lavender. Eggs are incubated for 16–17 days. Young are fed by both parents and fledge at 14–17 days.

conservation status

Common in many parts of range but has declined in agricultural regions where most of the native vegetation has been lost or degraded.

significance to humans

Despite dull colors, the jacky winter's trusting and lively habits and distinctive song make it a popular bird.


Scarlet robin

Petroica multicolor

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Muscicapa multicolor Gmelin, 1789, Norfolk Island. Eighteen subspecies.

other common names

French: Miro écarlate; German: Scharlachschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo Australiano Carmín.

physical characteristics

5 in (13 cm); 0.4–0.5 oz (12–14 g). Some subspecies are smaller. Black throat, bill, and upperparts; white forehead, wing coverts, and under tail coverts.

distribution

Southwestern and southeastern Australia, including Tasmania, Kangaroo Island, and Norfolk Island. Widespread in the Pacific, including Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Bougainville.

habitat

Dry eucalypt forests and woodlands, with some understory. Forests, edges, clearings, and gardens on Pacific islands.

behavior

Perches in a conspicuous location, although usually quiet, and may flick wings and raise and lower tail, perhaps when agitated. Territorial in breeding season and wandering more widely at other times. Song is pretty, trilling "weecheedalee-dalee"; also makes ticking calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Mostly pounces onto ground from a low branch for insects and spiders. Also sallies for flying insects in warm weather and gleans from branches and occasionally foliage.

reproductive biology

Breeding season from August to January, with repeated attempts. Nest is made from bark and lichen and is placed in a tree fork or sometimes a shallow cavity. Usually three eggs in a clutch. Female is fed by male on nest, and both parents feed young. Incubation and fledging periods last about 15 days. Only 10% of nests succeeded in one New South Wales study.

conservation status

Common in many areas but has declined in agricultural regions due to habitat loss. Norfolk Island subspecies is classified as Vulnerable.

significance to humans

A popular bird with bird watchers.


Eastern yellow robin

Eopsaltria australis

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Motacilla australis White, 1790, New South Wales, Australia.

other common names

English: Yellow robin, gray-breasted robin, western yellow robin; French: Miro à poitrine jaune; German: Goldbauchschnäpper, Graumantelschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo Australiano Amarillo.

physical characteristics

6–7 in (15–17 cm); 0.6–0.8 oz (18–23 g). Yellow underparts with gray throat and grayish brown crown, head, and wings.

distribution

Eastern Australia from southern Cape York to southeastern Australia. Two well-defined forms in north and south, with clinal variation.

habitat

Rainforest, eucalypt forest and woodland, mallee (low, scrubby evergreen Eucalyptus trees found in western Australia) and acacia woodland.

behavior

Territorial in breeding season but expands home range in nonbreeding season. Fairly quiet and tame. Often perches sideways on trunks. Sedentary. Song comprised of piping notes and a "chop…chop" call, especially in early morning; harsher calls when threatened.

feeding ecology and diet

Pounces on ground from low perches to capture larvae, beetles, other insects, and spiders. Occasionally gleans from bark or sallies for flying insects.

reproductive biology

Breeds from July to January, with repeated attempts. Cupshaped nest placed in fork and made from bark, decorated with lichens, and lined with grass and dead leaves. Clutch contains two to three eggs, which are incubated for about 15 days. Female is fed by male while incubating, and young fed by both parents and sometimes helpers. Young fledge at 10–14 days. About a quarter to a third of nests are successful.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in wetter forests but less so in drier woodland; has declined in agricultural areas.

significance to humans

A familiar bush bird.


Gray-headed robin

Heteromyias albispecularis

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Pachycephala albispecularis Salvadori, 1876, New Guinea.

other common names

English: Ashy robin, black-cheeked robin; French: Miro cendré German: Farnschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo Australiano Terrestre.

physical characteristics

6–8 in (15–20 cm); 1.1–1.4 oz (31–40 g). Gray crown with medium-brown upperparts, dark brown wings with white-tipped secondary coverts, and grayish white underparts.

distribution

Northeastern Queensland, Australia, and mountains of New Guinea. Three subspecies in New Guinea and a well-defined one in Australia.

habitat

Rainforest, 2,500–8,000 ft (850–2,600 m) elevation in New Guinea, 800 ft (250 m) and up in Queensland.

behavior

Territorial and sedentary. Perches low on trunks and vertical saplings; often jerks tail up and down. Breeding females have a wing-flutter display. Song is a series of piping whistles, as well as harsh alarm calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Pounces onto insects and their larvae, centipedes, earthworms, and leeches.

reproductive biology

Breeding season is from August to January. Nest is an untidy cup, made of rootlets, tendrils, and twigs and covered with moss on the outside; nest is placed in climbing palms or sapling branches. Female builds nest, incubates eggs, and broods and feeds young, but she is fed by the male. Clutch comprised of one or two eggs, incubated for 17–19 days. Young fledge at 12–13 days. Young fledged from 53% of nests in one Queensland study.

conservation status

Not threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Chatham Island black robin

Petroica traversi

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Miro traversi Buller, 1872, Chatham Islands, New Zealand.

other common names

English: Chatham Islands robin, Chatham robin; French: Miro des Chatham; German: Chathamschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo de Chatham.

physical characteristics

5.5–6 in (13–15 cm); 0.8 oz (23 g). All black with stocky build.

distribution

Chatham Islands, New Zealand.

habitat

Scrubby forest on islands.

behavior

Tame and tolerant of human intrusion, but defends small territories while breeding.

feeding ecology and diet

Hops on ground or low branches, taking invertebrates, such as cockroaches and wetas, grubs, and worms.

reproductive biology

Breeds from October to January, with several attempts. Nests placed in tangles of low vines or in cavities in tree trunks and limbs, occasionally in old blackbird (Turdus merula) nests. Clutch is comprised of two, occasionally three, eggs. Incubated for 18 days, young fledge after 23 days and depend on parents for six more weeks.

conservation status

Endangered. Declined on Chatham Islands after European settlement due to loss of habitat and introduced mammals, such as rats and cats. By 1980, there were only seven birds, with just

one successfully breeding pair. All birds were moved to another island, and egg-manipulation and cross-fostering of eggs and young to warblers (Gerygone albofrontata) and tomtits (Petroica macrocephala chathamensis) allowed the population to recover to about 200 birds.

significance to humans

The rescue of the Chatham Island black robin from extinction attracted widespread interest in New Zealand, so much so that the death of the old breeding female ("Old Blue"), who was used to save the species, was announced in a press release from the Minister of Internal Affairs. A detailed account of the struggle to save what was then the rarest bird species in the world is told by David Butler and Don Merton (1992).


Gray-headed flycatcher

Culicicapa ceylonensis

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Platyrhynchus ceylonensis Swainson, 1820, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

other common names

English: Gray-headed canary flycatcher; French: Gobemouche à tête grise; German: Graukopf-Kanarienschnäpper; Spanish: Papamoscas Canario de Cabeza Gris.

physical characteristics

4–5.25 in (11–13 cm); c. 0.4 oz (11 g). Gray head, throat, and breast. Yellow back and belly; and dark grayish brown wings and tail.

distribution

Breeds patchily in India and along Himalayas from northern Pakistan across to Bangladesh, Myanmar, southern China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali, Lombok, Sumba, and Flores. Leaves higher altitudes in winter and spreads into plains in India and into southern Thailand and Vietnam. Four subspecies.

habitat

Primary and tall secondary lowland and hill forests; riverine forests; remnant forests; and cultivated trees, including coffee. Up to 9,840 ft (3,000 m) elevation in the Himalayas. Moves onto plains in India in winter and out of higher altitudes.

behavior

Singly or in pairs. Usually in mid-story, perched on bare branches or vines. May join flocks of mixed species. Calls are comprised of a rising series of two or three short whistles, as well as a trilling song.

feeding ecology and diet

Sallies from branches for flying insects. Flutters and hovers among foliage.

reproductive biology

Breeds March to June. Cup-shaped nest of moss and lichen, often placed on epiphytes on trees or rocks. Lays two to four pale buff eggs, with gray blotches.

conservation status

Not threatened. Some populations are common, but subspecies on Lombok and Flores are apparently uncommon or rare.

significance to humans

None known.


White-winged robin

Peneothello sigillatus

subfamily

Petroicinae

taxonomy

Poecilodryas sigillata De Vis, 1890, southeastern New Guinea.

other common names

English: White-winged thicket-flycatcher; French: Miro á ailes blanches; German: Spiegeldickichtschnäpper; Spanish: Tordo Australiano de Alas Blancas.

physical characteristics

5.7 in (14.5 cm); c. 0.6 oz (16 g). All black with white on secondaries.

distribution

Central ranges of New Guinea and the mountains of Huon Peninsula. Four subspecies.

habitat

Mid-montane and subalpine forests and adjacent shrubs, between 6,500 and 12,000 ft (2,150–3,900 m) elevation.

behavior

Tame; found singly, in pairs, or small family groups. Perches on mossy branches. Song is comprised of trilling and piping notes that rise and fall. Metallic notes and sharp alarm call.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans and snatches from branches, trunks, and the ground for insects. Also takes some fruit.

reproductive biology

Breeds from September to January. Bulky nest is made of green moss, dried fern, and rootlets, placed in a tree fork. Clutch is comprised of a single, light-olive-colored egg, sparsely marked with brown.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in its habitat.

significance to humans

None known.


Southern scrub robin

Drymodes brunneopygia

subfamily

Drymodinae

taxonomy

Drymodes brunneopygia Gould, 1841, Murray River, South Australia.

other common names

French: Drymode à croupion brun; German: Mallee-Scheindrossel; Spanish: Tordo de Lomo Castaño.

physical characteristics

8–9 in (21–23 cm); 1.25–1.35 oz (36–38 g). A large bird with white to buff underparts, dark brown wing and light gray-brown upperparts with white-tipped tail.

distribution

Southwestern Australia, south-central Australia into western Victoria and southwestern New South Wales.

habitat

Mallee, especially with broombush (Melaleuca) or heathy understory; other semiarid scrub; coastal tea tree thickets.

behavior

Shy and often hidden, heard more often than seen. Territorial year-round. Flicks or gently raises and lowers tail. Call is a thin "pee…pee" or a musical "chip…chip…par-ee."

feeding ecology and diet

Forages entirely on the ground, gleaning insects, especially ants, termites, and beetles; occasionally picks fruit from low shrubs.

reproductive biology

Breeds from July to December, building a cup-shaped nest that is placed on or near ground. Clutch is comprised of one pale green egg, blotched with brown and black. Female builds nest and incubates the egg for 16 days. Both sexes feed the young bird, which fledges at nine to 12 days. Nest success was 64% in Western Australia study. Male whistles and draws predators away from the nest.

conservation status

Not threatened. Common in suitable habitat but has declined due to extensive clearing of mallee for agriculture.

significance to humans

None known.


Resources

Books

Boles, W.E. The Robins and Flycatchers of Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1988.

Butler, D., and D. Murton. The Black Robin: Saving the World's Most Endangered Bird. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Marchant, S. "Breeding of the Eastern Yellow Robin Eopsaltria australis." In Birds of Eucalypt Forests and Woodlands: Ecology, Conservation, Management, edited by A. Keast, H.F. Recher, H.A. Ford, and D.A. Saunders. Sydney: Surrey Beatty, 1985.

Periodicals

Brooker, B. "Biology of the Southern Scrub-robin (Drymodes brunneopygia) at Peron Peninsula, Western Australia." Emu 101 (2001): 181–190.

Frith, D.W., and C.B. Frith. "The Nesting Biology of the Gray-headed Robin Heteromyias albispecularis (Petroicidae) in Australian Upland Tropical Rainforest." Emu 100 (2000): 81–94.

Robinson, D. "The Nesting Ecology of Sympatric Scarlet Robin Petroica multicolor and Flame Robin P. phoenicea in Open Eucalypt Forest." Emu 90 (1990): 40–52.

Other

Black Robin. New Zealand Department of Conservation. 26 March 2002. <http://www.doc.govt.nz/Conservation/001Plants-and-Animals/001Native-Animals/Black-Robin.asp>

Hugh Alastair Ford, PhD

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Australian Robins (Petroicidae)

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Australian Robins (Petroicidae)