BABBLERS: TimaliidaeBLACK-CROWNED BARWING (Actinodura sodangorum): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
GRAY-NECKED PICATHARTES (Picathartes oreas): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
WRENTIT (Chamaea fasciata): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
Scientists have disagreed about what birds to include in this family. The group now includes birds having ten primary feathers (strong feathers at the tip of the wing), twelve retrices (RET-rihs-uhs), or tail feathers, and large, powerful legs and feet, which limit flight and restrict these birds to small foraging and nesting ranges. Babblers are diverse in coloring, size, habitat, and behavior. Though their colors are dull, some have vivid patterns. All of these birds have distinctive songs.
There are more than thirty tropical species; a dozen scimitar (SIH-muh-tur) babblers that have long curved bills, twenty wren-babblers, some parrotbills, and a few picathartes or rockfowl.
With the exception of the picathartes, which evolved in Africa, most members of this family originated in Asia. Babblers can be found in regions of China, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Australia and New Guinea, Japan and the Philippines, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The only American species traces its roots to Asia as well.
Most babblers live in forested regions. A few adapted to desert and savanna (grassland) areas, and one species is semiaquatic in a marsh environment.
Babblers feed mainly on insects, though some species will eat fruit, seeds, frogs, and reptiles, depending on their specific habitats and the season of the year. The Arabian babbler, which lives in the desert where food is scarce, will eat almost anything.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Babblers sing loudly and almost constantly, making babbler an apt name. Most of them hop about in small groups in the underbrush, looking for food.
Most forest-dwelling babblers socialize in flocks, but pair up during mating season and raise one or two broods, or groups of young hatched at the same time. Species in other habitats have developed different social systems and mating patterns. The bearded reedling lays four to eight eggs and can produce up to four broods in a season, with birds from the first brood being able to mate during the same season in which they were born. This adaptation is a response to living in unstable habitats and is a way to produce enough offspring so that the species survives.
The Arabian babbler and related species use cooperative breeding, where a social group defends its territory so that a few birds can mate. Usually a dominant male and female mate, and other birds wait for the opportunity to find a willing mate. Some members wait up to seven years for their chance to breed.
Nests for most babblers are cup-shaped or spherical (ball-shaped), made from bark, twigs, and grasses, built in shrubs or bushes. Babbler eggs can be pure white, solid colored, speckled, or streaked.
BABBLERS AND PEOPLE
Babblers, popular with zoos and exotic bird collectors, were once heavily trapped. Ecotourism, an industry based on attracting tourists to view birds, animals, and natural habitats, can help protect babbler populations in their natural environments by allowing people to see the birds there, instead of in zoos.
Chinese farmers have complained that the laughing thrush causes crop damage, but the bird helps with insect control in agricultural fields.
As of 2002, five species in the Philippines, India, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Vietnam are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, dying out, due to deforestation, or the cutting down of forests.
Twenty-two species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction. Most of them are suffering from habitat destruction, and three have had their numbers seriously depleted by collectors.
Another thirty-nine species are classified as Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction. These birds are also suffering from habitat destruction in Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philippines.
Two species no longer exist, or are extinct. Astley's leiothrix was overtrapped by collectors, and the bearded reedling in southern Turkey died out because of the destruction of its wetland habitat.
Physical characteristics: This babbler is 9.6 inches (24 centimeters) from tip to tail, but its weight is unknown. Both sexes have small brown bodies with reddish brown underbellies and long tails with thin white stripes ringing the black feathers. Black-crowned barwings have a small black crest on their heads and black stripes on their throat.
Geographic range: This species was discovered in 1996 in the western highlands of Vietnam. This was thought to be their exclusive habitat until they were found in six other places in the same province and along the Dakchung plateau in Laos.
Habitat: The black-crowned barwing prefers evergreen and pine forests where there are plenty of insects. It will also take what food it needs from bushes in grasslands and along the edges of cultivated fields.
Diet: The black-crowned barwing eats a diet of insects it plucks from leaves in the high branches of trees or bushes.
Behavior and reproduction: This bird is non-social, preferring to feed alone or with another bird. It mates for life and sings duets with its partner, taking turns singing the melody line. Neither its reproductive cycle nor its nest have been observed in the wild.
Black-crowned barwings and people: These birds have bright coloring, and may be attractive to birdwatchers.
Conservation status: The black-crowned barwing is Vulnerable to extinction because more of its habitat is being used for farmland. ∎
Physical characteristics: The gray-necked picathartes is also known as the red-headed rockfowl, the blue-headed picathartes, and the gray-necked bald crow. It is a medium-sized bird about 14 inches (35 centimeters) long and weighs 7.7 ounces (220 grams). Its head is brightly colored in red, blue, and black, against a gray body with a pale yellow underbelly. Black bristles on the top of its head and a ruff at the back of its neck can be raised when the bird is agitated.
Geographic range: This species is found primarily in West Africa in Cameroon, Nigeria, Gabon, and the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea.
Habitat: Gray-necked picathartes nest in rainforest regions near rock formations or inside caves.
Diet: This bird searches for prey by looking through litter on the rainforest floor. Its favorite foods are crabs, frogs, lizards, snails, worms, and army ants.
Behavior and reproduction: A social bird, the gray-necked picathartes forages on the ground in pairs or in small groups of up to ten birds. They roost at night in trees in large numbers.
The gray-necked picathartes keeps the same mate throughout life. Both mates build cup-shaped nests with thick walls made of mud and plant matter, resulting in pottery-like structures. Fixed to rock faces in dense rainforests or wedged into crevices in cave walls, these nests may take up to a year to build. The female lays two multi-colored speckled eggs, and both parents incubate, or sit on the eggs, for twenty-four days.
Gray-necked picathartes and people: These birds have unusual markings, and may be attractive to birdwatchers. They were once imported heavily for exhibition in zoos, but that was stopped in 1973. This species is not frightened by people who enter its nesting areas and shows curiosity about human visitors.
Conservation status: This species is Vulnerable because it depends on the diminishing rainforest for shelter and food. ∎
Physical characteristics: The tiny wrentit is 6.3 inches long (16 cm) and weighs only a half ounce (14 grams). Its coloring varies from brown in northern regions to gray in the south. The bird has a sharp bill and a long tail that is usually tilted upright.
Geographic range: The wrentit is considered to be the only babbler in the New World (North, Central, and South America) and may have arrived by crossing the Bering Strait in prehistoric times. It is found along a narrow strip of the West Coast of the United States from Oregon to Baja California.
Habitat: Wrentits live in dense brush, preferring to nest in bushes, whether in the natural setting or in landscaping. They live and die within the 1 to 2.5 acres (0.4 to 1 hectare) surrounding the nest from which they hatched. They are reluctant to fly over open spaces of even 30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 meters), which keeps them from expanding their nesting territory.
Diet: The wrentit eats mainly insects and spiders. Young birds feed exclusively on insects, but adults also eat fruit and berries in the fall and winter when insects are scarce.
Behavior and reproduction: Secretive birds, wrentits live in mated pairs for their entire lives. Both sexes build long, cup-like nests, hidden deep in the inner branches of bushes. The outer structure is made of bark, twigs, hair, and feathers, and then lined with spider webs. Sometimes, the birds cover the outside of their nests with lichen. The female lays three to five pale, greenish blue eggs. Both parents feed the young birds until thirty to thirty-five days after hatching.
The wrentit's continuous song is a series of accelerating high notes, often bouncing back and forth between birds. They will not sing when Bewick's wrens are singing near them and will wait several minutes to begin their own songs after the wrens have left the wrentit's territory.
Wrentits and people: Wrentits are favorites of birdwatchers.
Conservation status: Though the wrentit habitat is being developed by humans, it is not yet threatened with extinction. ∎
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bird, D. M., J. Berry, and Steve Kress. Birds: An Explore Your World Handbook (Discovery Channel). New York: Random House, 1999.
Buff, Shelia. Birding for Beginners. New York: Lyons Press, 1993.
MacKinnon, J. R., K. Phillipps, and P. Andrews. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
MacKinnon, J. R., K. Phillipps, and Fen-Qi He. A Field Guide to the Birds of China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Robbins, Michael. Birds (Fandex Family Field Guides). New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1998.
Weidensaul, Scott. Birds (National Audubon Society First Field Guides). New York: Scholastic Trade, 1998.
Cibois, Alice. "Mitochondrial DNA Phylogeny of Babblers (Timaliidae)." The Auk (January 2003): 35–55.