Cuckoo-Shrikes: Campephagidae

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CUCKOO-SHRIKES: Campephagidae



Cuckoo-shrikes are small- to medium-sized birds, ranging in length from 5.5 to 14.5 inches (14 to 37 centimeters) and in weight from 0.2 to 6.3 ounces (6 to 180 grams). Some of the seventy-four species are very brightly colored, like the fiery minivet, while others are drab to protect them from predators (animals that hunt them for food), like the Mauritius cuckoo-shrike. Usually the females of this bird family are much less colorful than the males. In general, cuckoo-shrikes have broad-based bills that are slightly hooked and notched, and stiff, bristle-like feathers around their nostrils. Wings are pointed and long, and their tails are fairly long and rounded. Most cuckoo-shrikes have very stiff, erect feathers on their backs and rumps that scientists think may act as a means of defense because they detach easily.


Cuckoo-shrikes are found only in middle and southern Africa, south and Southeast Asia, Australasia, and the western Pacific Islands.


Except for the ground cuckoo-shrike species, cuckoo-shrikes are either mostly or exclusively tree dwellers. In fact, many of the seventy-four species can be found mainly in the canopies, upper layer of a forest, of tall trees. They nest, breed, and forage in a variety of places, but all have trees in common. Their habitats can include swampy, humid, or dry forests, woodlands, savannas, and scrubland. Some species select habitat only in the interior of forests, but others find homes at the edges of forests, in secondary growth (regrown forests), in gardens of urban or suburban areas, or among coastal vegetation.


Cuckoo-shrikes mostly eat insects such as caterpillars and some fruit, but some species also eat seeds and plant parts.


Cuckoo-shrikes are usually monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), have only one mate, and most have permanent territories. Ornithologists, scientists that study birds, know very little about the breeding seasons of cuckoo-shrikes, but they have observed that, except for the white-winged triller and the ground cuckoo-shrike, most species breed during or just after the rainy season and nest solitarily, alone. Males of some of the bigger species use a courtship display, behaviors that lead to mating, in which they alternately lift each wing while calling loudly. In many of the cuckoo-shrike species, male and female together build a small, shallow, cup-shaped nest of small twigs, grasses, moss, lichens (LIE-kenz), roots, and bark. They often bind the nest with spider webs and line it with them as well. The parents typically place the nest on a high horizontal or forked branch of a tree. The female lays a clutch of one to five eggs, but usually two or three. The males of some species help to incubate the eggs, but most often this is the female's duty. Incubation of the eggs takes fourteen to twenty-five days, but in many species the process can take three or more weeks. Both parents care for the young, which leave the nest after thirteen to twenty-four days.

When foraging, cuckoo-shrikes generally poke among the foliage, leaves, of trees and bushes, but some also explore trunks and branches for prey, animals hunted for food. The birds often pursue insects into the air, and occasionally pick insects off the ground.


Fiery minivets used to live in Singapore, but they are now extinct, no longer exist, there. The island nation cleared so many of its native forests that the fiery minivet and many other bird species either died or migrated to more favorable environments elsewhere.


Cuckoo-shrikes do not have a special significance to humans.


Four cuckoo-shrike species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, or Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction. These species include the Ghana cuckoo-shrike, Réunion cuckoo-shrike, Mauritius cuckoo-shrike, and white-winged cuckoo-shrike. However, due to habitat loss and degradation, about a dozen other species have Near Threatened status, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.


Physical characteristics: Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes measure 8.7 inches (22 centimeters) long and males weigh about 1.5 ounces (43 grams). Males have gray upper bodies, dull white undersides and blackish wings. Females have orange-brown upperparts and reddish orange undersides.

Geographic range: Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes live only in areas of southern Mauritius, an island off the southeast coast of Africa.

Habitat: This species of cuckoo-shrike prefers the canopies of Mauritius's moist tropical evergreen forests, especially at elevations above 1,500 feet (460 meters). However, they will also use nearby forest that has been degraded or altered by humans. Many of the mating pairs may be found in remains of native forests around Black River Gorges and in the Bel Ombre Forest.

Diet: Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes eat mostly large arthropods, invertebrate animals (animals without backbones) with segmented bodies, such as caterpillars, stick bugs, beetles, and praying mantids. They occasionally prey on small reptiles such as geckos and even steal the eggs of other birds, particularly the pink pigeon. The birds find their food mainly by searching through vegetation.

Behavior and reproduction: Generally secretive and solitary birds, Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes live alone or with their mate. Males are territorial even outside of breeding season, which occurs during the rainy period from September to March. Both sexes work together to build a shallow, cup-shaped nest made of fine twigs, lichen, and spider webs, which they place high on a horizontal tree branch. The female lays a clutch of two eggs, which both parents incubate for twenty-four to twenty-five days. Rat predation is a major danger for chicks. Males sing with a melodic trill and have a harsh species-specific call-note.

Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes and people: Since 1975, many residents of Mauritius have helped to stop the decline of the bird's population through support of programs to restore native ecosystems and habitats.

Conservation status: In 1970, the population of Mauritius cuckoo-shrikes was estimated at about 200 pairs, but by 2000, thanks to conservation efforts, that number had increased to between 300 and 350 pairs. Nevertheless, the species is still considered Vulnerable because of continued habitat loss and destruction in its very small range. ∎


Physical characteristics: One of the smallest species in the Campephagidae family, the fiery minivet was first recognized as a separate species in 1846 during an expedition to the Moluccas, a group of islands in Indonesia. They range in length from 6 to 6.5 inches (15 to 16.5 centimeters) and typically weigh between 0.5 to 0.6 ounces (14 to 16 grams). Males have black upperparts and throats, with vivid red breast, belly, rump, and outer tail feathers. Females are more subtly colored, with gray upperparts, yellow undersides, orange rumps, and black tails. The bird has a distinct, rising call of "swee-eet."

Geographic range: Fiery minivets are Asian birds, occupying southern Myanmar, southern Thailand, and parts of Malaysia and Brunei, as well as the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo and the Palawan Province islands of the Philippines.

Habitat: This species typically makes its home in the canopies of forests and along the forest edges, but it will also occupy pine plantations and casuarinas, an Australian evergreen, groves. Many of the birds may be found in lowlands, but it is also commonly sighted in the sub-montane slopes and montane forests of Sumatra at altitudes up to 8,900 feet (2,700 meters). Another favored habitat is coastal mangrove swamps.

Diet: Although little is known about the feeding habits of fiery minivets, ornithologists presume that the species, like birds in the rest of the family, eats primarily insects, particularly moths and caterpillars. They forage in the canopies of trees where they live.

Behavior and reproduction: Sociable and energetic, fiery minivets are frequent participants in what scientists call "mixed-species bird parties," groups that contain a number of bird species. They are believed to be monogamous, with mated pairs working together to build a cup-shaped nest of fine plant parts, spider webs, and lichens, fungus, that they place high in a tree. This species breeds in Palawan's dry season of December and in Malaysia's rainy season that starts in May. The female usually lays two eggs.

Fiery minivets and people: The species' beautiful coloring makes it a favorite of birdwatchers.

Conservation status: While extensive and ongoing destruction of forests in this region of Asia presents a continuing threat to fiery minivets and many other birds, the species' use of sub-montane slopes and second-growth forests leads scientists to conclude that it is not immediately threatened. Fiery minivets are common in Palawan and Sumatra, although somewhat rare in Thailand. ∎



Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Stattersfield, A. J., and D. R. Capper, eds. Threatened Birds of the World: The Official Source for Birds on the IUCN Red List. Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International, 2000.


Ripley, S. D. "Notes on the Genus Coracina." Auk 58 (1941): 381–395.

Web sites:

"Fiery Minivet." BirdLife International. (accessed on June 13, 2004).

"Cuckoo-shrike." The Encyclopedia Mauritiana. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

"Fiery Minivet." The Red Data Book: Threatened Birds of Asia. Online at (accessed on June 25, 2004).