Fantails: Rhipiduridae

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FANTAILS: Rhipiduridae



Fantails, also known as "wagtail flycatchers," vary in length from 5.5 to 8.5 inches (14 to 21.5 centimeters), with weights between 0.2 to 0.9 ounces (6 to 25 grams). These small birds get their name from their long, rounded, fan-shaped tail, often encompassing as much as 50 percent of the bird's total length. Their characteristic flat, triangular bill is common to most flying insectivores, insect eaters. Wide bristles surround the bill in an unusual arrangement of double rows. Most fantails have small feet, except for those more terrestrial, land-dwelling, species. Wings are somewhat rounded, causing the fantails to fly slower but making it easier to maneuver.

Fantails do not usually have bright plumage, feathers, with brown, rust, white, gray, black, or a combination of these, dominating the color scheme. Two species that inhabit the northwestern and western boundaries of the family's distribution area are the exception. The black-cinnamon fantail with its bold, contrasting colors also proves to be an exception. Most males and females are alike in their plumage, though the black fantail of New Guinea has black males and rust-colored females. Another New Guinea species, the dimorphic fantail also shows two colors: one phase is dark, with the black and rust tail; the other shows a light gray tail. Little difference exists between adults and juveniles except that the juveniles' colors are more faded with rusty edges to some of their feathers, especially the wing coverts, feathers that cover the primary flight feathers. Overall, there is a wide variety of color spread throughout the species that are found over a number of islands.


Fantails are generally found in the Australasian countries, Australia and surrounding islands, but can also be seen well outside of these areas. They generally inhabit regions of eastern Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the Himalayas, southern China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the southwestern Pacific, east of Samoa and north to Micronesia. Several species are known to coexist in the same areas of New Guinea, with up to seven found in the very same locale. Some species such as the white-throated fantail inhabiting areas from eastern Pakistan through south and southeast Asia to Borneo, as well as others, are found to be widely distributed. Some species are restricted to only one small island, such as the case of the Ponapé fantail and the Matthias fantail are endemic to Ponapé, Micronesia, and to Mussau, in the Bismarck Archipelago, respectively.


Most species of fantails are found in the rainforest most of the time. Yet there is a wide range of habitats where various species also prefer to inhabit. The mangrove fantail is restricted to mangroves. The rufous fantail of Australia lives mostly in the rainforest and wet sclerophyll (SKLARE-uh-fill) forest, Australian forests populated by plants with hard, short, spiky leaves, during breeding and nonbreeding seasons; but during migration, they are known to land in more open areas, even city centers. The willie wagtail enjoys the greatest diversity of habitats, preferring open areas, but found in deserts and city parks, as well. The only areas they do not live are the dense rainforests. Varying species might live in the same area, but prefer different elevations in the forest areas where they live. For instance, the sooty-thicket fantail lives in the low, dense thickets. Willie wagtails spend most of their time on the ground hunting for food.


Fantails are primarily insectivores, eating insects and other small invertebrates. Only the larger species, such as the willie wagtail are strong enough to capture and handle larger prey. In the case of larger prey such as moths, they must be hammered on a branch in order to subdue them and make them ready to be eaten. Willie wagtails might capture small lizards and eat them also. Most prey are caught while the bird is airborne. The gray fantail is known to be stunning to watch while flying in pursuit of its prey. They whirl in rapid loops, characterized by sudden changes in direction that sometimes appear to endanger the bird. When the bird moves through the leaves, its tail is cocked. Some observers think this helps the bird to flush out insects. Some fantails also have been known to deliberately divide their environments among species inhabiting the same locality, as they utilize different foraging, hunting for food, methods at differing elevations. Willie wagtails remain within 10 feet (3 meters) of the ground.


Fantails are known for holding their tail cocked, tilted to one side, alternately fanning and closing it, and swinging it from side to side while a bird is perched or moving around in the foliage, plant leaves. They also use this tail posture when in flight, performing highly aerobatic, looping flights in order to catch their insect prey. Viewed sometimes as "hysterical," the fantails tend to be restless, and rarely perch for long. Some species are more sedate, calmer.

Several fantail species are tame and easily approach humans while engaged in capturing insects, flushed out by a moving observer. They use other harmless larger animals in a similar way, willie wagtails often use domestic cattle both as a perch and to flush out insects. When an animal is perceived as predator, however, fantails can become extremely aggressive, even toward larger birds, attacking them and landing on their backs. Willie wagtails signal their aggression by giving a rasping, scolding call and expanding their white eyebrow. Territorial disputes that result in defeat will render the losing bird's white eyebrow invisible after it shrinks. Some fantails such as the thicket-fantails are shy and hard to see in the dense undergrowth they inhabit.

Tropical populations of fantails are sedentary, they do not migrate and live in the same area all year long. In some southern temperate, not too hot or cold, regions, and at the higher elevations, the fantails often travel considerable distances with the seasons. The rufous fantail of Australia moves north and south along the east coast on a regular basis. The southeastern populations of grey fantails travel long distances north and northwest during the winter. Such species as the white-throated and yellow-bellied fantails, spend the summer in the Himalayas and move to lower altitudes at the end of the summer.

Fantails are not noted for their songs, but have relatively pleasant voices. The calls are simple, and the voices tend to sound very delicate. When they do sing, the song tends to be rapid and full of enthusiasm. The gray fantail's song has been compared to the notes of a violin. The willie wagtail, again an exception, has a scolding call and strong song, with the ability to be heard at some distance.

The fantail breeding habits are virtually unknown in the rarer species, but widely studied in the more common. Most have similar breeding habits with both sexes building a nest that is a small, neat cup of fine grass stems bound by a thick external coating of cobwebs. They place their nest in a horizontal fork, or some other human-made structure or other suitable site, at a height of 3 to 50 feet (1 to 15 meters) off the ground, though usually within 10 feet (3 meters) of the ground. Fantails have been observed attaching a "tail" underneath the nest made of the nesting material. A clutch includes two to four eggs that are pale or cream colored and marked with brown or gray blotches and spots that form a wreath at the larger end of the egg or around its middle. Yellow-bellied fantails have cream or pinkish cream eggs with a cap on the larger end and pinkish brown flecks or small spots on the cap. Both parents incubate, sit on, the eggs over a time period of twelve to fourteen days. After they hatch the chicks stay in the nest for thirteen to fifteen more days, with both parents taking care of them.

Nests are not concealed and so are easy prey for larger birds. In an experiment, researchers constructed artificial nests with eggs made from modeling clay. The team observed that more than ten bird species and several small mammals attempted to steal the eggs. This was evident due to the bite marks found on the eggs. The eggs' major predator was the pied currawong, which conducted more than half of the raids. Nest parasitism from the cuckoo is also common. Cuckoo parents lay their eggs in the nest of other bird species, such as the fantail When the cuckoo chicks hatch, they push the other eggs from the nest and are raised by the host parents. The rufous fantail can be host to the begging young pallid cuckoo, which weighs more than eight times the size of the fantail.


Some fantails are common and active in certain areas making them well-known to people. Because of their tame and friendly way with humans, they are a favorite of birdwatchers and the public in general. In certain areas of New Guinea, the willie wagtail is believed to be the ghost of a paternal relative. Superstition surrounds the legend that a singing bird hanging out near a garden that has just been planted is good luck, and the crops will grow well. In other places, it is known as a gossip, so people discussing important matters do not do so when the bird is nearby.


The many species of fantail that live on large land masses are not threatened with extinction. However, several of the island populations are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. These include the Malaita fantail on Malaita in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific, whose population is known to be small. What is causing this low population remains uncertain. The Manus fantail from the Admiralty Islands of Papua New Guinea was once common on Manus Island, though no records of them exist since 1934. They are still found on neighboring islands, but no reason has been determined for the decline in population.

The five species that are considered Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction, include the cinnamon-tailed fantail and long-tailed fantail, both of the Tanimbar Islands; Cockerell's fantail of the Solomon Islands; dusky fantail of San Christobal, Solomon Islands; and Matthias fantail of the Mussau, Bismarck Archipelago. The possible cause is the high number of logging operations throughout these species' range. The threat to the rarer, harder-to-observe species in remote locations remains difficult to determine. Small populations may be threatened by introduced species or the alteration of their habitat.


Physical characteristics: White-throated fantails have lengths that range from 6.9 to 8.1 inches (17.5 to 20.5 centimeters), with weights between 0.3 to 0.45 ounces (9 to 13 grams). They are primarily gray with a white throat, brow, and on the tip of their tail.

Geographic range: White-throated fantails can be found throughout northeastern Pakistan, India, southeastern Tibet, southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, in the foothills and adjacent plains up to 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).

Habitat: White-throated fantails generally prefer broad-leaved evergreen forests and are also comfortable living in areas that have been modified by humans, such as bamboo, in parks, secondary regrowth, and in wooded gardens.

Diet: White-throated fantails are primarily insectivores, feeding along branches and also outside of foliage. They hunt for food either by themselves, in pairs, or in mixed hunting parties.

Behavior and reproduction: White-tailed fantails are typical of other birds of the family. They continually fan their tail as a part of their restless, showy behavior. They live in the undergrowth and middle growth of the forest. In the winter they move from higher elevations to the foothills and plains below their habitat the rest of the year. Their song is made up of thin, high-pitched notes.

The breeding season varies throughout the population distribution, averaging from February through May, to March through August. During the season up to two broods might be raised. Both males and females build the nest, and incubate the eggs that are spotted and in clutches of three eggs. The nest is cup-shaped, and made of fine grass stems held together by cobwebs around its exterior, with a dangling "tail" of grasses hanging underneath. The incubation period is from twelve to thirteen days, with fledging, growing of flight feathers, occurring at thirteen to fifteen days.

White-throated fantails and people: There is no special relationship between white-throated fantails and people.

Conservation status: White-throated fantails are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Willie wagtails are larger than the average fantail, with a length of 7.1 to 8.7 inches (18 to 22 centimeters), and an average weight of 0.6 to 0.8 ounces (17 to 24 grams). They have black plumage and a white brow and breast.

Geographic range: Depending on the particular population of willie wagtail, they can be found throughout Moluccas, New Guinea and the surrounding islands. One population can be found on the Bismarck Archipelago, Solomon Islands, and northern Australia. The other population can be found in southwest, southern, central, and southeast Australia.

Habitat: Willie wagtails prefer open areas and can live in a variety of diverse environments such as the desert, open grasslands, and in city parks, but they are not found in dense rainforest or eucalyptus forest.

Diet: Willie wagtails are carnivores, meat eaters, eating primarily insects and small lizards. They get their food by hawking, diving and grasping their prey, from perches. They grab insects out of the air or grab them from the ground after a short run.

Behavior and reproduction: This bird is primarily terrestrial, and runs, walks, or hops along the ground foraging for its prey. While in motion, their tails are usually lifted but not fanned out. When they pause, their tails swing back and forth, and up and down. Willie wagtails always have a mate nearby, but are usually alone when observed. They are noisy, active birds, often confronting or attacking larger animals that are known predators, or that enter their territory during breeding. They show aggression by puffing out their white eyebrows. In Australia the birds are considered primarily sedentary. However, in New Guinea they are known to leave certain areas during the dry season and return during the rainy season in order to breed. When willie wagtails are upset, they can be heard as giving a harsh scolding sound.

Willie wagtails breed mostly from July through February in Australia, but can nest in any month depending on suitable conditions. They can have up to four or more broods in any season. Both parents build the nest, incubate, and care for the young. Their nests are made of grass and fine bark, then covered with a spider web. However, the nests do not have the characteristic "tail" dangling underneath. The nest is placed on a horizontal fork or in a human-made structure or other suitable site, no higher than 16.5 feet (5 meters) above the ground. The eggs are cream colored with brown and gray speckles that form a wreath at the larger end. The incubation period lasts fourteen to fifteen days, with fledging after fourteen days.

Willie wagtails and people: Willie wagtails are popular in Australia. In parts of New Guinea legend says that they are the ghost of a paternal relative and thought to bring good luck. They are also considered to be a gossip so people avoid telling secrets when the birds are around.

Conservation status: Willie wagtails are common and are not a threatened species. ∎



Campbell, Brude, and Elizabeth Lack, eds. A Dictionary of Birds. Vermillion, SD: Buteo Books, 1985.

Coates, Brian J. "The Birds of Papua New Guinea." In Passerines. Vol. 2. Alderley, Australia: Dove Publications, 1993.

Hvass, Hans. Birds of the World, in Color. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1964.

Web sites:

"Fantails and Allies." Personal Museum of Natural History. (accessed on June 17, 2004).

"Fantails of the World." World Bird Gallery. (accessed on June 17, 2004).

"Fantails: Rhipiduridae." Bird Families of the World. (accessed on June 17, 2004).