Old World Flycatchers: Muscicapidae

views updated




Old World flycatchers are divided into two groups, the typical Old World flycatchers, and the African flycatchers. The typical flycatchers are small to medium sized, ranging from 3 to 9 inches (7.6 to 2.3 centimeters) long. Their coloring varies from black and white to browns to vivid blues and reds. Both males and females are colored similarly, though males have brighter colors than females in some species. Because these birds look for food by perching and flying in complex maneuvers to catch flying insects, they have short legs and small feet. They also have bristles on their beaks that help them catch their prey.

African flycatcher species are also small to medium sized. They have short flattened bills with a slightly hooked tip and bristles like the typical flycatchers. Their feet and legs vary according to the species. Their most striking feature is an area of bare skin, usually in white or buff, around the eye that is most visible when they are excited. Males have glossy black and white feathers, and the females are brown and reddish.


Old World flycatchers can be found in Europe, Asia, Africa, India, Micronesia, and Australia and New Guinea. The greatest concentration of species lives in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. African flycatchers are found only in Africa.


Some Old World flycatchers live in dry forests, grasslands, and savanna, while others prefer wetlands and moist forests. Still others make their homes in pastures, orchards, gardens, and residential landscaping.


Members of this family are all insect eaters, and some eat spiders.


Many Old World flycatchers hunt for food by sitting on a high perch and waiting for insects to fly by, then they swoop down and eat them in flight. Others find insects on leaves, bark, branches, and even spider webs. Some even dive to the forest floor to pick up spiders.

These birds defend their nests during mating season by singing and fighting with other birds of their species. They build cup-shaped nests, made of grass and bark, in small openings in trees, stumps, and rock ledges, or in the forks of tree branches. Females lay two to seven spotted or speckled eggs. Both parents of some species build the nest, whereas only the female does the nest building in other species. Both parents feed hatchlings and young birds after they leave the nest. In some species such as the African flycatcher, young birds from a previous mating help feed the newly hatched young.

Tropical and subtropical species of Old World flycatchers remain in their territories permanently, though they may move to a different altitude during the year. Northern species breed in the temperate, not too hot or too cold, and sub-arctic areas and then move to the warmer tropic or subtropical regions in the winter. Old World flycatchers are strong fliers and are capable of traveling long distances.

These birds are rather shy and stay within their family groupings of a mate and immature offspring.


Spotted flycatchers are very skilled at identifying their own eggs and will remove or ignore eggs placed in their nests by opportunistic birds, such as the common cuckoo or the cowbird. Opportunistic birds are birds that put their eggs in other birds' nests for them to raise. This egg recognition skill is the result of past exploitation by the cuckoo.


Because of the beauty of their coloring and song, Old World flycatchers contribute to ecotourism, travel for the purpose of observing wildlife and learning about the environment without interfering.


Eighteen species of true Old World flycatchers are at risk of extinction, or dying out. Nineteen other species are listed as Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction. Habitat destruction is the main reason that populations are declining. Some rare species have not been studied enough to determine their conservation status. At-risk species include, the Nimba flycatcher and the red-tailed newtonia, which are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Banded wattle-eyes are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.


Physical characteristics: Both sexes of spotted flycatchers have brownish gray bodies and white undersides, with long tails and long wings. Some have gray streaks along their throats. The birds have black bills and short, black legs. Young birds have brown bodies and spotted undersides. This is where the species gets its name. They are 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: Spotted flycatchers can be found in Europe, Russia, western Asia, and North Africa. They spend the winter in southwestern Asia and Africa.

Habitat: Spotted flycatchers prefer forests with deciduous trees, trees that lose their leaves in winter. These forested areas can be natural or cultivated as in orchards, parks, and gardens. Because they feed from high perches, they often hunt in cleared areas between trees.

Diet: Spotted flycatchers eat flying insects.

Behavior and reproduction: Spotted flycatchers swoop down from perches where they watch for flying insects, capturing them while in the air. They frequently return to the same perch to wait for more prey.

These birds build an open nest in a recess, hollowed out area, usually in a wall, a crotch of a tree, or a tree hollow. They will also nest in open-fronted nest boxes. Females lay four to six greenish eggs with rust colored spots.

Members of this family winter in Africa and southwestern Asia as single birds. They return to their territories as the season changes.

The song of the spotted flycatcher is a series of six squeaky notes.

Spotted flycatchers and people: This species has no special importance to humans, except to be appreciated by birdwatchers.

Conservation status: The population of spotted flycatchers is declining in parts of their territory but they are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Little slaty flycatchers are small, only 5 inches (12.7 centimeters), with heavy bills and short tails. Males have slate gray heads, backs, and tails, with a white underside, a grey breast band and sides, brown wings, and pink feet. They also have white circles around their eyes that are exposed when they sing. Females have reddish brown heads and wings, with brighter color on their tails, and white undersides with a reddish wash on the breast and sides. They also have a buff ring around their eyes.

Geographic range: This species is native to the Philippines, occurring on the islands of Samar, Leyte, Dinagat, Basilan, and Mindanao.

Habitat: Little slaty flycatchers live in the dense understory, the smaller trees in a forest, from sea level to 3,900 feet (1,200 meters). Sometimes, these birds can be found as high as 394 feet (120 meters) up in the trees.

Diet: Little slaty flycatchers eat insects.

Behavior and reproduction: The species has a high-pitched, three-note call with a beautiful, warbling song. Little slaty flycatchers are quite shy and are best found by listening to their song or call.

Like other Old World flycatchers they build cup-shaped nests. Little slaty flycatchers live in permanent territories.

Little slaty flycatchers and people: There is some economic potential for ecotourism for communities where little slaty flycatchers live.

Conservation status: Populations have decreased due to lowland forest loss from logging and other land clearing for mining and recreational development, making this species Vulnerable. There are between 2,500 and 10,000 little slaty flycatchers in the world. ∎


Physical characteristics: Cape batises belong to a group called wattle-eyes. All thirty-one wattle-eyes live in Africa. They are called wattle-eyes because they have bright flesh colored circles around their eyes. This group of birds is being reconsidered as an Old World flycatcher and has been granted its own family grouping by some taxonomists, scientists who classify animals according to specific traits.

Also called cape puffbacks, cape batises have large heads relative to their small bodies. They weigh 5.1 ounces (13 grams) and are 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. They have short tails, round wings, and orange eyes. Males have dark blue-gray backs and tails, black heads, white throats and bellies edged in reddish brown, and a black breast band. Females have brown heads, a brownish wash over the breast, and no breast band.

Geographic range: Cape batises live along the coast of South Africa and deep into the escarpments, steep slopes or cliffs, of Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Habitat: Cape batises make their home in forests, scrub, and planted gardens in southern Africa. Their range is from sea level to 7,050 feet (2,150 meters).

Diet: Like other flycatchers, cape batises eat insects.

Behavior and reproduction: This species lives in permanent territories with a mate, either alone or in small groups, though some populations will gather in large flocks of ten to thirty birds.

Sometimes, cape batises will forage for food with other bird species. Some populations migrate to different elevations as the seasons change.

Cape batises actively seek insects throughout the forest canopy by flushing, frightening, them from their places of cover, hiding. The birds then capture their prey as it flies.

This species mates from September to December, building a small cup-shaped nest of dry grasses, held together with spider webs. The nest is built low in thick brush in the fork of a branch and holds one to three eggs. The female incubates, sits on and warms, the eggs for seventeen to twenty-one days. Mating pairs stay together for life.

Cape batises have a monotonous, unchanging, call of repeating "tu" syllables and a simple whistle.

Cape batises and people: This species has the potential to contribute to ecotourism, an industry based on attracting tourists to view birds and other animals in their environments.

Conservation status: Cape batises are not threatened with extinction. ∎



Perrins, Christopher. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Richmond Hill, Canada: Firefly Books, 2003.

Robbins, Michael. Birds: Fandex Family Field Guides. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1998.

Stattersfield, A. J., David R. Capper, and Guy C. L. Dutson. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge, U.K.: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.

Weidensaul, Scott. Birds: National Audubon Society First Field Guides. New York: Scholastic Trade, 1998.

About this article

Old World Flycatchers: Muscicapidae

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article