Quail Thrushes and Whipbirds: Eupetidae

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Quail thrushes range in length from 6.7 to 12.2 inches (17 to 31 centimeters), and weigh 1 to 7 ounces (30 to 205 grams). The majority of the species have strong legs with long ankle bones. The bill tends to be short, and their tails are mostly long and wide. Their feathers are thick and fluffy. Quail thrushes are striking with patterns of black, white, brown, and orange—a color normally found only on the undersides. The top parts of the birds look like the ground cover.

Three or four of the jewel-babblers are similar in appearance to quail thrushes, only with large patches of blue in the plumage, feathers. Rail-babblers—often considered a part of this inclusive group although their true ancestry continues to remain questionable—have long necks and tails, and plumage that is chestnut-colored, with a blue streak running along the side of their neck. The species of Australian whipbirds and wedgebills are slim, dull in their color, and have long tails. Their crest is short but is pointed. The Papuan whipbird looks somewhat like a smaller version of those birds, but only superficially. This bird has no crest. Melampittas have long legs, noticeably short tails, and black plumage. The small bird, ifrit, has a medium-short tail and rusty brown plumage and a bright blue cap.


All of the species except the rail-babbler are found exclusively in Australia and New Guinea. The rail-babbler lives in the lowland peninsular areas of Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo.


Australian quail thrushes, with the exception of the spotted quail thrush, prefer arid habitats, particularly dry woodland areas, stony plains, sandhills and shrub steppe, a plain with few trees. The rail-babbler and the species of New Guinea live in the rainforest and in many different types of closed forest-type areas. The greater melampitta can be found only in the forest of karst, environments that are characterized by heavy limestone deposits with deep ground fissures, cracks, and sinkholes, and often sitting over underground streams and caves. The eastern whipbird is also found in the rainforest, eucalyptus forests that are wet, and other areas with a low density of vegetation. The western whipbird is found in areas with dense vegetation that is thick and dry. Wedgebills are at home in dry woodlands, steppes, a semi-arid grass covered plain, and heathlands.


Australian quail thrushes tend to be ground feeders, slowly moving around and eating prey by picking it with their bills. These birds shuffle through the leaves and other ground litter with their legs. They are, for the large part, insectivores, eating insects and other invertebrates, animals without backbones, and sometimes small vertebrates, animals with backbones. They are also known to eat seeds. The only one of the family that differs from this routine is the ifrit. Ifrits gather food in the forest at varying elevations, stalking through trunks and branches and probing in the bark and moss for their prey.


Quail thrushes tend to be shy and secretive, except for the ifrit. Those that live in the rainforest hide themselves in the thick vegetation. Quail thrushes will either freeze or break into flight when they are disturbed. When they land, they will either stop and freeze, or run away quickly on foot. Whipbirds and melampittas will often approach any non-obtrusive observer, cautious but curious. As a whole, the birds are usually heard but not seen. They indicate their presence with vocalizations that can range from thin whistles to loud and booming notes. Both male and female eastern whipbirds take part in antiphonal, answering, duets in a way that gave birth to their name. The male whistles loudly, sounding like a whip has passed through the air with the female following right away with two loud cracks.

Quail thrushes make their nests of dry vegetation and put them in small depressions on the ground. The ifrit will build a much bulkier nest with thick walls about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground. Most of the nests are cup-shaped; but the melampitta will build a domed nest with a side entrance and put it up the side of tree fern trunk. Quail thrushes, jewel-babblers, and the rail-babbler have clutches of two eggs, and the other species, have only one egg. The eggs have dark spots and blotches all over them, with a pale background underneath the markings. Australian whipbirds and wedgebills have eggs that are light blue with black scribbles very boldly marking them. Due to the problems of observing these secretive birds, the male and female roles in incubation and brooding, as well as the time of the nesting periods remain unknown.


Due to their secretive behavior and habits, quail thrushes and whipbirds are unknown to the average person, with the exception of the eastern whipbird. The eastern whipbird's call is known throughout the Australian bush, with its distinctive sound—though more people have heard this species than have seen it. Ifrits carry a variety of poisons in their tissues, especially in the feathers. The poison's true purpose has not yet been determined, but it does seem to be connected to the bird's diet. Another species of New Guinea birds known to have similar toxins is the pitohius of the Pachycephalidae (whistler) family.


Rail-babblers and western whipbirds are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction, because of habitat loss. The western whipbird population in southwest Australia has been threatened by fires that have decreased the distribution and the numbers of this species. In the 1960s the population was down to seventeen pairs or less, and has recovered through conservation. With restricted burning, captive breeding, and the transfer of individual birds, the population climbed to over 500 individuals. A subspecies of the spotted quail-thrush inhabiting the Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia has almost disappeared from that area due to habitat loss.


Physical characteristics: Spotted quail-thrushes range in length from 10.2 to 11 inches (26 to 28 centimeters), and weigh between 2.4 and 3.1 ounces (67 and 87 grams). Their plumage is a mottled blend of white, buff, rust or reddish brown, brown, and black. They have light brown heads with a white brow stripe. Their throats are black with a white patch, and their breasts are a pinkish tone.

Geographic range: The spotted quail-thrush can be found in southeast Australia, Tasmania, and in the Mount Lofty Ranges, in south-central Australia.

Habitat: Spotted quail-thrushes live in eucalyptus forest with a littered, open floor, and prefer areas on rocky hillsides.

Diet: Spotted quail-thrushes tend to be insectivores, eating insects and other invertebrates, but they also eat small vertebrates and seeds at times. They pick their prey from the ground which they hunt in a slow, meandering fashion.

Behavior and reproduction: Spotted quail-thrushes prefer living on the ground, and are sedentary, stay in one place, secretive, and shy. If they are frightened they will take flight in a way similar to a quail. When they land, the spotted quail-thrushes will run off quickly, or freeze in position.

Their vocalizations are a repeated, double-note song, as well as a high thin contact call, inaudible to the average person.

Spotted quail-thrushes have a breeding season from late July-August to December. The female builds the cup-like nest of dry vegetation and puts the nest into a depression in the ground near the base of a tree, shrub, rock, or clump of grass. The female also incubates, sits on and warms, the clutch of two spotted eggs, but the male helps to feed the chicks during and after the nineteen day fledging period, when chicks grow the feathers needed for flight. In any breeding season, one to three broods may be raised.

Spotted quail-thrushes and people: There is no known significance between spotted quail-thrushes and people.

Conservation status: Spotted quail-thrushes are locally common, but are sparsely populated. Those in the Mt. Lofty Ranges, South Australia, are Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, and may already be extinct. They are threatened by loss of habitat due to clearance and fragmentation. ∎



Blakers, M., S. J. J. F. Davies, and P. N. Reilly. The Atlas of Australian Birds. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1984.

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

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

Simpson, Ken, and Nicolas Day. The Birds of Australia. Dover, NH: Tanager Books, 1984.

Web sites:

"Crowdy Bay National Park Fauna." Crowdy Bay National Park. http://www.harringtoncrowdy.com/HarringtonCrowdyBayNPFaunaList.html (accessed on June 19, 2004).

Dettmann, Belinda. "Number 24." Flightline. http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/science/abbbs/pubs/jan-2000.pdf (accessed on June 19, 2004).