APOSTLEBIRDS Corcoracidae The Apostlebirds are a small Australian family composed of just two species: the Apostlebird (left) and the White-winged Chough Corcorax melanorhamphos. One recent text (Simpson & Day 1996) calls this family the "Australian Mud-Nesters" but others (e.g., Clements 1991) use the term "Mudnest Builders" for another two-species family -- the Grallinidae. Both the Corcoracidae (our group here) and the Grallinidae build mud nests, and had at one time been considered part of the same family, further confusing the issue. Although it is debatable whether the Grallinidae should still be considered a family (see my web page on that family for details), surely it is inappropriate to attach the English name to two entirely different group of birds! So I've avoided using it for either.

Apostlebirds always come in small groups of 12 or 13 birds following a charismatic leader .... okay, just kidding. But they are named for the average group size of about a dozen (like the 12 biblical apostles); typical group sizes range from 8-18 members (Dow 1980). [An old politically incorrect name is "CWA" = County Women's Association (Frith et al. 1979)]. The White-winged Chough also forages and wanders within a territory in small groups, but their usual size is 4-8 birds (Blakers et al. 1984). The Apostlebird is gray and the White-winged Chough black with white wing patches. Both species inhabit open stands of eucalypt woods (this habitat is generally dry and inland in eastern and southeastern Australia), and for both species it can be said that they "live in sociable groups, build solid mud nests and assist each other in breeding" (Simpson & Day 1996). The White-winged Chough is one of very few species to adapt to the transformation of native habitat to planted pines (Frith et al. 1979).

Sibley & Monroe (1990) showed that this small group of birds is one of the great corvid assemblage that arose in Australasia, and they place them as but a subfamily in a gigantic Corvidae, close to the whipbirds, quail-thrushes, and whistlers. Sibley (1996) noted that a different biochemical method (Baverstock et al. 1991) confirmed the close relationship of the two species in this family (and the quite distant relationship of the Magpie-Lark).

Yet many authorities, including those cited in the "Handbook" section of Simpson & Day (1996), agree that it seems wiser to retain familial status for these two unique species while recognizing their corvine origin. The Apostlebirds do act jay-like as loose parties forage through open woodlands, omnivorous in their search for almost anything to eat. In summer they take many insects on the ground, but supplement their diet with seeds in the winter. During "plagues" of mice they will eat them (Blakers et al. 1984). This foraging in flocks in expanded families, and group nesting help, reminds me of the American Crows Corvus brachyrhynchos in my California backyard, and the feeding on population outbreaks of various prey recalls the dependence of local Yellow-billed Magpies Pica nuttalli on termite flights and the like. Yes, corvine indeed....

Photos: The Apostlebird Struthidea cinerea was part of a small flock north of Mt. Carbine, Queensland, in Jan 1998. Photo © D. Roberson, all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

There is no family book as yet, and the Handbook of the Birds of the World has not yet reached this group, but the Australian literature that includes this family is reasonably extensive.

Literature cited:

Baverstock et al. 1991. Proc. 20th Intl. Ornith. Congress, New Zealand.

Blakers, M., S. J. J. F. Davies, and P. N. Reilly. 1984. The Atlas of Australian Birds. Royal Australian Ornith. Union, Melbourne Univ. Press, Carlton, Victoria.

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Checklist. 4th ed. Ibis Publ., Vista, CA.

Dow, D. D. 1980. Communally breeding Australian birds with an analysis of distributional and environmental factors. Emu 80: 121-140.

Frith, H. J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.

Sibley, C. G. 1996. Birds of the World, on diskette, Windows version 2.0. Charles G. Sibley, Santa Rosa, CA.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Alquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Simpson, K, and N. Day. 1996. A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, revised 5th ed. Penguin Books Australia Ltd., Ringwood, Victoria, Australia.





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