The Petroicidae is primarily an Australasian family of small flycatchers, often called "robins" although they are not at all related to New World "robins" which are thrushes [Turdidae] nor to Eurasian "robins" that are Old World flycatchers [Muscicapidae]. The most familiar -- Jacky-Winter Microeca fascinans -- is an Australian bird that ranges (barely) to New Guinea. My headline photo, though, is an endemic of New Caledonia, the Yellow-bellied Robin (left). It shows the characteristic big-head, thick-necked, fat-bodied and short-tailed shape of this group, and it is sitting upright like a flycatcher. These Australo-Papuan flycatchers evolved in isolation and now fill a niche not unlike New World flycatchers or Old World flycatchers, just as Australo-Papuan warblers [Acanthizidae] evolved to fill the niche exploited by New World warblers and Old World Warblers on the larger continents. They are thus examples of convergent evolution. Although not closely related, groups of birds have evolved similar behaviors in response to open niches. Sibley & Monroe (1980) consider it one of the groups in the great Corvid assemblage that arose in isolation in Australasia. The Petroicidae are less inclined to be aerial than other "flycatchers" around the world but their behavior is not unlike Old World robins in the Muscicapidae (they were once thought to belong to this family but we now know they are not related at all). [Incidentally, the term Petroicidae has precedence over "Eopsaltriidae" according to recent literature; I think Andy Elliott for this correction to my original web page.]
Thirteen of the Australo-Papuan Robins are Australian endemics but almost half (18) are confined to New Guinea; another four are mostly New Guinea species whose range extends to northeast Australia. But another island endemic is the New Zealand Robin. This shot (right) is of a recently hatched fledgling, still with its baby spots, on Tiritiri Matangi Island off North Island, New Zealand. It reminds me quite a lot of a baby bluebird (Sialia). Here on this tiny islet all introduced plants have been removed, some rare native birds have been re-introduced, and species like the New Zealand Robin again fill their ancient rôles. Tiritiri is remarkable because it sounds like old New Zealand... one hears a forest filled with native bird song instead of the cacophony of non-native species that dominate the aural landscape on the big islands of New Zealand.

Tiritiri Matangi is an avifaunal success story but another Petroicid is a tremendous story in its own right. In 1981 the Black or Chatham Robin Petroica traversi had the smallest population of any bird species for which precise figures were known: there were exactly five -- four males and a female. It seemed doomed to extinction. Its population on the larger Chatham Islands (east of New Zealand) had been wiped out by rats introduced with human colonization of the island group. In 1976 only seven birds remained in deteriorated habitat on Little Mangere Island. All seven were then translocated to Mangere Island where the forest had been replanted with 120,000 new trees. In 1979, after no breeding and the loss of two birds, a program of supplemental feeding and nest protection from introduced starlings was initiated; eventually eggs and chicks were cross-fostered in the nests of its relative, the Tomtit P. macrocephala. This intensive management led to a spectacular success story. Breeding success abounded and a portion of the population was moved to Southeast (=Rangatira) Island. The entire world population is restricted to these two tiny predator-free islets (Mangere and Rangatira) and by 1999 numbers were 259 birds and management efforts have ceased. What a remarkable recovery!  This summary is from Birdlife International (2000) but there is an entire book on the Black Robin project: Butler & Merton (1992).

The robins of Australia are sometimes colorful, like this Red-capped Robin of the dry interior (right), and always personable. They are only mildly "flycatcher-like" and behave more like small thrushes in many ways. Officer (1969) summarized the Gray-headed Robin Heteromyias cinereifrons this way: "When one is motoring through the rain forest approaches to the Atherton Tableland this is one of the birds most frequently seen by the roadside. When disturbed it takes cover in the heavy forest but is very soon back again." Of course this behavior now applies only to certain back road and I saw none along the heavily traveled fast main roads on a recent visit. As to the Mangrove Robin Eopsaltria pulverulenta Officer writes: "A delightful confiding little bird but, alas, as its name indicates, a resident of the mangroves and that means inevitably the purgatory of sandflies while one is studying it." Why is it that no one writes this way any more?

My very favorite robins, though, are mostly high elevation species in New Guinea. There is a whole set of fabulous little robins -- colorful, cute, unpredictable and seemingly uncommon -- such as the Garnet Robin Eugerygone rubra of the cloud forest or the Black-sided Robin Poecilodryas hypoleuca of lowland forests that I taped in by accident while trying to get better views at a Little King Bird-of-Paradise. My single favorite moment with this family was stumbling upon a rarely-seen Green-backed Robin Pachycephalopsis hattamensis while exiting a parotia blind high the cloud forests of the Arfak Mountains on the Vogelkop Peninsula of w. New Guinea. Sibley & Monroe (1980) call it a bird of the "dense forest undergrowth" and they capture its elusiveness. Such a striking and confiding species, low near the ground, appearing magically out of the gloom and just as rapidly disappearing, never to be seen again. Just catches your breath....

Photos: The Yellow-bellied Robin Eopsaltria flaviventris was photographed in Parc due Riviére Bleue, New Caledonia, on 8 Jan 1998. The fledgling New Zealand Robin Petroica australis was on Tiritiri Matangi Island off North Island, New Zealand, on 26 Dec 1997. The Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii was near Deniliquin, New South Wales, Australia, on 1 Jan 1998. All photos © 2001 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic notes

There is no recent "family book" covering the Petroicidae but outstanding photographs and information about Australian and New Guinea species are found in Frith (1979) and Coates (1990), respectively. I also have in my library a slim volume entitled Australian Flycatchers (Officer 1969) that includes the Australian species of the Petroicidae-- the Australian robins -- back at a time when they were considered part of the Old World flycatcher assemblage. It is a fairly simple rendition of field marks, habitat, and basic biology but is nicely illustrated with plates by Peter Slater and has that certain "you are there" quality to the writing that whets one's appetite to see these birds.

Literature cited:

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Butler, D., and D. Merton, 1992. The Black Robin: Saving the World's Most Endangered Bird. Oxford Univ. Press, Auckland, New Zealand.

Coates, B. J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.

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

Officer, H. R. Australian Flycatchers and their Allies. 1969. Bird Observers Club, Melbourne, Australia.

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



Page created 25 Jan-19 Feb 2001; revised 24 June 2001