- 3 species across central African
- DR personal total: 2 species (67%), 0 photo'd
Three small African 'flycatchers' in genus Erythrocercus have traditionally been little more than an obscure footnote. All are lowland forest species; the most widespread is Chestnut-capped Flycatcher
(left, in a fine shot by Ian Fulton from Ghana). It ranges from the
forests of west Africa into the Congo Basin all the way from Cameroon
and Gabon to the Budongo Forest of western Uganda.
This bird, along with Little Yellow Flycatcher E. holochlorus of coastal forests from s. Kenya to ne. Tanzania, and Livingstone's Flycatcher E. livingstonei
of se. Tanzania to Mozambique, and inland up the Zambezi River, have
been traditionally placed with the monarch flycatchers [Monarchidae];
e.g., Coates et al. (2006). But Urban et al. (1997) raised questions
about this placement, pointing out that their ball-shaped nest with
side entrance was "unusual for a monarchine." Further, the "lack of
turdine 'thumb' on the syrinx, [lack of] corvine configuration of
humerus, and [lack of] monarchine nostril ossification raises questions
about the real affinities of this genus.
when the genetic evidence first was published (e.g., Alström et
al. 2006, Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006), these three little
flycatchers were shown to be entirely unrelated to monarch flycatchers
or any other "flycatchers" at all. Instead, their closest relatives
were warblers in the genus Cettia and related "warblers," and these "flycatchers" were assigned to the new family Cettiidae
Then, in 2011, Alström, Fjeldså, Fregin & Olsson (2011), doing a focused project on the Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta
of north Africa and the Middle East, found that this wren-like warbler
was not related to the cisticolas (as everyone had thought) but was, in
fact, a sister taxa to the Cettiidae Once the genetic evidence showed
the relationship of Scrub Warbler and the rest of the Cettiidae, the
authors found morphological similarities as well, including claw shape,
toe pads, facial bristles, number of rectrices, and shape of the tail.
Their genetic evidence also found that the Erythrocercus
flycatchers were sister taxa to a clade that included the Cettiidae +
Scrub Warbler. From these data, several world checklists (including
this one last year) placed both Scrub Warbler and the Erythrocercus "flycatchers" in the Cettiidae
paper by Alström, Fjeldså, Fregin & Olsson (2011)
included detailed sketches of facial bristles in four small birds,
three of them related to some close extent: White-browed Tit-warbler Leptopoecile sophiae, Livingstone's Flycatcher Erythrocercus livingstonei, Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta, and Cricket Longtail Spiloptila clamans
[top to bottom in Jon Fjeldså's illustration, right]. The point
of this illustration was to show how different in facial bristles Scrub
Warbler was from Cricket Longtail — which is a desert-loving member of
the Cisticolidae — and how similar Scrub Warbler was to other relatives
of the Cettiidae
But the illustration also shows the extent of bristles at the base of the bill in the Erythrocercus
flycatchers [as shown by Livingstone's Flycatcher, item (b) in the
sketch]. I am unaware of any English name for the three Erythrocercus
flycatchers, but using the Latin is a tongue-twister, and I suggest
that perhaps these three small African flycatchers might be termed
There are other flycatchers
with bristles — so the name should not imply this is a unique character
— but it is a distinctive character of this group that helps illustrate
their relationship to Scrub Warbler, the Cettiidae, and, for that
matter, the long-tailed tits [family Aegithalidae] of which
White-browed Tit-warbler is a member, as contrasted to other
2012, some of the authors of Alström, Fjeldså, Fregin &
Olsson (2011), together with additional co-authors, published an
on-line paper on the family relationships within the superfamily
Sylvioidae (Fregin et al. 2012). This paper incorporated previous
molecular studies with new evidence, and undertook to discuss the
ordinal status of various groups (clades) of birds that were the result
of the break-up of the Old World warblers
a half-decade ago. This paper, for example, agreed with Gelang et al.
(2009) and Cibois et al. (2009) that the core babblers should be broken
up into three families: Timaliidae, Pellorneidae, and Leiothrichidae.
There is something a bit incestuous about this — if you look at the
authors of these various papers, basically each one is agreeing with
the one some of them published previously. So they are all agreeing
In contrast, an independent review of the core
babblers (Moyle et al. 2012) confirmed the same basic molecular
findings — included three distinct clades within the core babblers —
but preferred to consider those groups subfamilies of the single family
Timaliidae. Neither approach is right or wrong — both are equally
consistent with the genetic evidence — but, rather, this is a matter of
style in determining where to draw lines between families and
Among the other proposals in Fregin et
al. (2012) was that the monotypic Scrub Warbler "is better placed in a
monotypic family rather than in Cettiidae. It is morphologically and
ecologically highly divergent from the Cettiidae ... [and] is separated
from the Cettiidae .. by a long internode." They formally proposed the
name Scotocercidae for this new Family.
this proposal has been mixed. The IOC world checklist tentatively
suggested that it might adopt this proposal. Jon Boyd's on-line world
checklist rejected the proposal. The initial indications suggest that
neither the Howard & Moore world checklist nor Clements world
checklist will adopt the proposal, at least not without further
analysis and discussion. Personally, I fear that raised taxa to Family
status on nothing more than "separated from a [sister group] by a long
internode" will devalue Family level status dramatically. If applied
similarly across the many phylogenies now available in the published
literature, the number of "Families" might double or triple. What not,
instead, use Subfamilies for these divergent groups? Further, Fregin et
al. (2012) do not present any evidence of the age of this "long
internode." I have expressed a preference that Family level status to
limited to those evolutionary clades that have been evolving separately
since the early Miocene (16-23 mya at the youngest) and that Family
level groups be distinctive and definable. That the Scrub Warbler is
"morphologically and ecologically highly divergent" from the Cettiidae
sounds to me like a definition of birds within
a Family, and not a definition of a Family. Indeed, just consider the
morphological and ecological divergence among, say, the monarch
flycatchers [Monarchidae] that include long-tailed canopy dwelling
paradise-flycatchers in verdant jungles of tropical Africa to
ground-dwelling arid-loving Magpie-lark of Australia, not to mention
the Torrent-lark along rushing montane streams in New Guinea.
As to those former "monarch-flycatchers," the three Erythrocercus
flycatchers (what we call "bristle-flycatchers" here), Fregin et al.
(20120 also propose elevating them to Family level status. They
proposed the formal name Erythrocercidae for the Family. The authors
state that "the same reasons apply" as to their proposed Scotocercidae,
"although Erythrocercus is even more different
morphologically." They go on to describe the Family as composed of
"flycatcher-like warblers, with prominent bristles around the base of
bill, moderately rounded tail with 12 rectrices."
proposal has generated the same diverse array of response as that of
elevating Scrub Warbler to Family status, but I see the situations as
not necessarily equivalent. First, the Bristle-flycatchers are not
separated from their nearest relatives by just one "long internode" but
they are separated from a clade composed of Cettiidae plus Scrub
Warbler by a long period of separate evolution. Second, although Scrub
Warbler and the remaining Cetiidae share the character of just 10
rectices (Alström et al. 2011), the decidedly most distinctive
Bristle-flycatchers have 12 rectrices. Third, although Fregin et al.
(2012) do not estimate the ages of their various groups, the cladograms
accompanying the paper suggest — when compared to other evidence on the
age of clades presented in Moyle et al. (2012) — that the
Bristle-flycatchers may have diverged in the early Miocene. Further,
they are dramatically different than all the other "warblers" in the
Cettiidae in their flycatching behavior, and are diagnosable on
morphology. Coates et al. (2006) describes these three birds as very
small, "somewhat warbler-like in appearance ... [with] bill short and
broad, and the rictal bristles are long and well-developed." Compared
to monarchs (to which we now know they are not related), the "tail is
of midium length, proportionately shorter than that of other African
monarchids, and, unlike the tail of those species of those species, it
is not graduated; furthermore, the wing measurement is longer than the
tail measurement." Behaviorly, they display a "tail-fanning" character,
and "all three have a short erectile crest." Together, all these
factors are dissimilar to the single "long internode" that is the only
reason to propose Scrub Warbler as a Family.
the Bristtle-flycatchers as something "on the borderline" of a family,
and therefore rather tentatively adopt this part of Fregin et al's
(2012) proposals. If, for example, you chose to combine both Scrub
Warbler and Bristle-flycatchers as part of an expanded Cettiidae, the
next internode is the sister group of the undisputed Family level clade
composed the Long-tailed Tits [Aegithalidae] plus the African endemic Hylia prasina; Fregin et al. (2012). If one accepts Hylia (Hylia prasina) and the closely related Tit-hylia (Pholidornis rushiae) as a potential Family (as I do here, again tentatively), the apparent age of divergence in these groups supports Bristle-flycatchers [Erythrocercidae] as a Family.
this will be sorted out in due course. An equally acceptable course
would be to consider the Bristle-flycatchers as a Subfamily of the
Cettiidae (with Scrub Warbler another Subfamily), and also consider
Hylia + Tit-hylia to be a Subfamily of the Aegithalidae. Further
analysis will help. For the moment, though, consistent with a desire to
alert world birders about potential new Families that may be recognized
in the future, I have adopted the proposal to consider the
Erythrocercidae a Family while, at the same time, preferring to
relegate Scrub Warbler to subfamily status (as Scotocercinae) in family
Photos: Ian Fulton photographed the Chestnut-capped Flycatcher Erythrocercus mccallii at Kakem NP, Ghana, in 2007. Photo © Ian Fulton, used with permission; all rights reserved.
There is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to the three
bristle-flycatchers (as members of the Monarchidae in the HBW series)
is in Coates et al. (2006).
P., P.G. P. Ericson, U. Olsson, and P. Sundberg. 2006. Phylogeny and
classification of the avian superfamily Sylvioidea. Molec. Phylog.
Evol. 38: 381-397.
Alström P., J.
Fjeldså, S. Fregin, and U. Olsson. 2011. Gross morphology betrays
phylogeny: the Scrub Warbler Scotocerca inquieta is not a cisticolid.
Ibis 153: 87–97.
Coates, B.J., G.C.L. Dutson, and C.E. Filardi. 2006. Family Monarchidae (Monarchs), pp. 244–329 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, & D.A. Christie, eds.). Vol. 11. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
A., M. Gelang, and E. Pasquet. 2010. An overview of the babblers and
associated groups. Systematic Notes on Asian Birds 68: 1-5.
S., M. Haase, P. Alström, and U. Olsson. 2012. New insights into
family relationships within the avian superfamily Sylvioidea
(Passeriformes) based on seven molecular markers, BMC Evol. Biol. 12:
M., A. Cibois, E. Pasquet, U. Olsson, P. Alström, and P.G.P.
Ericson. 2009. Phylogeny of babblers (Aves, Passeriformes): major
lineages, family limits and classification. Zoologica Scripta 38:
K.A., and J. Fjeldså. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine
passerine birds. Zoologica Scripta 35: 149-186.
R.G., R.T. Chesser, R.O. Prum, P. Schikler, and J. Cracraft. 2006.
Phylogeny and evolutionary history of Old World suboscine birds (Aves:
Eurylaimides). Amer. Mus. Novitates 3544: 1-22.
Urban, E.K., C.H. Fry, and S. Keith. 1997. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 5. Academic Press, New York.