The Cisticolidae are a reasonably large group of small Old World songbirds, many limited to open habitats (grassland, scrub, desert). Nearly half of them (51 species) are cisticolas in the genus Cisticola. One example is the Madagascar Cisticola (left), perched on a grassland stem. The heart of cisticola distribution is, however, in Africa — there are only a few species that reach Indian Ocean islands or India, and only two species that reach Australasia (Zitting C. juncidis and Golden-headed C. exilis cisticolas). Many species of African cisticola resemble each other closely and they are often best separated by their songs. These distinctive vocalizations give rise to many English names: there are the Whistling, Singing, Chattering, Trilling, Bubbling, Churring, Winding, Chirping, Tinkling, Croaking, Siffling, Zitting, and Wing-snapping cisticolas!

Although there has been a lot of flip-flopping among experts —Sibley & Monroe (1990) considered them a family but the Birds of Africa series did not, and apparently the Handbook of the Birds of the World series will not — the most recent molecular evidence is that this group should be considered a separate family from the rest of the Old World warblers and allies (Dickinson 2003).

The remaining species in the Cisticolinae are primarily distributed among the prinias, apalises, wren-warblers, and camaropteras. The Gray-backed Camaroptera (right; another outstanding Ed Harper photo) is a good example; it is a common and widespread species in light lowland woods south of the Sahara. These can also be a confusing set of species, and especially until recently when really good artwork is finally available in African field guides like Zimmerman et al. (1996).

Prinias and apalises are usually birds of the undergrowth, often hard to see and many are rather plain. Some of them are highly-restricted endemics, sometimes limited to single islands. An example is the Såo Tomé Prinia (below) which is common on the island of Såo Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, and is conspicuous because of its odd habit of flicking its wings up above its back constantly.

The Yellow-breasted Apalis (below) is widespread in Africa, but there are some very rare and local species like the Kabobo Apalis Apalis kaboboensis which is restricted to montane bamboo patches on Mt. Kabobo in southeast Zaire... talk about a bird that is going to be hard to get! And there are nine other even rarer members of the Cisticolinae detailed in Collar et al. (1994).
There is much to be learned about the Cisticolidae, including more details about their relationships. Sibley & Monroe (1990), following Sibley & Ahlquist's DNA work, split them from the Sylvidae (Old World warblers) but Birds of Africa, Vol 5 (Urban, Fry & Keith 1997) did not. I've now decided to follow the 3rd ed. Howard & Moore checklist (Dickinson 2003) in elevating them to family status, although I have flip-flopped on this issue over the past several years.
There are many rare & local species of cisticola as well. The Boran Cisticola (left) is restricted to very isolated patches of habitat from n. Kenya to s. Ethiopia. More mysterious still are the possibility of yet-undescribed species. In July 1996, Patrice Christy and Ian Sinclair took us to a dry-country Cisticola on the Batéké Plateau in extreme southeastern Gabon (below). Thought to be C. dambo [Cloud-scraping Cisticola] by some (e.g., Sargeant 1993), this Cisticola has an entirely different song and did not respond to taped songs of the Zambian "Cloud-scraper" but did vigorously respond to playbacks of its own song. It seems that my distant photo (below) could be of a species with, as yet, no name (="Nameless Cisticola").
Update: I'm now told that birds from this locale have been collected and prove to be C. dambo [Cloud-scraping Cisticola]. There is apparently a "nameless" cisticola in the general vicintiy, but this was not it....
Photos: The Madagascar Cisticola Cisticola cherinus was north of Tulear, Madagascar, on 20 Nov 1992. Ed Harper photographed the inquisitive Gray-backed Camaroptera Camaroptera brevicaudata at Lake Naivasha, Kenya, in July 1994. The Såo Tomé Prinia Prinia molleri was in the garden of the Bua Vista Hotel well up the central volcano on Såo Tomé island, Såo Tomé e Príncipe, in July 1996. The inquisitive Yellow-breasted Apalis  Apalis flavida was at Lake Baringo, Kenya, on 16 Nov 1981. The Boran Cisticola  Cisticola bodessa was in a stake-out in a patch of scrub at the Isiaolo-Meru junction on the Nanyuki-Isialo highway in northern Kenya on 12 Nov 1981. The mysterious cisticola that proved to be Cloud-scraping Cisticola Cisticola dambo was photographed in extreme southeastern Gabon on 11 July 1996. All photos © 2000 Don Roberson except that by W. Ed Harper who holds that copyright (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Bibliographic notes

There is no "family book" for the Cisticolidae. Probably the most useful overall summary to date is in Urban et al. (1997). I also know that some very important i.d. literature has been published in Scopus and other African journals. I have used some of the early such articles (from the late 1970s) with success, and I'm sure there are more now to be sought out.

Other literature cited:

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

Collar, N. J., M. J. Crosby, and A. J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 4. BirdLife International, Cambridge, England.

Dickinson, E.C., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Sargeant, D. 1993. A Birders Guide to Gabon, West Africa. Privately published by Dave Sargeant, Weybourne, England.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven.

Urban, E. K., C. H. Fry, and S. Keith, eds. 1997. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 5. Academic Press, London.

Zimmerman, D. A., D. A. Turner, and D. J. Pearson. 1996. Birds of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Christopher Helm, London.




Page created 21-23 Feb 2000; revised 23 June 2001