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
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).
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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