FANTAILS Rhipiduridae The Fantails are a homogenous group of distinctive Old World flycatchers found from India to Australia and many Pacific Ocean islands. The most familiar in Australia is the misnamed Willie-Wagtail (left or above). It is a familiar garden and urban park species throughout Australia but also extending to New Guinea, the Solomons & the Moluccas. In your mind picture this bird in constant motion, swishing the open tail back and forth in an arc as it moves. I like this particular shot because it includes the dainty cup nest so typical of this group. Willie-Wagtail also has a musical "sweet, pretty creature" song (Simpson & Day 1996) that is distinctive. Most of this family have characteristic easy-to-whistle or trilled vocalizations.

All the fantails are closely related and belong to a single genus: Rhipidura. But while Willie-Wagtail is found in open areas, most of the family are birds of the dark shadows inside the forest. Nearly all of them are very active with splayed-open tails swishing as they work through the mid-canopy or undergrowth. A widespread example is White-throated Fantail (right) whose range extends from Himalaya of India & Tibet through SE Asia to Sumatra & Borneo (this attempt at a shot with a flash was from Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo). A few are found in more open woodlands or mangroves, like the Gray Fantail (below) of Australasia and Melanesia.
And speaking of the Pacific, some 19 species are restricted to small islands from the Lesser Sundas to the Solomons to Fiji, Samoa, and Pohnpei. It would be a major accomplishment of island-hopping travel to see all of the fantails of the world. [An aside: I visited Pohnpei in 1978 with my father & sister during a round-the-world summer vacation. My dad went SCUBA diving here but during the days we visited waterfalls, cultural events, and took a walk to the ruins of an ancient civilization. I still recall passing through the forest on that walk and enjoying several fantails. I remember these particularly since I was taken with the tail-twitching behavior. At the time the fantails on Pohnpei were considered a race of the widespread Rufous Fantail R. rufifrons (e.g., Baker 1951) and it has been recorded on my world list as that species ever since (I have additional observations of rufifrons elsewhere, including New Guinea). But today, for the very first time, some 23 years after the observation, I find that the only fantail on Pohnpei has been split as an endemic species, the Pohnpei Fantail R. kubaryi. Pratt et al. (1987) wrote: "this form was classified as a subspecies of Rufous Fantail by Mayr and Moynihan (1946) in a study based entirely on museum specimens. Although we agree that the two are closely related, our field observations indicate that they should probably not be considered conspecific. In addition to the very striking plumage differences, the two have distinctive vocalizations and foraging behavior." This decision was followed by Sibley & Monroe (1990), Clements (1991), Sibley (1996) and others. So now I have an "armchair lifer" as a reward for doing these pages....]

The center for fantails in the world is New Guinea, and Dale Zimmerman did a fabulous job on this plate (right) published in the Birds of New Guinea field guide by Beehler et al. (1986). This scanned version of the artwork does not do it justice at all -- I urge you to buy the field guide. But even that printing is inadequate. This plate is a wonderful work of art. I know this because several years back I had the opportunity to purchase an original plate from Birds of New Guinea, and this is the one I chose. Today the original hangs proudly in my front room, and I look at it every day.

Although all 12 species of fantail in New Guinea are packed together on one painting, Dale has captured some some characteristic behaviors. The top two rows are "forest-flutterers:" they forage at mid-canopy -- often in flocks of other small birds -- with widespread tails, often dropping in a fluttery manner like a falling leaf (American observers may be reminded of the Painted Redstart of the southwest). Left to right these are: Dimorphic Fantail R. brachyrhyncha (dark morph above, gray-tailed morph below); right-hand two birds on top row Rufous Fantail R. rufifrons (2 races); and Chestnut-bellied Fantail R. hyperythra (middle, second row) and Rufous-backed Fantail R. rufidorsa (right bird, second row). Then in the middle come six-and-a-half paintings of undergrowth species. These birds also have spread tails but tend to work the undergrowth in a more horizontal posture, often in pairs. The three middle species on the left side are, top to bottom: Black Thicket-Fantail R. maculipectus, White-bellied Thicket-Fantail R. leucothorax, and Sooty Thicket-Fantail R. threnothorax. I have not seen the Black Thicket-Fantail but my experiences with the others are that they are very hard to observe without a tape, and that I taped them up by accident by recording unknown by distinctive songs. To the right of these thicket-fantails are the bright rufous female and the all-black male of Black Fantail R. atra, below which are the head of a female and the entire body of Black Monarch Monarcha axillaris, which is not a fantail at all but is often confused as one because of its similar behavior. The small fantail labeled #12 is the Friendly Fantail R. albolimbata, a tame montane species that wig-wags through mid-canopy and sometimes up high in the canopy. At lower left is Northern Fantail R. rufiventris; it perches upright, acts like a typical flycatcher by sallying out after insects, and rare wags its tail. At the bottom is Mangrove Fantail R. phasiana that lives in its namesake habitat. Finally at lower right is Willie-Wagtail R. leucophrys, the bird whose photo appears at the top of this page. As you can see it is a large wagtail, it stands and feeds on the ground, and it is aggressive. It also follows cattle which is sort-of cool for a passerine.

Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) showed that this group of birds was among the great corvid assemblage that arose in Australasia. They actually placed the fantails as simply a tribe [Rhipidurini] in the subfamily Dirurinae that included drongos, monarch-flycatchers, and magpie-larks. Clements (1991) did not go this far but did lump them with monarch-flycatchers. What Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) actually showed is that the fantails were a sister group of the monarchs from which they diverged eons ago. It is my understanding that the Handbook of the Birds of the World project will treat fantails as a separate but closely related family to monarch-flycatchers. So that is the position I take here.

Photos: The Willie-Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys was at its nest on Philip I., Victoria, Australia, in Nov 1983.  The White-throated Fantail R. albicollis was at Kinabalu Park, Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia, in Aug 1988.  The Gray Fantail  R. fulginosa was on Gulpa I., New South Wales, Australia, 31 Dec 1997. Photos © 2001 Don 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. Good material and fabulous photos of New Guinea species is in Coates (1990).

Literature cited:

Baker, R. H. 1951. The Avifauna of Micronesia, its Origin, Evolution, and Distribution. Univ. of Kansas publ. 3: 1-359.

Beehler, B. M., T. K. Pratt, and D. A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

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

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

Mayr, E., and Moynihan, M. 1946. Evolution in the Rhipidura rufifrons group. American Mus. Novit. 1144: 1-11.

Pratt, H. D., P. L. Bruner, and D. G. Berrett. 1987. A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

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. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. 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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