- 12 species worldwide
- DR personal total: 2 species (17%), 0 photo'd
For eons a small set of rail-like birds in Africa, called flufftails (genus Sarothrura),
were considered a part of the very large Rallidae family. This has long
been a genus of 9 species (8 in Africa, 1 on Madagascar) of very small,
secretive, and elusive rail-like birds. Describing White-spotted Flufftail
(left, in an amazing picture by David Hoddinott), Urban et al. (1986)
describes it as "Shy and skulking; can sometimes be seen in open if
observer remains motionless, but ducks back into cover at slightest
movement. Normally remains in thick cover, creeping about like a mouse
without moving vegetation. Tail cocked and flicked up while walking."
The remaining species are apparently worse. I was standing with my wife on tour in Madagascar when a Madagascar Flufftail S. insularis
walked briefly into view in dense swamp-forest cover — she saw it (good
eyes!), I did not. When it gets down to the near-mythical White-winged
Flufftail S. ayresii — an endangered species rediscovered in
South African in the '80s but now apparently extinct in Ethiopia —
forgettaboutit. Among the nine species, some prefer forest undergrowth,
others swamps and reedbeds, and others wet meadows. Most are believed
to be resident but at least White-winged Flufftail is thought to be an
Although flufftails are
really hard to see, they do have distinctive vocalizations. Most
species have a "moaning" quality to calls. Urban et al. (1986)
discussed the voice of Buff-spotted Flufftail S. elegans this way: "The
bird's remarkable song has been the object of much superstition and
speculation." They quote local legends that the sound is "believed to
be the wail of a banshee, or the noise made by a chameleon in the
agonies of giving birth, or the sound of a chameleon mourning for his
mother, whom he has killed in an argument over some mushrooms." It was
also attributed to a skink, or a large land snail, or a 'crowing
crested cobra' or a Puff Adder. In truth, it is the tiny bird that
gives a "series of hollow, moaning notes like tuning fork ... starting
softly and increasing in intensity, ending abruptly."
White-spotted Flufftail is unusual in not having 'moaning' calls but,
rather, a series of high-pitched notes arranged in groups, reminiscent
of tinkerbirds. During my visit to Ghana in 2014, we probably heard and
saw the same White-spotted Flufftail photographed above (or its mate),
and we could follow its movement along the dense roots of little
watercourse by its voice. I was ready to snap my own photo but, alas,
both members of the pair slipped by so fast in the shadows that I
missed my shot.
In the 1980s there was a feeling that, after Nkulengu Rail Himantornis haematopus
(which was then placed it its own subfamily), rails in the genus
Sarothrura and in Canirallus were the most "primitive" of African
rails; the Birds of Africa (Urban et al. 1986) chose to list
them that way. But it was the DNA-DNA hybridization studies by Sibley
and Ahlquist (e.g., 1986, 1990) that suggested they were something even
more distinctive. There was no consensus by the time the Rallidae
volume appeared in the Handbook of the Birds of the World
series (Taylor 1996), but that volume also moved them to the front of
rallid sequence, indicating their "primitive" status. It was not until
more direct molecular studies this century that it was found that
flufftails are an ancient lineage more closely related to finfoots than
to rails (Hackett et al. 2008). Even more recently, Garcia-R. et al.
(2014) discovered this was true of the African/Madagascar genus Canirallus,
and they've just been moved to the Sarothruridae. So, in a sense the
30-year-old books were more or less right (but they got Nkulengu Rail
wrong; it is not a distinctive subfamily; Garcia-R. et al. 2014).
photo of Martin Woodcock's plate 8 (right) from Urban et al. (1986)
shows most of the current family Sarothruridae along with a couple of
big rails. The huge Nkulengu Rail is shown top left, now found to be
well-embedded with Rallidae and not a subfamily. The 8 African
flufftails are shown — they are the small dimorphic birds
(chestnut-headed males, gray-headed females) that cover much of the
plate. The Gray-throated Rail Canirallus oculeus is shown at
top right — clearly a much larger rail-like bird than the flufftails.
[Two other large rails in second row are still rails.] The plate does
not show Madagascar Flufftail, nor two species of Canirallus in Madagascar (Madagascan Wood Rail C. kioloides and the newly-discovered Tsingy Wood Rail C. beankaensis).
Flufftails shown on the plate are White-winged Flufftail (2nd row); Red- chested S. rufa, Chestnut-headed S. lugens, and Striped S. affinis (3rd row); and Streaky-breasted S. boehmi, Buff-spotted S. elegans, and White-spotted (bottom row).
one time (e.g., Urban et al. 1986) there were hypotheses that
flufftails might be related to the forest-dwelling, chestnut-headed
small rails in genus Rallicula in New Guinea. The do
superficially look similar in color, size, and habitat preferences.
Molecular evidence did not support this hypothesis. Still, there is
relatively little known about the secretive members of the
newly-created Sarothruridae, and much more to be learned.
Photos: David Hoddinott photographed the elusive White-spotted Flufftail Sarothrura pulchra at Antwikwaa, Ghana, in Dec 2013 (where I saw a pair a year later, perhaps including this individual; photo courtesy of Rockjumper Tours).
Photo © David Hoddinott / Rockjumper Tours, and used with permission; all rights reserved.
Family Book: Rating:
Ripley, S. Dillon. 1977. Rails of the World: A Monograph of the Family Rallidae. David R. Godine, Boston.
were traditionally considered to be rails, and so they covered in this
tome. This is a big serious monograph in a 19th century style. At 7.5
lbs and 10x14 inches in size, it is hard to use. It has large type and
lots of white space. There are 41 color plates by J. Fenwick Lansdowne,
and a lengthy appendix on fossil rails by Storrs Olson. At its time
(1977) it was authoritative. And, in many respects, still useful. Each
subspecies is described in detail; range maps help understand
distribution even at the subspecific level; and where there is a
painting of a rail, it is reproduced in large format and good detail. A
scattering of black-and-white photos are also a nice touch, as they
often show difficult species. Yet, in 1977, flufftails and allies were
very secretive, hard to study, and almost nothing was known about their
Obviously, at nearly 40 years old, the
taxonomy of my species has changed, and relationships derived from
other means have been proven false through molecular studies. Still, it
is an old 'classic' and still valuable. Equally obvious, that
The Rallidae chapter in Handbook of the Birds of the World
(Taylor 1996), which also included flufftails and allies, supplements
this older text, and is full of fabulous plates and photos.
García-R, J.C., G.C. Gibb, and S.A. Trewick. 2014. Deep global
evolutionary radiation in birds: Diversification and trait evolution in
the cosmopolitan bird family Rallidae. Mol. Phylog. Evol. 81: 96–108.
S.J., R.T. Kimball, S. Reddy, R.C.K. Bowie, E. L. Braun, M. J. Braun,
J.L. Chojnowski, W. A. Cox, K.-L. Han, J. Harshman, C.J. Huddleston,
B.D. Marks, K.J. Miglia, W.S. Moore, F.H. Sheldon, D.W. Steadman, C. C.
Witt, and T. Yuri. 2008. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their
evolutionary history. Science 320: 1763-1768
Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1986. Reconstructing bird phylogeny by comparing DNAs. Sci. Amer. 254: 82-92.
C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a
Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
Taylor, P.B. 1996. Family Rallidae (Rails), pp. 108 –209 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 3. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Urban, E.K., C.H. Fry, and S. Keith. 1986. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 2. Academic Press, New York.