a web page by Don Roberson
FLUFFTAILS Sarothruridae
  • 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 intra-African migrant.

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."

The 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).

This 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).

At 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.

Flufftails 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 ecology.
   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.

Literature cited:

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.

Hackett, 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.

Sibley, 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.




  page created 9 Aug 2015  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved