a web page by Don Roberson
  • 8 species in sub Saharan Africa
  • DR personal total: 3 species (37%), 3 photo'd

Helmetshrikes are a small group of African birds. The typical Prionops helmet-shrikes, like White Helmetshrike (left), are noisy sociable birds, restlessly traveling through bush or woodland in parties of a few to two dozen individuals. The feed mainly among branches and foliage, and I had to grab this shot quickly as they were constantly moving on. Some of the species breed co-operatively and roost communally.

The taxonomic position of helmetshrikes was long the subject of debate, with widely different approaches (e.g., Traylor 1986, Sibley & Ahlquist 1990, Sibley & Monroe 1990, Keith 1992, Dowsett & Dowsett-Lemaire 1993, Dickinson 2003). However, the debate was settled recently when DNA sequencing data became available for most of the species in this and related families (Fuchs et al. 2004, Reddy et al. 2012). It shows that among the bush-shrike, helmet-shrike, vanga, batises, wattle-eyes, and shrike-flycatchers, there are three distinctive clades: (a) the core bush-shrikes, (b) the batises and wattle-eyes, and (c) the rest of them. Thus helmet-shrikes, vangas, shrike-flycatchers and allies are all on the same evolutionary branch, and the branch includes such far-flung Asian birds as woodshrikes, flycatcher-shrikes, and philentomas; Reddy et al. (2012). The latter paper proposed that the helmetshrikes — often considered a separate family — are better represented as a subfamily of the larger vangid radiation, within the family Vangidae.

Some species have a circular fleshy wattle around the eye, and an example is shown by the Chestnut-fronted Helmet-shrike (right) of coastal east Africa. It is often found it flocks with other birds, acting tit-like as it forages along branches or clings to trunks. The eye-wattle recalls the unique African wattle-eyes which are placed in a separate family, along with batises, the Platysteiridae (Zimmerman et al. 1996; Fuchs et al. 2004).

Among the 8 Prionops helmet-shrikes, two are rare enough to be classified as threatened. The obscure Gabela Helmet-shrike P. gabela, known only from a small area of forest & thicket near Gabela on the scarp of Angola, is considered Endangered. Yellow-crested Helmet-Shrike P. alberti is a real enigma of the mountains of eastern Congo. Almost nothing is known about this spectacular bird that appears on my "top 50" best birds of the world.

All of the Prionops species have striking plumage patterns (often black-and-white), and many have colorful bills or eye-wattles. Looking at field guides, I always wanted to see Retz's Helmet-Shrike because it looked so cool. In 2005 we got to see a pair at Xaro Camp on the Okavango River in northern Botswana. Retz's Helmet-Shrike (left) is indeed a classy bird.

Photos: The White Helmetshrike Prionops plumatus was photographed in Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, on 28 July 1996. The Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike P. scopifrons was in the Sokeke Forest of coastal Kenya, 28 Nov 1981. The Retz's Helmetshrike P. retzii was at Xaro Lodge in northern Botswana on 23 July 2005. All photos © D. Roberson; all rights reserved.

Family Book:
Harris, T., and K. Franklin. 2000. Shrikes & Bush-Shrikes. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

This is a very attractive offering in the Princeton bird families series. Tony Harris wrote the text; Kim Franklin did the plates. It has the familiar layout of plates altogether in the front, with range maps and i.d. summary, and detailed species accounts in the back. It looks well researched and has a good bibliography. I very much enjoyed the full-page spreads, with black-and-white sketch, on each genus in the groups covered, that highlights the introduction. There is a lot of discussion of taxonomy but, unfortunately, the authors chose to follow the Sibley & Monroe (1990) approach of only two families: shrikes [Laniidae] and bush-shrikes [Malaconotidae]. All of the batises, wattle-eyes, helmet shrikes, and such things as flycatcher-shrikes, wood-shrikes, and philentomas, are thrown into the latter family. New research does not support this approach. As it turns out, the true shrikes are not the closest relatives to the rest of this set (e.g., Barker et al. 2004), so even the premise of this book proves false. Further, vangas (not included in this book) are closely related to the rest of the group. Indeed, it appears that the flycatcher-shrikes are vangas, and that helmet-shrikes are very closely related to vangas. The text also suffers from the author's use of the "Species Recognition Concept" as his definition for species; fortunately, in practice, in works rather like the tried-and-true "Biological Species Concept." Yet both in its language and in its reliance on DNA hybridization evidence (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990), this book has the unfortunate status of being out-of-date taxonomically much more quickly than would be anticipated. That having been said, the species accounts, maps, and paintings for the species that are included all are very good. This is a well-written book with attractive paintings. It is great to have a world overview of the species that are included, even if they do not hang together as a group. One major annoyance: citations in the text are small-print superscript numbers. A list of these numbers is in the back of the book, but the list does not give the full citation. Rather, citation number 732 is "Emlen 1979." One then has to go check the bibliography to locate the full citation to Emlen's note in Scopus on fiscal shrikes. This is an entirely unnecessary double effort for the reader, and should have been fixed by the publisher (just number the bibliography if you use this tactic; see Dickinson 2003 for an example of the proper way to do this). Despite all these criticisms, it IS a very attractive publication and quite useful in many ways. So I give it 3 (of 5) stars despite its limitations. The basic, underlying information about each taxa, and the attractive plates, make up for a lot.

Literature cited:

Barker, F.K., A. Cibois, P. Schikler, J. Feinstein, and J. Cracraft. 2004. Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 101: 11040-11045.

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.

Brown, L. H., E. K. Urban, and K. Newman, eds. 1982. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 1. Academic Press, London. Keith, S., E. K. Urban, and C. H. Fry, eds. 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4. Academic Press, London.

Dickinson, E.C., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Dowsett, R. J., and F. Dowsett-Lemaire. 1993. "Comments on the taxonomy of some Afrotropical bird species," pp. 232-389 in A Contribution to the Distribution and Taxonomy of Afrotropical and Malagasy Birds (R. J. Dowsett & F. Dowsett-Lemaire, eds.). Tauraco Res. Rpt. 5. Tauraco Press, Liége.

Fuchs, J., R.C.K. Bowie, J. Fjeldså, and E. Pasquet. 2004. Phylogenetic relationships of the African bush-shrikes and helmet-shrikes (Passeriformes: Malaconotidae). Mol. Phylog. Evol. 33: 428-439.

Reddy, S., A. Driskell, D.L. Rabosky, S.J. Hackett, and T.S. Schulenberg. 2012. Diversification and the adaptive radiation of the vangas of Madagascar, Proc. Royal Soc. B 279, 2062-2071.

Schulenberg, T.S. 2003. "The Radiations of Passerine Birds of Madagascar," pp. 1130-1134 in S.M. Goodman & J.P. Benstead (eds.) The Natural History of Madagascar.

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.

Traylor, M. A. 1986. "Platysteiridea," "Muscicapidae," et al. in Check-list of Birds of the World (E. Mayr & G. W. Cotrell, eds). Vol. 11. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.

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




  page created 25 Sep 1999; significantly revised 9-10 Oct 2005, and again 3 Sep 2012  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved