a web page by Don Roberson
  • 143 species in the Old World
  • DR personal total: 35 species (24%), 13 photo'd

Babblers were once considered a huge family of over 300 species of (mostly) tropical forest birds in the Old World, but genetic evidence as led to the "break-up of the babblers" into five families. A good chunk are called laughingthrushes, and these, plus related genera, now are combined to form a newly designated clade of babblers, here called the Leiothrichidae. Many are rangy, mid-sized, floppy-tailed landbirds like Streaked Laughingthrush (left) of the Himalayan mid-elevations. Streaked Laughingthrush is easy to observe as it forages in pairs in open rocky areas in the mountains; its foraging behavior, its size, and the fact one finds it mostly in closely-knit pairs all resemble the California Towhees Melozone crissalis in my home county.

Many other laughingthrushes, though, are elusive species in thick jungle, best located by voice. On a multi-week trip to India, for example, we heard noisy flocks of the striking and widespread White-crested Laughingthrush Garrulax leucolophus several times — sometimes quite close — and yet Rita and I only saw them on our next-to-final day and then only in flight across a small densely vegetated canyon. All the other times it sounded like they were laughing at us! Noisy flocks of White-browed Laughingthrush in central China were not quite so secretive — I even managed a photo! (right).

As a family, babblers were once considered to the "dustbin" of Old World avifauna, with many oddities thrown into the mix. Studies in the mid-2000s began to clarify the situation (e.g., Cibois 2003, Alström et al. 2006, Jønsson & Fjeldså 2006) but there was uncertainty whether the huge babbler assemblage should be allocated to one or two or more families. Genetic evidence revealed that the Sylvia warblers — the original genus in the 'Old World Warblers' Sylviidae — was more closely related to Babblers than other Old World Warblers [see a discussion of the break-up of the Old World Warblers]. More recent research, especially Gelang et al. (2009), have led to a "break-up of the Babblers." Cibois et al. (2010) summarized the outlines for five babbler families: tree babblers and scimitar-babblers [Timaliidae], sylvid babblers and parrotbills [Sylviidae], white-eyes [Zosteropidae], fulvettas and ground-babblers [Pellorneidae], and laughingthrushes [Leiothrichidae, this group]. The five-family solution has been adopted for some years, and I follow it here.

The newly-designated Leiothrichidae is by far the largest family left among the babblers. About 66 species are called "laughingthrushes," in two genera: Garrulax (with 45 species) and Trochalopteron (with 21 species). Four species of Babax (genus Babax) look and behave like typical laughingthrushes. So, in all, about 70 species might be considered "laughingthrushes," and these comprise 30% of this family. They typically travel in small family groups or larger loose flocks, are often best found by vocalizations, and tend to be wary and secretive. Examples include Moustached Laughingthrush (below left), a secretive bird of bamboo forest in n. Burma and s. China, and Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (below right), of montane forests of Malaya, Borneo, and Sumatra.

This new family, though, includes quite a number of babblers that aren't at all similar to laughingthrushes. Some are tiny and colorful like the Chestnut-tailed Minla (left) beautifully photographed in n. India by Ron Saldino. They and other small babblers can be found in mixed species flocks or isolated pairs inside the forest.

The Leiothrichidae now includes 3 species of Minla, 5 species of Liocichla, and 7 species of Barwing, plus 8 Sibia, two Crocias, and two Cutia, not to mention Capuchin Babbler Phyllanthus atripennis, White-throated Mountain Babbler Kupeornis gilberti, Red-collared Babbler K. rufocinctus, and Chapin's Babbler K. chapini.

The "namesake" species for the new family is Red-billed Leiothrix (right in another shot from India by Ron Saldino). It is widespread in the Himalayan foothills, and has been introduced into Hawaii. Leiothrix and Turdoides were both formally proposed at the same time back in the 19th century, and either could have been the basis for this new subfamily name. Gelang et al. (2009) preferred Leiothrichinae.

In contrast to the difficult forest babblers, 30 species (22% of all the Leiothrichidae) are open-country birds in the genus Turdoides. A few are marsh birds but most occur in open savanna or thornscrub where they travel in small noisy family parties, often leap-frogging each other as they move quickly from bush to bush so that the whole party appears to be "rolling" across the plain.

The Jungle Babbler (left) is quite common in the dry forests of the Indian subcontinent; in Ranthambhor National Park it has become so tame that it searches the tourist's jeeps for tidbits.

While Asia is the center of babbler distribution, members of the Leiothrichidae also occur in Africa. These include 14 of the Turdoides babblers.

This group of Bare-cheeked Babbler (right) in Namibia were huddled together on one branch, a behavior I've also seen in other species of babbler in Tanzania and in northern China. A fair number of species forage together in loose family groupings. Thus the Turdoides babblers, like laughingthrushes, are very social birds.

Whether the current limits of the Leiothrichidae hold up is a matter that time will tell. It is difficult to describe any of the five babbler families, because each has rich variation and diversity. But certainly Turdoides babblers and the 70 laughingthrushes share similarities that characterize much of this family.

The fulvetta genus Alcippe once contained 17 species but new research (Moyle et al. 2012) showed that not only was the genus paraphyletic, it belonged to two families. Those now assigned to genus Schoeniparus are now among the Pellorneidae. The ten remaining Alcippe fulvettas, now located here among the Leiothrichidae, include what used to be called "Gray-cheeked Fulvetta" (left). However, "Gray-cheeked Fulvetta" is itself a group of four different species (Zou et al. 2007, Song et al. 2009). This photo is of the taxa now called David's Fulvetta A. davidi; nominate morrisonia is now restricted to Taiwan). David's Fulvetta is a common component of mixed species flocks in central China. [Another component of those flocks — Golden-breasted Fulvetta, formerly Alcippe chrysotis — is now in its own genus Lioparus and assigned to the Parrotbills.]

Among the 10 species of Alcippe fulvettas are rather dull-looking species, including Javan Fulvetta (left). Many with very plain plumage have lovely songs given with much verve and energy. I recall watching a very dull Brown-cheeked Fulvetta A. poioicephala in Assam, India, transform itself into a thing of beauty by lustily giving a complex song from a song perch low in the undergrowth of Panbari Forest.

Photos: The Streaked Laughingthrush Trochalopteron lineatus was photographed at Sat Tal in northern India in March 2001. The White-browed Laughingthrush Garrulax sannio was at Huayang Village, Shaanxii, China, on 7 Nov 2010. The Moustached Laughingthrush Garrulax cineraceus was in Foping Nature Reserve, Shaanxii, China, on 11 Nov 2010. The Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush Garrulax mitratus was on Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, on 5 Aug 1988. Ron Saldino photographed the Chestnut-tailed Minla Minla strigula near Lava in w. Bengal, India, in late Feb 2001, and Ron photographed the Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea near Corbett Nat'l Park, India, in mid-March 2001. The Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus was in Ranthambhor Nat'l Park, Rajasthan, India, on 23 Mar 2001. The family of Bare-cheeked Babbler Turdoides gymnogenys was in Erusha Nat'l Park, Namibia, in July 2005. David's Fulvetta Alcippe davidi was photographed at Foping Nature Reserve, Shaanxii, China, on 15 Nov 2010. The Javan Fulvetta Alcippe pyrrhoptera was in Gede Nat'l Park, Java, Indonesia, on 27 Aug 1988.

      Ucredited photos © Don Roberson; credited photos © Ron Saldino, as credited and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic notes

There is no recent "family book" covering the tree-babblers but good coverage of the various babbler families, including the current Leiothrichidae, is in Collar & Robson (2007). The account is wonderful, with exceptional photos, although it could not be quite up-to-date with the most current taxonomic findings., some of which post-date its publication.

Literature cited:

Alström P., P.G.P. Ericson, U. Olsson, and P. Sundberg. 2006. Phylogeny and classification of the avian superfamily Sylvioidea. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution 38: 381-397.

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.

Cibois, A. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of babblers (Timaliidae). Auk 120: 35-54.

Cibois, A., E. Pasquet, and T.S. Schulenberg. 1999. Molecular systematics of the Malagasy babblers (Timaliidae) and Warblers (Sylviidae), based on cytochrome b and 16S rRNA sequences. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 3: 581-595.

Cibois, A., M. Gelang, and E. Pasquet. 2010. An overview of the babblers and associated groups. Systematic Notes on Asian Birds 68: 1-5.

Cibois, A., B. Slikas, T.S. Schulenberg, and E. Pasquet. 2001. An endemic radiation of Malagasy songbirds is revealed by mitochondrial DNA sequence data. Evolution 55: 1198-1206.

Cibois, A. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of babblers (Timaliidae) Auk 120: 35-54.

Collar, N.J., and C. Robson. 2007. "Babblers (Timaliidae)," pp. 70-291 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 12. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Gelang, M., A. Cibois, E. Pasquet, U. Olsson, P. Alström, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2009. Phylogeny of babblers (Aves, Passeriformes): major lineages, family limits and classification. Zoologica Scripta 38: 225-236.

Jønsson, K.A., and J. Fjeldså. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds. Zoologica Scripta 35: 149-186.

Moyle, R.G., M.J. Andersen, C.H. Oliveros, F.D. Steinheimer, and S. Reddy. 2012. Phylogeny and biogeography of the core Babblers (Aves: Timaliidae). Syst. Biol. 61: 631-651.

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. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.






  Page on Babblers created 25-27 May 2001, revised significantly 3 June 2006, 26-29 Apr 2009, 6 Dec 2010, and again 3 Nov 2012 and 26 Jan 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved