The Muscicapidae is a huge family of smallish Old World passerines that includes not only some of the 'flycatchers' of the Old World, but also a large group of 'chats' and allies, of which Gray Bushchat (left) is just one example. Other examples are Old World redstarts, stonechats, shamas, forktails, wheatears, the European Robin Erithacus rubecula and many other small robins, and a large assortment of Old World flycatchers. Together, it is best to think of them as 'muscicapids.'

The taxonomic history of this group is checkered with uncertainties and contradictions. They were once considered a part of a huge group including thrushes, Old World warblers, babblers and allies (Mayr and Amadon 1951). Later the grouping was restricted but still included the batises, monarchs, and whistlers (Wetmore 1960) that are now thought of as separate families. Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990) created a huge Muscicapidae with two subfamilies -- the 'true thrushes and the rest, which were divided into two tribes, the 'chats' and the Old World flycatchers. This is the newest approach, now generally supported by molecular evidence, used in Dickinson (2003). There are several major differences from Clements (1991) on what is and what isn't an "Old World flycatcher." The newer approach includes within the 'Old World flycatchers' not only the 'chats' but also the rock-thrushes (Monticola, Pseudocossyphus) that are often placed with the Turdidae. Yet even this approach is not without problems at the edges. Following recent authorities like Keith, Urban & Fry (1992), Urban, Fry & Keith (1997) and (Christy & Clarke 1998), I exclude Chaetops (rock-jumpers) and Horizorhinus (the endemic Dohrn's Thrush-Babbler of Príncipe) from the muscicapids, considering the former in its own family and treating the latter (tentatively) to be a babbler.

Except for the Northern Wheatear and a few Bluethroats in Alaska, all muscicapids are Old World species, and they span a diverse range of habitats for the driest upland steppes to the forest floor of the darkest jungles. Some undertake long migrations while others are entirely resident. This diversity is exemplified by the two photos below, both taken in equatorial Africa: Isabelline Wheatear (below left) migrates from the dry steppes of Turkey to central China to winter on the open east African plains. It is conspicuous as it perches up on small mounds or snags among heavily grazed grasslands used by zebras and wildebeests. In contrast, Forest Robin (below right) is a resident of dense undergrowth in the Congo basin, hard to observe and most often located by its lovely song.
The Muscicapidae include 22 species of Oenanthe called wheatears, about 30 species in 10 genera called robins (not including even more robin-chats and magpie-robins) and 14 species in four genera that go by the name of redstarts. The latter refers to red in the tail, a feature shared by many redstarts.

Among the redstarts is this absolutely gorgeous gem known by the prosaic name of White-throated Redstart (right). It breeds in high mountain meadows from north China to the Himalayas, and winters mostly in n.e. India and Burma. This male has a mouthful of insects to carry to its hidden nest. The entire family is composed of insectivores, although the techniques used for catching insects, spiders, and similar prey range from 'perch-and-plunge' to 'sally forth' to scratching in the undergrowth.

This White-throated Redstart was digiscoped in northern China on a trip that netted observations of ten different redstarts. You can peruse the entire selection on my "north China redstarts" page.

Of course, the Muscicapidae does include the group known as 'Old World Flycatchers;' sometimes the family is restricted to just them (e.g., earlier versions of this web-based family listing put the 'chats' with the thrushes). One colorful example is Elisa's [Chinese Narcissus] Flycatcher (left), a bird that most checklists still consider a subspecies of Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina. The photo is of a male of the subspecies elisae, an endemic breeder to east China, that probably should be considered a separate species from nominate F. narcissina of Japan. At the same location in China as this bird, our group (led by Paul Holt) also saw several "Peking Flycatcher F. beijingnica" (Zheng et al. 2000) which is actually the first-summer male of F. elisae. In each case the "Peking" responded vigorously to the song of elisae and essentially proving they are the same species. Dickinson (2003) wisely does not consider "beijingnica" even a subspecies; he simply lumps it with elisae stating that "critical acoustic information is missing" from Zheng et al. (2000) and "the description might apply to a subadult form of elisae (which is exactly the case!). Paul Holt has been in the forefront of getting this sorted out. The taxonomy of many other Ficedula flycatchers is much less complicated. Most, however, are not nearly so colorful and are , instead, patterned in shades of grayish, brownish, and whitish.
A fair number frequent rushing streams, often bobbing their tails, dipper-like, in rhythm to the cascade. One of the rarest of these is the Luzon Redstart (above left; the small blue-and-orange bird with its cocked tail is at the upper right in the photo), now highly endangered from habitat loss in the Philippines. I include this very marginal photo because the species is so rarely photographed, and it does show the rushing water habitat. Much more widespread and even more colorful is White-capped Water Redstart (above right); it is found along rushing streams throughout the Himalayas and mountains on the Tibetan Plateau. Other spectacular muscicapids that frequent running water are the seven striking forktails (genus Enicurus).
Quite a number of migratory chats are very skulking on summer and wintering grounds but are also shockingly colorful when seen well. Examples include the highly migratory Bluethroat (near right) and Siberian Rubythroat (far right). There is a wide variety of throat patterns in male Bluethroats breeding across Eurasian, so they are separated into nine or more subspecies. Most fly south to wintering grounds in Africa or southeast Asia. This individual (near right) was drinking from a small water seep in the dry Sinai desert during its fall flight south. Siberian Rubythroat breeds widely in northeast Asia and flies south in winter to India or southeast Asia. It occurs as a vagrant on the Aleutian Islands and is a conceivable candidate for vagrancy to my home state of California. This photo (far right) was digiscoped through the narrowest of 'holes' in bushes on its north China breeding grounds as it responded to tape playback.

The stonechats of Eurasia are also quite migratory, while those of more tropical regions are entirely sedentary. Some of the latter are restricted to single islands, such as the Réunion Stonechat (below left) found only on the French island of Réunion in the equatorial Indian Ocean. In contrast, the Siberian Stonechat (below right) migrates thousands of miles and, inevitably, some individuals will make errors in their journey, spinning off vagrants to far-distant lands. This particular Siberian Stonechat was on the island of Texel, off the mainland Dutch coast, in October 1991. It happened to occur during a meeting of rarities committee members from across Europe and the United States, so was viewed and documented by many of the sharpest birders on earth. The separation of Siberian Stonechat S. maurus from Common Stonechat S. torquatus has been controversial, but this is the approach of the new book of the genus Saxicola (Urquhart & Bowley 2003); they also split the African Stonecahat S. axillaris. Note that the 45th AOU supplement adopted new endings for the species names of Siberian and Common Stonechat.

A fair number of muscicapids are threatened worldwide, usually due to habitat loss. Collar et al. (1994) describe 31 of them as among the world's most endangered species, and another 31 as "near-threatened." Among the most critically endangered birds on the planet is the Seychelles Magpie-Robin (left). When I photographed this male in 1992, only 23 were left in the wild. Fortunately, its attempted recovery is being closely monitored (note that the bird is banded) and numbers were up some by the mid-1990s (to 60 birds; see McCulloch 1996) but had declined again late in the century.

Another threatened species is White-browed (Stoliczka's) Bushchat (below left) of the deserts of western India and adjacent Pakistan. Its world population is highly fragmented and political uncertainties make it a difficult species to find or study. The particular female shown below was a rarity at the very northeastern edge of its range and therefore within a fairly easy drive of downtown Delhi.

See also a separate page on White-browed Bushchat
as a threatened species

Almost nothing is known about a number of other muscicapids. The Congo Moorchat (above right) is almost totally unstudied. This is surely one of the few photos ever taken of this enigmatic bird, as it surveys its territory in open plains from the top of a "toadstool" termite mound.

Finally, there are still taxonomic changes to come within this group. The recent Howard & Moore world checklist (2003) included within the family two Asian canary-flycatchers in the genus Culicicapa but put another group of African flycatchers (five crested-flycatchers in Elminia, two other flycatchers in Erythrocercus) in sedis incertae limbo. Barker et al. (2004) found molecular evidence that both Culicicapa and Elmina were an "ancient group" of "flycatchers" that evolved much earlier than the rest of the Muscicapidae. If additional research confirms these data, it is possible that a new family or two will eventually be formed for them. The edges around this large family are thus still in flux and, as we are so often advised by T.V. announcers, "stay tuned!"

Photos: The male Gray Bushchat  Saxicola ferrea was at Ramnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, on 13 Mar 2001. The Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabelina was in Samburu Nat'l Park, Kenya, in Nov 1981; this photo featured as quiz "N" in Sharrock (1983). The Forest Robin Stiphrornis erythrothorax was on the forest floor in La Lopé Reserve, Gabon, on 6 July 1996. The male White-throated Redstart Phoenicurus schisticeps was in Huzu Bei Shan National Park, Qinghai, China, on 24 June 2004. The male Elisa's (Chinese Narcissus) Flycatcher Ficedula elisae was at Wulingshan, Hebei Province, China, on 9 June 2004. The White-capped Water Redstart  Chaimarrornis leucocephalus was along a river in Huzu Bei Shan National Park, Qinghai, China, on 22 June 2004. The Luzon Redstart Rhyacornis fuliginosus was on Mt. Pollis, Luzon, Philippines, on 15 Mar 1990. The migrant Bluethroat Luscinia svecica stopped at Sharm-el-Sheik, Sinai, on 5 Nov 1981 (then-occupied by Israel, now Egypt). The male Siberian Rubythroat  Luscinia calliope was in Huzu Bei Shan National Park, Qinghai, China, on 23 June 2004. The Réunion Stonechat Saxicola tectes was high up the central volcano above Brulé, Réunion Island, on 4 Dec 1992. The Siberian Stonechat Saxicola maurus at the northern tip of Texel I., the Netherlands, on 15 Oct 1991 (the record has since been accepted by the Dutch Rarities Committee). The Seychelles Magpie-Robin Copsychus sechellarum was photographed on Frégate Is., Seychelles, 11 Nov 1992. The female White-browed Bushchat  Saxicola macrorhyncha was at Sultanpur Jheel 11 Mar 2001. And the Congo Moorchat Myrmecocichla tholloni was on the Batéké Plateau, Gabon, on 10 July 1996. All photos © Don Roberson.
Bibliographic notes

There is no "family book" for the Muscicapidae as a whole, but Urquhart & Bowley (2003) cover the 16 stonechats and bushchats in the genus Saxicola very thoroughly. The Handbook of the Birds of the World project has not yet reached this group.

Other 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. 

Christy, P. and W. Clarke. 1998. Guide des Oiseaux de Såo Tomé et Príncipe. Ecofac, Libreville, Gabon.

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

Collar, N. J., M. J. Crosby, and A. J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 4. BirdLife International, Cambridge, England.

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

Keith, S., E. K. Urban, and C. H. Fry, eds. 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 4: Broadbills to Chats. Academic Press, London & New York.

Mayr, E., and D. Amadon. 1951. A classification of recent birds. Amer. Mus. Novitates 1946: 453-473.

McCulloch, N. 1996. The Seychelles Magpie Robin: first steps on the road to recovery. Bull. African Bird Club 3: 81-84.

Sharrock, J. T. R. 1983. The 'British Birds' Mystery Photographs Book. British Birds, Biggleswade, England.

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.

Urban, E. K., C. H. Fry, and S. Keith, eds. 1997. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 5. Academic Press, London.

Urquhart, E., and A. Bowley. 2003. Stonechats: A Guide to the Genus Saxicola. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT. 

Wetmore, A. 1960. A classification of the birds of the world. Smithsonian misc. coll. 139 (11), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

Zheng, G., Song, Zhang, Zhang, and Guo. 2000. A new species of flycatcher (Ficedula) from China. J. Beijing Normal Univ. (Nat. Sci.) 36 (3): 405-409.




Page created 9-12 Aug 2004