QUAIL-THRUSHES  Cinclosomatidae
The Cinclosomatidae is a small family of secretive, ground-dwelling birds of Australasia. Four species inhabit Australia and the other resides in New Guinea; all are classified within the single genus Cinclosoma. In Australia, three species occur in the arid interior in sparse vegetation or mallee scrub. Each is a spectacular bird, as evidenced by this stunning photo (left) of a male Chestnut Quail-thrush by Rohan Clarke. This species is sometimes called Chesnut-backed Quail-thrush (e.g., Dickinson 2003); you can see that brilliant chestnut back in Rohan's photo. Males have the striking black throat while females are gray-throated.

For a long time the Quail-thrushes were considered to be among the Orthonychidae (Logrunners) of Australia, and older works tend to lump them together, along with whipbirds, wedgebills, and jewel-babblers. Beehler et al. (1986) also included the two melampittas of New Guinea (Melampitta), and Blue-capped Ifrita Ifrita kowaldi, in this family. Some also included the Rail-babbler Eupetes macrocerus, occurring in lowland primary forests of peninsular Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo, which had been traditionally considered a babbler (hence the name). Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990), using DNA hybridization evidence for some of the taxa, separated the Quail-thrushes from the Logrunners but left all most of the remaining groups (whipbirds, wedgebills, jewel-babblers, Ifrita, and rail-babbler) with the Quail-thrushes in their subfamily Cinclosomatinae in a huge Corvidae family. [Melampitta was transfer by Sibley & Monroe to birds-of-paradise; more recent work suggests this was incorrect and no one quite knows were the two melampittas should be classified today; they may not be related to each other.]

The most recent Howard & Moore checklist (Dickinson 2003) places just the five Quail-thrushes in a modified Cinclosomatidae. The whipbirds, wedgebills, jewel-babblers and rail-babbler now reside in a newly created Eupetidae. The family assignments there are the work of Joel Cracraft, and contain a number of his as-yet unpublished findings within the corvoid radiation in Australasia. For the moment, however, the latest evidence now based on gene sequencing in mitochondrial and nuclear genes is that the Quail-thrushes are distinctive enough to warrant their own family.

Quail-thrushes are shy ground dwellers that move quietly in pairs or small parties. I felt exceedingly lucky to photograph the Spotted Quail-thrush (right) in wet eucalyptus forest of eastern Australia. This species has been declining with encroaching development. Males apparently sit up on logs to check out the surroundings, but if disturbed will usually flush, quail-like, on short whirring wings, showing prominent white tail tips as they depart (Morcombe 2000). They are often best located by voice, a high-pitched note that can be hard for some to hear (Simpson & Day 1996). 

The arid country Australian quail-thrushes are Chestnut (above), Chestnut-breasted C. castaneothorax, and Cinnamon C. cinnaomomeum. The New Guinea species is Painted Quail-thrush C. ajax, and has been known by the old name of "Ajax Scrub-Robin," of all things. It has a drawn-out whistled call, like a jewel-babbler, but with two short introductory notes (Beehler et al. 1986). Like many things Papuan, rather little is known about it.

All quail-thrushes forage on the ground, eating a wide variety of insects but some inland species also eat spinifex seeds. They walk deliberately with frequent and rather erratic changes of direction; they do not scratch but rather probe crevices encountered. They often squat when disturbed, and when pressed may run, using the vegetation for cover, rather than fly. All these behaviors sound rather like the mesites of Madagascar; I find it interesting to note convergent evolution in far distant places. All quail-thrushes build cup-like nests, usually placed in scrapes on the ground. Inland species do not start breeding until the onset of desert rains (Simpson & Day 1996).


Photos: Rohan Clarke photographed the male Chestnut Quail-thrush  Cinclosoma castanotum in Mungo Nat'l Park, New South Wales, Australia, in November 2003. My photo of Spotted Quail-thrush C. punctatum is from Lamington Nat'l Park, Queensland, Australia, in Nov 1983. Photos © 2004 Don Roberson and Rohan Clarke and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Rohan Clarke has a large collection of Australiasian bird images that are available for licence at a reasonable fee. Just email him.

Bibliographic notes

There is no "family book" covering the Cinclosomatidae, although good photographs and information about Australian and New Guinea species are found in Frith (1979) and Coates (1990), respectively.

Literature cited:

Beehler, B.M., T.K. Pratt, and D.A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Coates, B.J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.

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

Frith, H. J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.

Morcombe, M. 2000. Field Guide to Australian Birds. Steve Parish Publ., Archerfield, Australia.

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. 

Simpson, K., and N. Day 1996. Field Guide of the Birds of Australia. 5th ed. Viking, Victoria, Australia.

Acknowledgments: I thank Murray Lord for directing me to Rohan Clarke and his photos, and for his comments on a draft of this page.
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