RHABDORNISES  Rhabdornithidae
Rhabornises are a small group of arboreal passerines, comprised of 3 species in the genus Rhabdornis, found only in the Philippines. Stripe-headed Rhabdornis (left) is the widespread species, occurring throughout the major Philippine islands in lowland forests, some montane forests, gardens, and secondary scrub. The two other species are montane specialists.

Rhabdornises have traditionally been considered a separate family allied to the Certhidae (northern creepers), and were once called "Philippine creepers." Traditional paintings of Rhabdornises (e.g.,  Austin & Singer 1961 or du Pont 1971) show them clinging to tree trunks like traditional creepers. While they will sometimes forage along a limb, checking crevices, they mostly do so by hopping, and the rest of their behavior is not particularly creeper-like. They often forage in mixed species flocks (like tits or small babblers) and they sit up on bare trees like starlings (left). They also have brush-tipped tongues for flower feeding. Sibley (1996) thought it might be a babbler. Recent DNA sequencing shows them to be most closely related to starlings (Cibois & Cracraft 2004). Indeed, following the approach of Sibley & Ahlquist (1990), that new research treats them simply as a tribe among the starling subfamily in a huge Muscicapid assemblage. However, their relative position within the group is not well-supported. It is interesting to discover, however, that it appears that Rhabdornis is more closely related to starlings than are the oxpeckers (Buphagus) that have long been considered to be starlings (Cibois & Cracraft 2004). For the moment I leave them as a traditional family, until further evidence sorts it all out.
 

All of the Rhabdornis have a black mask, gray crown, and streaking to the sides but they differ in facial and crown details, breast pattern, and the crispness of the side streaking. The largest, most impressive, and rarest species in the family is Grand Rhabdornis (right in a fine shot © Blake Matheson). I have my own shot of this individual but Blake's photo is much better. Grand Rhabdornis is restricted to montane forests in northern Luzon where it usually occurs singly. We first picked this bird up in an undulating flight, and tentatively called it a "Mountain Shrike!" It is about that size and has a heavy, long bill for this genus. Although mostly thought of as a high elevation species, we recorded it in mixed species flocks down to 1000m elevation in the Sierra Madre on northern Luzon. Sometimes those flocks also contained one or more Stripe-headed Rhabdornis. 
The final species is Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis (left), a montane species above 800 m on Mindanao, Negros, Panay, Samar, and Leyte. This is a terrible photo backlit and up in the canopy directly over my head on Mt, Kitinglad, Mindanao. Despite the marginal photo, note how small the bill is on this bird. Some consider Grand Rhabdornis to be simply a big-billed race of this species but I thought they were quite different. Note the broad and somewhat blurry breast streaking on Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis. Looking at the bird above my head, it reminded me for all the world of a female Purple Finch Carpodacus purpureous (and seemed to be in a small flock feeding on small fruit, just as the finches do in California).

Rather little is known about the breeding biology of Rhabdornis. Stripe-breasted has nested in cavities (Kennedy et al. 2000), and it is presumed that the other species do as well. They eat a variety of things: seeds, fruti, insects (sometimes flycatching for insects), and an ocassional tree frog (Kennedy et al. 2000).

Photos: The Stripe-headed Rhabdornis Rhabdornis mysticalis (top, sometimes called "Stripe-sided Rhabdornis") was photographed in the PICOP forest lands, south of Bislig, Mindanao, Philippines, on 26 Dec 2005. Blake Matheson photographed the Grand Rhabdornis Rhabdornis grandis (sometimes called "Long-billed Rhabdornis") on Mt. Polis, Luzon, Philippines, on 1 Jan 2006 . The Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis Rhabdornis inornatus was on Mt. Kitinglad, Mindanao, Philippines, on 23 Dec 2005. Photos © 2006 D. Roberson, except the Grand Rhabdornis attributed to © Blake Matheson, used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

There is no family book as yet, nor much written about this group at all. I look forward to the Handbook of the Birds of the World project reaching this group.

Other literature cited:

Austin, O.L., and A. Singer. 1961. Birds of the World. Edited by H. S. Zim. Golden Press, New York.

Cibois, A., and J. Cracraft. 2004. Assessing the passerine "Tapestry": phylogenetic relationships of the Muscicapoidea inferred from nuclear DNA sequences. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 32: 264-273.

du Pont, J.E. 1971. Philippine Birds. Delaware Mus. Nat. Hist. Monograph series no. 2, Greenville, Delaware.

Kennedy, R.S., P.C. Gonzales, E.C. Dickinson, H.C. Miranda, Jr., and T.H. Fisher. 2000. A Guide to the Birds of the Philppines. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.

Sibley, C.G. 1996. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. On diskettes, Windows version 2.0. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA. 

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

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Page created 22 Mar 1999; substantially revised 25 Jan 2006