- 3 species in New Guinea
- DR personal total: 3 species (100%), 1 photo'd
Cnemophilidae is a small group of little studied passerines, endemic to
the uplands of mainland New Guinea. There are just three species, one
of which is the colorful Crested Satinbird (left, in
an excellent portrait by Simon Woolley & Julia Casson). These birds
were once considered to be birds-of-paradise. Frith & Beehler
(1998) considered them a subfamily and termed them the "wide-gaped
birds of paradise." This same approach was used in the Handbook of the Birds of the World
(Frith & Frith 2009), although by then the DNA evidence proved that
they were not birds-of-paradise. Now all global lists consider them a
group was initially thought to be related to bowerbirds
[Ptilonorhynchidae]; indeed, ornithologists long sought for the bower
of Crested "Cnemophilus" until Ernst Mayr (in Mayr & Gilliard 1954)
found anatomical evidence linking it more closely with birds of
paradise. Stonor (1937) had already moved Loria's "Cnemophilus" from
the bowerbirds to the birds-of-paradise. Bock's (1963) osteology
studies showed that this group was atypical of both bowerbirds and
birds of paradise, although sharing more features of birds of paradise.
They had a weak and broad-gaped bill, weak and non-manipulative feet,
and an unossified nasal region. They shared some cranial characters,
though, with bowerbirds. Bock (1963) and later Gilliard (1969) thought
bowerbirds and birds of paradise to be closely related, and to have
arisen from the same ancestor. Bock (1963) proposed that the
cnemophilines (plus MacGregor's Bird-of-Paradise Macgregoria pulchra) were an ancient group in that lineage that later led to modern bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise.
was the status when I visited New Guinea in 1983 — they were considered
an early lineage of birds-of-paradise. We searched for them on Trauna
Ridge, Papua New Guinea, in October 1983. A huge mudslide had blocked
our drive to Jimi Valley and in this shot my friends Steve Wilson
(left), Brian Finch (pink shirt) and Chris Spooner (upper right; with
scope) are crossing it with some difficulty. It was just beyond this
spot that we located what was then called "Yellow-breasted
are very poorly known birds; only recently has the name "satinbirds"
been adopted for the Family. The DNA research of Sibley & Ahlquist
(1990) showed that bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise were not closely
related. Rather, both the bowerbirds and the cnemophilines are early
lineages of the great corvid assemblage that arose in Australasia.
Frith & Beehler (1998) acknowledged this, but considered
cnemophilines more closely related to birds of paradise than anything
else. For one thing, recent information about the nest, eggs, and young
of Crested Satinbird shows that it is unlike bowerbirds. Yet, Frith
& Beehler (1998) admit that "the cnemophilines may, in fact, not be
birds-of-paradise" (at page 174) but "it is certainly convenient to
treat these three species" as birds-of-paradise. This was the status
quo until Cracraft & Feinstein (2000) published molecular evidence
that cnemophilines are not closely related to birds of paradise. The
biochemical evidence from mitochondrial DNA, as well as some fossil and
phylogenetic evidence, show that the cnemophilines, like bowerbirds,
are an ancient lineage near the base of the corvoid tree. They are not
especially close to bowerbirds, though; the current evidence suggests
that their closest relatives may be the cuckoo-shrikes [Campephagidae].
There are just three species. We've mentioned two of them above; the third is Loria's Satinbird (left).
Loria's Satinbird may have the broadest range in the central highlands,
mostly from 2000-4000m, but is inconspicuous except at fruiting trees.
This male (left) is in such a fruiting tree, and there was a female
foraging there as well.
Searching out any of the
satinbirds is not easily done. All are "highly frugivorous montane
birds which are rather small, sexually dimorphic, compact with rounded
wings, and generally unobtrusive habits" (Beehler et al. 1986). Crested
Satinbird (once also called the "Sickle-crested Bird-of-Paradise")
recalls a MacGregor's Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae (the
females are especially similar) and both live in similar habitats.
Coates (1990) calls it "an inconspicuous, compact, sluggish frugivore
inhabiting high mountain forest and shrubbery. It is, however, probably
the best known of the group since the nest and young have been studied
and photographed; e.g., Cliff & Dawn Frith's photos of the nest,
with female and young, are published in Coates (1990). It was regular
for a time on the grounds of Kumul Lodge near Mt. Hagen, where Simon
& Julia took the featured photo (top of this page). When I was at
Kumul, males were no longer visiting the lodge feeder.
Satinbird is the least known. Almost nothing is known of its biology,
and it seems scarce and local within the patches of habitat along the
central ranges east to the base of the Huon Peninsula. While the
colorful or exotic males are distinctive, females and young birds are
quite drab, making them even more inconspicuous. Alas, although they
sometimes move in small groups, most birds encountered seem to such
dull-plumaged birds. Fully outfitted males are scarce (Coates 1990,
My experiences in 1983 with two
species in cloud forest at about 9000' (2700m) at Murmur Pass, Mt.
Hagen, were disappointing. The single Crested was a female-plumaged
bird and the single Loria's, although a male, flew across road in front
of us as we walked and much better views were desired. Had not Brian
Finch been with us, I wonder whether we would have identified it.
Finally, while we saw three Yellow-breasted Satinbird in roadside
forest just past the landslide on Trauna Ridge (1800m = 6000' elev; top
photo, above), they were all immature birds. Thus, while I've ticked
all three species, I had not obtained a satisfying view of a male of
any species until this male Loria's (left) at Tari Gap in 2016.
Photos: Simon Woolley & Julia Casson photographed the male Crested Satinbird Cnemophilus macgregorii
at Kumul Lodge, Papua New Guinea, on 8 July 2009. The photo of Trauna
Ridge, Papua New Guinea, and the habitat of Yellow-breasted Satinbird
was taken on 27 Oct 1983. The male Loria's Satinbird Cnemophilus loriae was at Tari Gap, Papua New Guinea, on 8 Sep 2016.
All photos © D. Roberson, except that attributed to Simon Woolley & Julia Casson who hold that copyright, used with permission; all rights reserved.
Family book: Rating (4.5 out of 5 possible stars)
Frith, C.B., and B.M. Beehler. 1998. The Birds of Paradise. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
is a superb family book by two of the world's leading experts on the
family. As discussed above, they (and all previous family books on
BOPs) include the cnemophilines among the birds of paradise. This book
appeared two years before the new biochemical evidence showing
cnemophilines to be unrelated to BOPs. That aside, this is a wonderful
book. Both have studied BOPs in the field extensively, and this book is
right up-to-the-minute on what is known about behavior and ecology. It
is in the Oxford Press's Bird Families of the World series
which is becoming far and away the best series of family books. This
entry is a 600 page tome and outstanding in every way except one, which
is why I give it 4 1/2 stars instead of 5: the plates (beautifully done
by William Cooper) are painted in "field guide" style (a few have
wonderfully mossy branches on which to perch). Perhaps it is just me,
but I would much prefer individual full-page plates of each bird in
situ, showing habitat and behavior, rather than static field guide
poses on a white background. In that sense Cooper & Forshaw has
better art. But this text is full of maps, sonograms, and line drawings
of behavior, almost making up for this one small deficiency. Their
taxonomic conclusions are a bit more conservative than many recent
authors (e.g., they do not split the riflebirds into quite as many
species as most), but the text does contain detailed justifications for
Family book: Rating
Cooper, W. T., and J. M. Forshaw. 1977. The Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds. Collins, Sydney.
its time, this was a great book. I have treasured it, and each of the
spectacular full-page paintings of the birds and their habitat is
etched in my memory. The text was about as good as one could get at the
time, relying heavily on Gilliard (1969), but it is quite dated. Now
one enjoys this book primarily for the artwork.
Beehler, B.M., T.K. Pratt, and D.A. Zimmerman. 1986. Birds of New Guinea. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
Bock, W.J. 1963. Relationship between the birds of paradise and the bowerbirds. Condor 65: 91-125.
Coates, B.J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.
Cracraft, J., and J. Feinstein. 2000. What is not a bird of paradise? Molecular and morphological evidence places Macgregoria in the Meliphagidae and the Cnemophilinae near the base of the corvoid tree. Proc. R. Soc. London B. 267: 233-241.
Frith, C.B., and D.W. Frith. 2009. Family Paradisaeidae (Birds of Paradise), pp. 404 –493 in
Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A.
Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Gilliard, E.T. 1969. Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds. London: Weindenfeld & Nicholson.
Mayr, E., and E.T. Gilliard. 1954. Birds of central New Guinea. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist. 103: 311-374.
C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: a
Study of Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
Stonor, C.R. 1937. On the systematic position of the Prilonorhynchidae. Proc. Zool. Soc. London, 107, ser. B: 475-490.