a web page by Don Roberson
  • 11 species from Asia to Australasia
  • DR personal total: 7 species (63%), 4 photo'd

The Artamidae is a group of aerial specialists ranging from India to Australia, the most widespread of which is White-breasted Woodswallow (above & left). They glide overhead, like chunky, short-tailed, thick-winged swallows (top photo).

Currently, all woodswallows are placed in the single genus Artamus. The name is derived from the Greek, and means "butcher" or "murderer." They were initially considered to be related to shrikes, but genetic evidence now shows a close relationship to butcherbirds and allies (more on that below).

Most woodswallows are patterned in shades of black, gray, white or brown; one (White-browed Woodswallow A. superciliosus) has rusty underparts. Two of the patterns are shown here (right): White-breasted (upper) and Masked (lower) Woodswallows perch together. They are both panting in the very hot dry summer along the Birdsville Track in the desert center of Australia. While most woodswallows are resident, some undertake seasonal movements, and others are nomadic, especially in dry country (Rowley & Russell 2009).

Woodswallows build flimsy nests, and many (all?) engage in cooperative breeding strategies. Black-faced Woodswallow (left) is definitely a cooperative breeding. In research at nests with banded birds, three helpers (presumably young from a prior year) help incubate the eggs and chicks; help in nest sanitation; and help feed the young. Yet, as the nests were flimsy, they young were often lost in storms that knocked them to the ground, or from exposure. Even with helpers, the mean success rate was just 1.5 fledglings per year (Rowley & Russell 2009).

Away from the breeding season, woodswallows are generally social birds. They often forage in flocks, and they often have communal roosts at night.

Woodswallows have traditionally been ranked as a family, but their closest relatives appear to be the butcherbirds, bell-magpies, and allies (Cracticidae). There is growing evidence that these two groups form an evolutionary clade (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990, Barker et al. 2004, Moyle et al. 2006, Jønsson et al. 2010a). The most recent Australian checklist combines them in a single family (Christidis & Boles 2008), and I had followed that decision for a while. Most world checklists (e.g., Dickinson 2003, Gill 2009, and the HBW series) continue to separate them as two families. Given what is known about their relationships, it is equally appropriate to split them into two families, or to lump them. Some even lump the boatbills (Machaerirhynchidae) in an enlarged Artamidae. Yet woodswallows, butcherbirds, and boatbills are all quite different sets of birds, so it does seem best to leave them as three distinctive families.

Photos: The White-breasted Woodswallow Artamus leucorynchus in flight was at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in Nov 1983; the perched bird was along the Birdsville Track, South Australia, on 19 Nov 2009. The photo of White-breasted and Masked Woodswallow A. personatus was also taken 19 Nov 2009 at Lyndhurst, South Australia. The Black-faced Woodswallow A. cinereus was near Erlunda, Northern Territory, Australia, on 18 Aug 2008. Photos © Don Roberson, except that attributed to Steve Wilson and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to this family, with some wonderful photos, is in Rowley & Russell (2009).

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.

Christidis, L, and W.E. Boles. 2008. Systematics and taxonomy of Australian Birds. CSIRO Publ, Sydney.

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

Jønsson, K.A., R.C.K. Bowie, J.A.A. Nylander, L. Christidis, J.A. Norman, and J. Fjeldså. 2010a. Biogeographical history of cuckoo-shrikes (Aves: Passeriformes): transoceanic colonization of Africa from Australo-Papua. J. Biogeogr. (forthcoming).

Jønsson, K.A., R.C.K. Bowie, R.G. Moyle, M. Irestedt, L. Christidis, J.A. Norman, and J. Fjeldså. 2010b. Phylogeny and biogeography of Oriolidae (Aves: Passeriformes). Ecography 33: 232–241.

Moyle, R.G., J. Cracraft, M. Lakim, J. Nais, and F.H. Sheldon. 2006. Reconsideration of the phylogenetic relationships of the enigmatic Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasis gymnocephala). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 39: 893-898.

Rowley, C.R., and E.M. Russell. 2009. Family Artamidae (Woodswallows), pp. 286 –307 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 14. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

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




  page created 5 July 2010  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved