Colours of Wildlife: Grey Cuckooshrike

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Grey Cuckooshrike

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Grey Cuckooshrike by Willem

The bird I show you today, is an unassuming species that very few people ever see, or take notice of. This is a Grey Cuckooshrike, Ceblepyris caesius. It used to be classified in the genus Coracina along with many other similar-looking cuckooshrikes, but close studies have shown that this group consists of sub-groups that are more closely related to each other than to the rest. So, along with two other African and two Madagascan/Comoran species, this one now resides in a new genus.

I'm sure many of you have never even heard of a cuckooshrike. The name itself doesn't say much… cuckoos are notorious for laying their eggs in other birds' nests, while shrikes are notorious for impaling their prey on thorns. Cuckooshrikes don't do either of these things. But they are like cuckoos in being often grey-plumaged specialized feeders on hairy caterpillars, and like shrikes in being active hunters. An alternative but not often-heard name for them is Caterpillarbirds. Afrikaans, cuckooshrikes are called 'Katakoeroes', a word the origin of which I can't determine.

The cuckooshrike family, Campephagidae, is surprisingly large and diverse for birds that don't really form a noteworthy component of the avifauna in any particular region. Many are confined to fairly small geographic regions, a great many species inhabiting islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, especially on and around the vast island of New Guinea. Any particular country will not have many different cuckooshrike species. The entire continent of Africa only has ten species. With Asia, Australia and all those islands included, the family numbers 93 currently-recognized species, and many more sub-species. (Remember that 'sub-species' doesn't imply inferiority, it merely denotes a group within a group – some members of a species being more closely related to each other than to other members of the same species.) Their closest relatives appear to be the Old-World Orioles.

Most members of the family are called cuckooshrikes, but other names used for some of the species include Minivets, Trillers and Cicadabirds. While most are grey, or patterned in black and white, some have bold and bright patches in their plumage, while some of the Minivets are very colourful indeed, most notably the Scarlet Minivet. Many species have enlarged, erectile rump feathers with stiff, spiny-tipped shafts, which may play a role in display and/or defense. A couple of African species are adorned with large, colourful wattles at the bases of their bills. In size, cuckooshrikes vary from 16 cm/6.5" and about 6-12 g in the Small Minivet, to 35 cm/14" and up to 180 g in the South Melanesian Cuckooshrike.

Among these, the grey cuckooshrike is unexceptional. Its overall monotonous grey plumage is quite typical. There are slight differences between adult males and females. Males have a blackish facial patch and are somewhat darker grey than females. It is about average for the family in size, measuring 21-27 cm/8.5"-10.5", about as large as a thrush. It is but rarely seen, since it inhabits dense, moist, mountain rainforests, where it sticks to the canopy high overhead. Indeed, generally it would only be experienced bird watchers who will even see and notice it. Almost the only way of having a chance of spotting a grey cuckooshrike is from hearing and recognizing its call. This is a very thin, high, and somewhat soft and sibilant, drawn-out 'Tseeeeeeee…'. Just that one, long, single note is the giveaway. Then, you crane your neck upward and look overhead and see if you can pinpoint the source of the sound. If you're lucky, you will spot the slim silhouette of the bird as it flits through the foliage. Binoculars don't help much, as it is just a dark outline against the sunlight coming through the gaps between the leaves. But… you've spotted it!

For me this bird holds special charm, as I associate it with the magical, fairytale forests of Magoebaskloof not far from where I live. I first saw and heard the bird in, I believe, 1986, when I first explored these forests as a serious birdwatcher. It was an encounter just like the one I described above. Since then I've always tried to find it whenever I visited the forests. I've not often been successful, but over the years I had some good glimpses of it. The best kind of place to see it well, would be a spot on a mountainside where you can look out over the forest canopy that's level with or below you. You just might be in luck to see a grey cuckooshrike passing by. While it is not colourful or spectacular in any way, it is actually quite a pretty bird with its sleek pastel-grey plumage only relieved by a whitish line around its black eye. My friend Jody de Bruyn managed to take some good photos of it, and the painting you see here is based on one of his.

In South Africa, true closed-canopy forests are very rare, only occupying less than one percent of the land surface of the country. The forests are typically in moist, sheltered areas, where mountains intercept rain-bearing clouds. These conditions only exist in small patches, so that the forests of South Africa are almost like an archipelago of islands. These forest patches have been colonized by cuckooshrikes similar to how they've colonized the oceanic islands. In Africa, the main colonizer of such isolated forest patches has been the grey cuckooshrike. It inhabits mountain forests in South, East and Central Africa, as far east as Ethiopia and as far west as Nigeria. It also occurs on the island of Bioko, not far off Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. Over thousands of years, fluctuating climates in Africa causes spreading and contraction of these forest patches, and many that are currently disconnected from each other, may have been joined in the past, facilitating their colonization by cuckooshrikes. If two forest regions remain separate for tens to hundreds of thousands of years, then the cuckooshrikes inhabiting them may through separate evolutionary pathways turn into two different species. On the African continent, so far the isolation hasn't been complete for very long, and only a few different cuckooshrike species have evolved. Islands in the ocean are more permanently isolated from each other, which is why there are so many different cuckooshrike species that have evolved on them.

Grey cuckooshrikes are active hunters of small prey. A cuckooshrike usually hunts alone or in pairs, but sometimes occur in family groups of up to seven birds. It regularly joins what are called 'mixed bird parties'. These consist of several different bird species hunting together in a group. Each species will target prey of a certain size in a certain place. Critters missed by one may then be snatched up by another. Grey cuckooshrikes are fondest of caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, winged termites and spiders. Its hunting method is to hop or creep along tree trunks, twigs and branches, and inspecting the bark, patches of lichen and undersides of leaves. Sometimes it sits and waits until it spots a promising prey item. It snatches its prey in its bill, which has a notched tip to ensure a firm grasp. It will sometimes fly out to catch an insect in flight, or flutter down to the ground to retrieve a fallen insect. Most of the time it will remain high in the canopy.

Only a very few people have ever seen a grey cuckooshrike nest. They nest high up in a tall forest tree, up to 20 m/70' above the ground, making their nests very hard to locate or inspect. The nest is a neat cup made of the long stems of beard-lichens, bound together with cobwebs. In this, the female lays 1-2 eggs, light greenish with dark-olive spots and streaks. Both sexes incubate. Not much else is known about their breeding. The juvenile birds look quite different from the adults, being brownish with light-and-dark barring. The chick remains with its parents until the next breeding season arrives. The uniform grey colour is attained when they reach sexual maturity.

While mainly birds of pristine forests, grey cuckooshrikes sometimes venture into adjacent woodlands, timber plantations, or suburban gardens. They also undergo some seasonal movements. In the winter, which can be cold in some parts of Southern Africa, they tend to move altitudinally, going to lower elevations, where it is somewhat warmer than high up in the mountains. It is also in the winter that they're likely to be seen in more open habitats. Because they are somewhat tolerant of human disturbance, they are not seriously endangered. In a few places such as Bioko Island the species has become rare as a result of deforestation. In South Africa, at least, most remaining forest is protected by law and the species is secure.

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