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Monarch Flycatchers

The monarch or old-world flycatchers are about 400 species of arboreal, insectivorous songbirds that make up the family Muscicapidae. There are three subfamilies in this group: the monarch and paradise flycatchers (Monarchinae), the fantails (Rhipidurinae), and the typical flycatchers (Muscicapinae). Some taxonomists consider these to be separate families, but they are treated as a single group here, referred to as muscicapid flycatchers.

Species in this group occur in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australasia. Their usual habitats are forests, more-open woodlands, riparian zones, and some types of agricultural areas. Most species are tropical, but some migratory species occur in temperate regions.

Muscicapid flycatchers are small birds, with a typical body length of 4.7-5.5 in (12-14 cm), and rather short wings and legs. Their beak is strong and flattened, and broad at the base, so their gape is large. They have well-developed bristles at the base of their bill. These are known as rictal bristles, and are a common feature of birds that catch insects while flying.

Muscicapid flycatchers typically feed by pursuing and catching flying insects, using short, aerial sallies from a favorite, exposed perch. This type of feeding strategy is called, appropriately enough, "fly-catching." Many species of muscicapid flycatchers have a rather subdued coloration of grays, black, and whites. Others, however, are quite brightly colored, with blues, reds, chestnuts, and other showy hues. The males of some species have elongated tail feathers, which can be several times longer than the body of the bird.

Muscicapid flycatchers are territorial. The males typically defend a breeding area by singing, even though the renditions of most species are relatively quiet and uninspired (only to the human ear, of course). They build a cup-shaped nest in a tree, or sometimes in a cavity, and lay 2-7 spotted eggs. Nest building and incubation may be carried out by both parents, or only by the female in many species. Both parents share the duties of rearing the young birds.

The pied flycatcher ( Ficedula hypoleuca) is a widespread species in Europe and western Asia, migrating to Africa for the non-breeding season. Male pied flycatchers are striking, black-and-white birds, while the females are a more subdued gray.

The males of paradise flycatchers (Terpsiphone spp.) are attractive birds with very-long plumes extending from the center of their tail. The paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) occurs in South and Southeast Asia. This lovely bird has a black head with a crest, a white belly, a chestnut back, and two long, chestnut plumes extending from the tail. This species also occurs in a white-bodied, black-headed phase.

The male of the flame robin (Petroica phoenicea) of southeastern Australia and Tasmania is an extremely attractive, black-backed, red-bellied bird.

Fantails are active birds that have a pleasing habit of spreading the tail as a visual display. The friendly fantail (Rhipidura albolimbata) is a common, tame, inquisitive bird that occurs widely in montane forests of New Guinea.

Bill Freedman

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