The Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea)

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I couldn’t wait to write a blog about this species, so I have waded straight into it before the dust has even settled from another round of #BeakoftheWeek.

I had the pleasure of working at a research station (Fowlers Gap) in New South Wales a few years ago where there was a group of habituated apostlebirds, which was a fantastic experience. All you had to do was give a whistle and they would fly over and gather around you in the search of tasty treats. This allowed me to get some great photos like the one below.

Apostlebird1

Apostlebird PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

This social, cooperatively breeding passerine species is an Australian mudnester (Corcoracidae) and is one of many species that had the pleasure of first being described by British Ornithologist John Gould (in 1837). Yup, that is the man who pointed out to Charles Darwin that there was something special about those birds he had brought back from the Galapagos. The 12 seminal ground finch species. This subject could cause me to massively go off on a tangent as I am sometimes wanton to do, but I will stick to the apostlebirds this time.

Apostlebirds are the only member of their genus and one of only two species in the Corcoracidae family, along with the white-winged chough (Corcorax melanorhamphos). If you head over to Onezoom you can see what other species they are closely related to.

  • Apostlebirds are around 30cm in length and largely grey in colour (hence Cinerea, which means grey in latin) except for their brown wings and long black tail which has a greeny gloss in certain light. Sexes are similar in appearance, as are juveniles except that they appear to have slightly softer feathers on the head and body.  They have a black bill and legs.

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Investigative Apostlebird

    Apostlebirds are very vocal, with harsh, gritty calls. Xeno Canto, provider of an unparalleled range of bird calls and songs has once again allowed me to share with you the distinctive sounds these birds make.

  • Where can you find this species?

    Apostlebirds are endemic to Australia, across most of inland Eastern Australia with an isolated population in the Northern Territory. They prefer open habitats, and are typically found in arid and semi-arid woodlands/shrublands.  They can become quite bold and tame around places like campsites and farms, so you might be able to get a better view of them there, if you happen to be in Australia that is…

     

    Apostlebird Range

    Apostlebird Range

  • Breeding

    As I mentioned earlier on in this article, this species breeds cooperatively. This means that the breeding effort in this species is shared amongst members of the group, helping to take some of the burden off of the breeding pair. Members of the group help by assisting with tasks like nest building, egg incubation and nest defence.  The number of helpers in a group can be as high as 17.

    It is in fact the group-living nature of these birds that gave rise to their name.  They are often seen in groups of 12, much like Jesus’s Apostles. Although this species has a whole host of other names, such as the “Cwa-bird” and the “lazy-jack”. Apostlebirds also charmingly called “grey jumpers”, a name derived from their habit of jumping from branch to branch.

    As an aside, this species forms a fission-fusion society with these “breeding units” coming together with other breeding groups in winter to former larger groups, before then breaking off again when breeding season comes around.

    You scratch my back, i'll scratch yours.

    You scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours. PC Elliot Capp @ornithzoologist

    Breeding generally occurs between August and February, with exceptions occurring at other times of the year in drier areas where breeding can commence following rain.

    The mud nest, which all group members take part in building, is typically around 7m (range = 3-12m) from the ground in the horizontal branch of a tree. Nests are commonly built in Eucalyptus , Cassuarina and Acacia trees, and are constructed using dried mud, twigs and grass.

    Typically 3-5 eggs are laid, with the breeding female undertaking most of the incubating (19-20 days), although all group members help somewhat. The whole group then takes responsibility for meeting the nutritional requirements of the nestlings (18-20 days) and subsequently the fledglings for up to 10 weeks. Offspring form a major part of breeding groups and often stay in their natal groups for many years.

    Diet

    You’ll see these birds foraging on the ground looking for seeds and insects, although they have been known to steal eggs from other species’ nests and eat small mammals. They have been seen to kill mice by thumping them into the ground before eating them, what a delightful way to go.

  • How is this species faring?

    This species is not considered to be under threat according to the IUCN redlist but is seeing population declines in some areas due to drought, fire and clearance for agriculture leading to habitat loss.

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library

    I don’t think we have given a shout out to the Biodiversity Heritage Library as of yet, so this is as good an opportunity as any.  It is a fantastic resource that has digitised a large amount of biodiversity literature, such as the Birds of Australia.  It has been created by a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries, such as the Natural History Museum (London) and Smithsonian Libraries, with the aim of digitising biodiversity literature in their collections and making them available to all (open access).

    This project gives members of the public access to reading material that they would most likely never get the chance to see otherwise, unless they had a wealth of time on their hands and the ability to travel the world on some carefree reading adventure.

    Here is the Birds of Australia for you perusal.

References

BirdLife International. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22705385A38386489. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22705385A38386489.en. Downloaded on 29 July 2016.

Rowley, I. & Russell, E. (2016). Apostlebird (Struthidea cinerea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/60602 on 28 July 2016).

Photos and Videos

BirdLife International and NatureServe (2014) Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2012. Struthidea cinerea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-1 – range

Investigative Apostlebird by Benjamint444 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Audio

Marc Anderson, XC171837. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/171837.