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Common, Widespread, Familiar… Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike

By Dr Keith Hutton on April 8, 2011 in Other

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes are medium sized, clean-cut grey birds that fly with characteristic undulating flight and habitually shuffle their wings when they alight. They are widespread in Australia, common in woodland and open forest, and familiar in suburban areas, orchards, parks and gardens where they often perch in prominent positions such as on powerlines.

They usually occur singly or in twos, and occasionally move in loose flocks of 30 or more. They are about the same size as feral pigeons, but appear elongated and slender in comparison, with short legs, long wings, long square-tipped tails, and short robust bills with slightly hooked tips. Adults are pale grey with much paler underparts and with a jet-black face, throat and upper breast; immature birds are similar but with only a smutty black mask from the bill through the eye, and finely barred greyish crown, throat and breast. The birds keep in touch with one another with distinctive harsh, musical, grating calls that are hard to describe but that once heard will never be forgotten.

In Australia, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes are widespread throughout the continent, but probably only occur sporadically in the Simpson Desert and the sandy deserts of eastern Western Australia when conditions are favourable. They prefer open habitats with trees, predominantly drier eucalypt forests and woodlands with the understory varying from sparse to dense. They are apparently absent from rainforests. They appear to be partly migratory and partly resident or sedentary, and may also be nomadic in some parts.

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes eat insects and their larvae including grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, with occasional fruit and seeds. They are largely arboreal and feed from foliage in the canopy, and only occasionally on the ground. They forage mainly by sallying and less often by gleaning. They pounce either from a hovering position or from a perch and consume their food on the ground or after returning to a perch.

Feral predators and road kills do not appear to be significant problems for cuckoo-shrikes. The major impact of white settlement has been habitat modification. Land clearing has reduced natural habitat significantly, however, these birds have adapted well to established gardens in residential suburbs with native or exotic shrubs and trees. They also occur on farmland and pastures with trees restricted to roads, fence lines, remnants, and watercourses, and in forests they prefer selectively logged old eucalypt about 50 years after logging has opened it up.

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes are very common breeding birds in Australia and one of the ten birds most often recorded. There appears to have been little change in distribution or regional abundance over the last 30 years, and no change in overall reporting despite new counting methods, used in the most recent edition of the Atlas of Australian Birds, that favour a reduction in reporting rates.