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Conspicuous, Active, Inquisitive, Confiding… Grey Fantails

By Keith Hutton on November 16, 2012 in Other

Photo: Steven Kuiter

Everybody notices Willie Wagtails. Wherever you go they are there: in the garden, by the lake, in the park and in the bush, even under the street lights in town at night, and always in motion, always singing that simple chittering song, chasing insects with wings flicking and tail wagging. Grey Fantails are closely related to Willie Wagtails with a similar shape and behaviour, but they are not as common and widespread. They are smaller too, neater and tidier in appearance, less urbanised, but just as active, more so in the air where they seem to be more in control than Willie Wagtails, which often look more driven by the vagaries of the breeze than by any will of their own.

Grey Fantails are conspicuous, inquisitive, confiding little birds that occur as several easily recognised forms. All fly erratically with constantly fanned tails and are generally grey with a short white eyebrow, white mark behind the eye, white throat and dark breast band of variable width. Underparts are white, fawn or buff, depending on location and time of year, because different forms live in different parts of their range and distributions overlap when they move around as seasons and climatic conditions change. Outer tail feathers are variably white-edged and broadly tipped white. They are seen alone, in pairs and in loose groups.

Any habitat with trees (including urban areas), particularly with an open understory, is suitable for Grey Fantails throughout their range in NZ, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu New Caledonia and Australia, where they are widespread except in the driest deserts. They are generally common, and different populations are migratory, nomadic or resident. All are strictly arboreal and may be seen foraging at all levels from higher than thirty metres outside the canopies of tall trees, down to a few metres above ground level in shady woodland clearings, and only very rarely on the ground. Coastal and inland scrubs, mangroves, rainforests, eucalyptus forest and woodland, watercourses, golf courses, orchards, parks and gardens are all acceptable habitats for Grey Fantails.

Insects are the major food items of Grey Fantails and probably make up around 95% of their diet, but they have been observed feeding on fruit and nectar occasionally. An aerobatic chase is the preferred hunting method and they also glean prey from tree trunks, branches, twigs and leaves. Grey Fantails put on a great show when hunting flying insects, performing amazing stunts, darting, diving and looping in the air with spread tails switching and flashing constantly, and often singing a vigorous jumble of thin, tinkling, squeaky notes or calling sharply during the chase.

Numbers of Grey Fantails have increased nationally over recent years and they are among the most frequently recorded birds in Australia. They recolonise areas as they regenerate within ten years following mining, logging and fires, and readily utilise small vegetation remnants in suburbs, parks and gardens. Cats, Black Rats and possums will kill them and eat eggs and nestlings but so far the fantails appear to be holding their own and are probably of no conservation concern, at least in mainland Australia and Tasmania.