Birding From Home – The Melodious Robin Chats

Everyone knows that birds sing. But not all birds are singers and not all singers are equal. There are a few birds in particular that are exceptional in the art of singing. One group of birds that is well-known for their brilliant vocals are the robin chats (Cossypha). In addition to having a large repertoire of their own songs, many birds in this group are also excellent mimics and can imitate many sounds in their environment including other birds, mammals and even man-made objects.

Robin Chats are exclusively found in Africa and belong to the Muscicapidae family; a large group which also includes old world flycatchers, rock thrushes, palm thrushes, scrub robins, forest robins, stonechats, cliff chats, nightingales, wheatears and several other groups.

They are mainly birds of forests and woodlands, including wooded suburds, and are fairly widespread. Most birders who live in or have been to Africa will be familiar with at least one or two species. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Rüppell’s Robin Chat Cossypha semirufa

Rüppell’s Robin Chat in Upper Kabete, Nairobi, Kenya

This bird, found in the highlands of East Africa, is an accomplished singer and an incredibly talented mimic. I have heard them imitate sounds as varied as the calls of African Emerald Cuckoo, Eurasian Bee-eater and Crowned Eagle. But the one that surprised me most was one that tried to mimic the siren of an ambulance that had just driven by a few moments before! Many birders in East Africa have been fooled by this mimic’s antics countless times!

White-browed Robin Chat Cossypha heuglini

White-browed Robin Chats (adult, on the right, and juvenile) in the Masai Mara, Kenya.

This species is extremely similar to Rüppell’s Robin Chat, and just as talented a mimic. In fact they’re virtually identical except for a few small differences. Habitat/range and vocalisations are useful ways to separate them. A good guidebook and knowledgeable local guide who knows their birds will help you identify which one you are seeing. White-browed is more widespread than Rüppell’s and occupies a much broader altitudinal range.

Cape Robin Chat Cossypha caffra

Cape Robin Chat – Nairobi, Kenya

Cape Robin Chat is easily distinguished from the two previous species by its grey belly. It is a very early riser and it’s not uncommon to hear one singing before sunrise. They are common within their range in East and southern Africa and I find them easier to see than the other robin chats as they tend to come out in the open more. This species tends not to mimic as often as the other robin chats.

Red-capped Robin Chat (or Natal Robin) Cossypha natalensis

Red-capped Robin Chat in the Loita Hills, Kenya (I’m yet to get a good photo of this one!)

In Kenya, Red-capped Robin Chat is mainly an intra-African migrant from the southern tropics that visits our coast and eastern lowlands in April-November. There is however a small inland population that breeds in Kenya. Their current status is part of what the Kenya Bird Map project is trying to document. I find them tough to get a good look at as they like to remain hidden in the undergrowth and thickets, but they are incredibly beautiful once you manage to see them. They engage in their fair share of mimicry too!

White-throated Robin Chat Cossypha humeralis

White-throated Robin Chat – Mpumalanga, South Africa

The White-throated Robin Chat is confined to southern Africa and is found in dryer habitat than most of the other Robin Chats. It also has a limited amount of orange in its plumage. However, just like its fellow robin chats, it is an accomplished singer and not averse to mimicry.

These are just a handful of Africa’s varied Robin Chats. Kenya is one of the best countries to view Robin Chats, with six of Africa’s fifteen species found in the country. Apart from Rüppell’s, White-browed, Cape and Red-capped, one can also see Snow-headed Cossypha niveicapilla and Blue-shouldered Cossypha cyanocampter Robin Chats in Kenya.

In fact in terms of birding overall, Kenya is THE best country to visit in Africa. The fact that Kenya emerged no. 1 in Africa and the entire Eastern Hemisphere, and no. 11 in the world, on eBird’s Global Big Day May 2020 with only 84 checklists submitted is testament to what the country has to offer when it comes to birds. Check out the stats below…

World rankings. Notices that Kenya only has 84 checklists, and yet managed to secure 11th position globally. This was with several key parts of the country unrepresented.
Eastern Hemispher rankings
Africa rankings

If you enjoyed this post, check out previous posts in the Birding From Home series.

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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