New light on the Cisticola

A recent paper suggests that the Pale-Crowned Cisticola is not quite as rare as previously supposed.

The Pale-Crowned Cisticola is part of a large group of small brown birds that inhabit grasslands in both the high- and lowvelds—the classic LBJ (little brown job) that birders spend happy hours arguing about. The Pale-Crowned version has been observed from Gabon down to South Africa, and is regarded as a resident with some local movements.

Pale-crowned Cisticola in its moist grassland habitat at Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, Free State, 8 July 2015 (Photograph by Lia Steen)
Pale-crowned Cisticola in its moist grassland habitat at Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, Free State, 8 July 2015 (Photograph by Lia Steen)

In general, this bird is dependent on moist grasslands, and thus is a species one should expect to see at Verloren Valei.

For some time, scientists have drawn differing conclusions about just what the status of the Pale-Crowned Cisticola actually is. Over the years, it has been categorised as “uncommon”, “fairly common to uncommon”, “locally common” and so on. But it now seems that they are more common than previously thought.

The SAPAB2 project, run by UCT’s Animal Demography Unit, is an attempt to update and expand the existing SAPAB1 database, with the intention of creating an accurate database of information relating to South Africa’s current birdlife—what’s known as a bird atlas. The field work for this enormous project is undertaken by nearly 2 000 volunteers, known as citizen scientists, who are making a huge contribution to the conservation of birds and their habitats.

Please see the March 2017 newsletter for an article about the Escarpment Bird Club’s recent visit to Verloren Valei as part of the SABAP2 project.

The information gained by this corps of enthusiasts is providing new scientific data that, in some cases, is revising what was previously thought. This is certainly true for the Pale-Crowned Cisticola, which seems to be much more plentiful than indicated in SAPAB1.

A comparison between SAPAB1 and 2 data suggests that there has been a large or very large increase in the numbers of this bird across 69 percent of the grid cells where it was recorded, and decreases only across 25 percent of the grid cells.

Why the increase?

The question, of course, is why this species should have increased in numbers so significantly. Sadly, the researchers conclude that the increase is most likely only apparent, the result of better skilled observers—Pale-Crowned Cisticolas live in family groups rather than flocks, and are unobtrusive. The availability of recorded bird calls for recreational birders has thus played a not inconsiderable role in helping “citizen scientists” improve the quality and frequency of their identifications. In particular, the release in 1991 of a set of bird calls that included the Pale-Crowned Cisticola probably played a role in the “increase” in their numbers in SAPAB2.

Additional factors include the huge growth in the numbers of recreational birders, along with a plethora of new aids, from guidebooks and courses to social media groups, webinars, recordings and smartphone apps.

And, as the researchers note, South Africa had already lost half its wetlands by 1996, and its grasslands are under increasing threat from mining and transformation. Logic alone tells us the numbers of birds like the Pale-Crowned Cisticola must be declining as the available habitat decreases.

So, next time you visit Verloren Valei, make sure to keep an eye out for this “attractive and vocal” cisticola.

Breeding male Pale-Crowned Cisticola (Cisticola cinnamomeus), Vryheid, KwaZulu- Natal (Photograph by DR McKenzie)
Breeding male Pale-Crowned Cisticola (Cisticola cinnamomeus), Vryheid, KwaZulu- Natal (Photograph by DR McKenzie)

Some field notes, adapted from Faansie Peacock’s Chamberlain’s LBJs

  • Breeds in moist upland grasslands and subtropical lowlands; most abundant in lush, moist, fairly tall grass; for example at seeps, edges of pans, wetland borders and so on.
  • During the breeding season, most readily identified by the male’s unstreaked, pale olive brown to dirty white crown contrasting with a large black or dark grey mask. But it can easily be confused with other overlapping species, so identification is best confirmed by listening for the male’s very thin, sharp song given in a high song-flight.
  • Easy to overlook in winter when the male’s distinctive plumage is absent and it does not call.
  • It is strongly territorial and vocal; during the breeding season, often perches on fences, tall grass stalks.
  • Feeding occurs on the ground, mostly on insects. It lays three to four eggs in an oval nest hidden in low vegetation.

Source

Duncan R McKenzie, Les G Underhill, María López Gómez and Michael Brooks, “Bird distribution dynamics 10 – Pale-Crowned Cisticola Cisticola cinnamomeus in South Africa”, Biodiversity Observations, available at http://bo.adu.org.za/pdf/BO_2017_08-015.pdf.

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