Pachycephalidae – Whistlers & Allies

Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris ©Ian Montgomery Website

Pachycephalidae are a family of bird species that includes the whistlers, shrikethrushes, and three of the pitohuis and is part of the ancient Australo-Papuan radiation of songbirds. Its members range from small to medium in size, and occupy most of Australasia. Australia and New Guinea are the centre of their diversity, and in the case of the whistlers, the South Pacific islands as far as Tonga and Samoa and parts of Asia as far as India. The exact delimitation of boundaries of the family are uncertain, and one species, the Golden Whistler, has been the subject of intense taxonomic scrutiny in recent years, with multiple subspecies and species-level revisions.

They are birds of forests and wooded areas. Most species inhabit rainforest, particularly in the Asian and Papuan parts of their range, but Australian species inhabit a wider range of habitats including woodlands, arid scrubland and mangrove forests. Some species are restricted to a particular ecosystem, whereas others are more catholic and will inhabit a range of habitat types.

The whistlers are stout birds with strong bills, and the group was once known as the thickheads due to the large rounded heads of many species. Their plumage is rufous, brown, or grey in the majority of species. Nevertheless, a few species, particularly the Golden Whistler and its close relatives, have bright plumage. One of the more unusual traits of this family is found in the feathers of some of the pitohuis, which have toxins. These toxins are probably a deterrent to parasites and may also serve to dissuade predators from taking the birds.

They are insectivorous, picking insects off leaves, branches, or leaf litter. While insects make up the majority of the diet they will also feed on spiders, worms, centipedes, snails, and small crabs; larger species will also tackle small vertebrates such as frogs, geckos and baby birds. They are generally sedate foragers and do not engage in hawking to obtain prey, instead being gleaners and probers. Only a few species migrate, most remaining resident in their tropical environment.

Little is known about the breeding biology of most of the family; what is known generally comes from a small number of Australian species. They are monogamous and generally nest as simple pairs, although breeding groups have been recorded in some species.

Several species belonging to this family are outstanding songsters: the whistlers produce an astonishing volume for their size, and the lyrebirds aside, the Grey Shrikethrush is often regarded as the finest, most inventive songbird of them all.

There are, since DNA sequencing, generally thought to be 58 species of whistlers and allies in the family Pachycephalidae; they are:

Crested Shriketit Falcunculus frontatus

Maroon-backed Whistler Coracornis raveni
Sangihe Shrikethrush Coracornis sanghirensis

Black Pitohui Melanorectes nigrescens

Olive Whistler Pachycephala olivacea
Red-lored Whistler Pachycephala rufogularis
Gilbert’s Whistler Pachycephala inornata
Mangrove Whistler Pachycephala cinerea
Green-backed Whistler Pachycephala albiventris
White-vented Whistler Pachycephala homeyeri
Island Whistler Pachycephala phaionota
Rusty Whistler Pachycephala hyperythra
Brown-backed Whistler Pachycephala modesta
Yellow-bellied Whistler Pachycephala philippinensis
Sulphur-vented Whistler Pachycephala sulfuriventer
Bornean Whistler Pachycephala hypoxantha
Vogelkop Whistler Pachycephala meyeri
Grey Whistler Pachycephala simplex
Fawn-breasted Whistler Pachycephala orpheus
Sclater’s Whistler Pachycephala soror
Rusty-breasted Whistler Pachycephala fulvotincta
Yellow-throated Whistler Pachycephala macrorhyncha
Baliem Whistler Pachycephala balim
Black-chinned Whistler Pachycephala mentalis
Australian Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis
Western Whistler Pachycephala occidentalis
Bismarck Whistler Pachycephala citreogaster
Oriole Whistler Pachycephala orioloides
Louisiade Whistler Pachycephala collaris
Rennell Whistler Pachycephala feminina
Melanesian Whistler Pachycephala chlorura
New Caledonian Whistler Pachycephala caledonica
Fiji Whistler Pachycephala vitiensis
Temotu Whistler Pachycephala vanikorensis
Tongan Whistler Pachycephala jacquinoti
Mangrove Golden Whistler Pachycephala melanura
Samoan Whistler Pachycephala flavifrons
Hooded Whistler Pachycephala implicata
Bougainville Whistler Pachycephala richardsi
Bare-throated Whistler Pachycephala nudigula
Lorentz’s Whistler Pachycephala lorentzi
Regent Whistler Pachycephala schlegelii
Golden-backed Whistler Pachycephala aurea
Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris
Black-headed Whistler Pachycephala monacha
White-bellied Whistler Pachycephala leucogastra
Wallacean Whistler Pachycephala arctitorquis
Drab Whistler Pachycephala griseonota
Cinnamon-breasted Whistler Pachycephala johni
White-breasted Whistler Pachycephala lanioides
Morningbird Pachycephala tenebrosa

White-bellied Pitohui Pseudorectes incertus
Rusty Pitohui Pseudorectes ferrugineus

Bower’s Shrikethrush Colluricincla boweri
Sooty Shrikethrush Colluricincla tenebrosa
Little Shrikethrush Colluricincla megarhyncha
Grey Shrikethrush Colluricincla harmonica
Sandstone Shrikethrush Colluricincla woodwardi

Species Links
  • Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis

    Species Account
    The adult male Golden Whistler is bright yellow on the underside, olive-green on the back and wings, and black on the head with a bright yellow collar.
  • Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis

    Species Account
    The Australian golden whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis) is a species of bird found in forest, woodland, mallee, mangrove and scrub in Australia (except the interior and most of the north).
  • Red-lored Whistler Pachycephala rufogularis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
  • Red-lored Whistler Pachycephala rufogularis

    Species Account
    The red-lored whistler (Pachycephala rufogularis) is a species of bird of the whistler family Pachycephalidae that is endemic to Australia. It is similar, in many respects, to Gilbert's whistler, to which it is clearly related, and from which it must be distinguished: the range of the red-lored whistler falls entirely within that of the Gilbert's whistler.
  • Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris

    Species Account
    The Rufous Whistler is a stocky bird with a large head, short stubby bill and a narrow, relatively long tail with a square or slightly forked tip.
  • Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 58

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