Rhipiduridae – Fantails

Malaysian Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica ©HL & KD Snyder Website

Fantails in the family Rhipiduridae are small insectivorous birds of Australasia, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the majority belong to the genus Rhipidura. Most of the species are about 15 to 18 cm long, specialist aerial feeders, and named as ‘fantails’, but the Australian Willie Wagtail is a little larger, and, though still an expert hunter of insects on the wing, concentrates equally on terrestrial prey. (The true wagtails are part of the genus Motacilla in the family Motacillidae and are not close relatives of the fantails).

The majority are small bodied (11.5–21 cm long) birds with long tails; in some species the tail is longer than the body and in most the tail is longer than the wing. When the tail is folded it is rounded at the end, but when spread in display or aerial foraging it has a characteristic fan shape that gives the family its name.

Fantails adopt a hunched horizontal posture most of the time, with the wings drooped and held away from the body and the tail half cocked. There are some exceptions to this, particularly the Northern Fantail of New Guinea and the Cockerell’s Fantail of the Solomon Islands, which have a more upright posture reminiscent of the monarch flycatchers.

The wings of fantails are tapered and have sacrificed speed for agility, making fantails highly efficient at catching insect prey. Overall the fantails are strong fliers, and some species can undertake long migrations, but the thicket fantails (Sooty Thicket Fantail, White-bellied Thicket Fantail and Black Thicket Fantail) are very weak fliers, and need to alight regularly. Their bills are typical for aerial insect eating birds, being flat and triangular. The gape is surrounded by two rows of rictal bristles which are long, often as long as the bill. The bills of most species are fairly weak, limiting fantails to softer insects, although the more terrestrial Willie Wagtail has a stronger bill.

The plumage of most fantails shows some variation, most species are relatively uniform with some markings. A few species, such as the Rennell Fantail, have uniform plumage, while others have striking if sombre patterns. The colours of most species are greys, blacks, whites and browns, although a few species have yellow or even striking blue feathers. In most species there is no sexual dimorphism in plumage; the notable exception being the Black Fantail of New Guinea where the male has all-over black plumage and the female is almost entirely rufous. In a few species, such as the New Zealand Fantail, there exist two colour morphs, the common pied morph and the rarer black morph (which is most common on the South Island).

Fantails are an Australasian family that has spread from as far as Samoa to northern India. In the south the grey fantail ranges as far as The Snares off New Zealand, in the eastern extent of the family has several endemic forms in western Polynesia. There are numerous species in Indonesia, the Philippines and in South East Asia, and the family ranges into southern China, India and the Himalayas. Some species have a widespread distribution, particularly the willie wagtail, grey fantail, white-throated fantail and northern fantail; others have a highly restricted range and in the case of some insular species may be restricted to a single island. The Mussau fantail is restricted to a single island in the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Kadavu fantail has a similarly restricted distribution in the Kadavu Group of Fiji.

Fantails exhibit wide tastes in habitat; while the majority of species are found in rainforests fantails exist in most available habitats from deserts and mangrove forests to highly modified agricultural and urban environments. Most species are able to survive in a variety of habitats.

The behaviour of many species of fantail has not been studied, but overall the family is highly uniform in its habits. Anecdotal observations of less studied species suggest a high degree of similarity with the better studied species. Fantails are highly active birds, with several of the smaller species continuously on the move; even when perched they continue to rock back and forth, spin 180° on the spot, wag their tail from side to side or fan and unfan it. In flight they are highly agile and undertake highly aerobatic and intricate looping flights while using their fanned tail to catch insects in flight.

Fantails frequently form associations with other species in order obtain prey. Some species perch on the backs of cattle, which they use both as a vantage point and because the cattle flush up insects. This behaviour has given the Willie Wagtail the nickname ‘shepherd’s companion’. Fantails are often very bold around people and will approach them closely in order to capture insects flushed by them. Different species are also frequently found in mixed-species feeding flocks, travelling with other small insectivorous birds on the periphery of the flocks taking advantage of flushed prey.

Fantails are territorial and aggressively defend their territories from conspecifics (other members of the same species) as well as other fantail species and other flycatchers. Within the territory the female selects the nesting site, these sites are often close to the previous year’s nest. Breeding responsibilities, nest building, incubation and chick feeding, are shared between both sexes.

The nest, a small cup of grass stems neatly bound together in spider silk, takes around 10 days to construct. Many species incorporate a trailing tail into the base of the nest; this possibly breaks up the shape of the nest, although little other effort is made to conceal the nest. To compensate for the high visibility of the nest fantails will aggressively defend their chicks from potential predators.

Female fantails will also distract a potential predator by appearing to be injured and luring the predator away from the nest. While the female is pretending to be injured the male may continue to attack the predator. In spite of this fantails have a generally low nesting success.

Species List

According to the IOC there are 50 species in the family Rhipiduridae; they are:

Mindanao Blue Fantail Rhipidura superciliaris
Visayan Blue Fantail Rhipidura samarensis
Blue-headed Fantail Rhipidura cyaniceps
Tablas Fantail Rhipidura sauli
Visayan Fantail Rhipidura albiventris
White-throated Fantail Rhipidura albicollis
White-spotted Fantail Rhipidura albogularis
White-bellied Fantail Rhipidura euryura
White-browed Fantail Rhipidura aureola
Malaysian Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica
Philippine Pied Fantail Rhipidura nigritorquis
Spotted Fantail Rhipidura perlata
Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys
Brown-capped Fantail Rhipidura diluta
Cinnamon-tailed Fantail Rhipidura fuscorufa
Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris
Cockerell’s Fantail Rhipidura cockerelli
Sooty Thicket Fantail Rhipidura threnothorax
Black Thicket Fantail Rhipidura maculipectus
White-bellied Thicket Fantail Rhipidura leucothorax
Black Fantail Rhipidura atra
Chestnut-bellied Fantail Rhipidura hyperythra
Friendly Fantail Rhipidura albolimbata
Grey Fantail Rhipidura albiscapa
New Zealand Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa
Mangrove Fantail Rhipidura phasiana
Brown Fantail Rhipidura drownei
Makira Fantail Rhipidura tenebrosa
Rennell Fantail Rhipidura rennelliana
Streaked Fantail Rhipidura verreauxi
Kadavu Fantail Rhipidura personata
Samoan Fantail Rhipidura nebulosa
Rufous-tailed Fantail Rhipidura phoenicura
Black-and-cinnamon Fantail Rhipidura nigrocinnamomea
Dimorphic Fantail Rhipidura brachyrhyncha
Palau Fantail Rhipidura lepida
Streak-breasted Fantail Rhipidura dedemi
Tawny-backed Fantail Rhipidura superflua
Rusty-bellied Fantail Rhipidura teysmanni
Long-tailed Fantail Rhipidura opistherythra
Rufous-backed Fantail Rhipidura rufidorsa
Bismarck Fantail Rhipidura dahli
Mussau Fantail Rhipidura matthiae
Malaita Fantail Rhipidura malaitae
Manus Fantail Rhipidura semirubra
Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons
Pohnpei Fantail Rhipidura kubaryi
Arafura Fantail Rhipidura dryas

Silktail Lamprolia victoriae

Drongo Fantail Chaetorhynchus papuensis

Species Links
  • Chestnut-crowned Babbler Pomatostomus ruficeps

    Species Account
    The Chestnut-crowned Babbler is a medium-sized dark brown-grey bird with a white throat and white-tipped tail and a rather long and down-curved bill.
  • Grey Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    The Grey Fantail is most easily recognised by its constantly fanned tail and agile aerial twists and turns. Both sexes are similar in appearance: grey above, with white eyebrow, throat and tail edges. This species is quite inquisitive and will closely approach an observer…
  • Grey Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    The Grey Fantail is most easily recognised by its constantly fanned tail and agile aerial twists and turns. Both sexes are similar in appearance: grey above, with white eyebrow, throat and tail edges. This species is quite inquisitive and will closely approach an observer.
  • Grey Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Malaysian Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Malaysian Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica

    Species Account
    The Malaysian pied fantail (Rhipidura javanica) is a species of bird in the fantail family and one of 47 species in the genus Rhipidura. It is locally referred to as murai gila, literally "crazy thrush" in the Malay language.[2] It is found in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests.
  • New Zealand Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    The fantail is one of New Zealand’s best known birds, with its distinctive fanned tail and loud song, and particularly because it often approaches within a metre or two of people. Its wide distribution and habitat preferences, including frequenting well-treed urban parks and gardens, means that most people encounter fantails occasionally.
  • New Zealand Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • New Zealand Fantail Rhipidura fuliginosa

    Species Account
    The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is a small insectivorous bird. A common fantail found in the South Island of New Zealand, also in the North Island as subspecies Rhipidura fuliginosa placabilis, the Chatham Islands as Rhipidura fuliginosa penita and formerly (now extinct) the Lord Howe Island as Rhipidura fuliginosa cervina. Also known as the pied fantail (pied morph only) or by its Maori name, Pīwakawaka, Tīwakawaka or Piwaiwaka.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 50

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