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The paradise flycatcher

Small, but impressive! The Madagascar paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata) is surely one of the most beautiful birds of the island, although it weighs only 12 g – that is the weight of a spoon full of rice. It belongs to the family of Monarchs and is a songbird.

You can watch this bird all over the island, in spiny forests as well as in rainforests, it settles almost all habitats. Only heights above 1600 m it leaves for other species. And it does not need to be a whole forest: From time to time, you can find paradise flycatchers in large gardens, too. Due to its high adaptability, this species occurs also on other islands of the Indian Ocean, but each island has only one subspecies. On Madagascar, the eponymous Madagascar paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata mutata) is endemic.

Paradise flycatcher north of Toliara (Tuléar)

It was Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus, who described the small bird in 1766. He dedicated his life to the research of animals and plants worldwide, but never visited Madagascar and probably has never seen the paradise flycatcher alive. The German ornithologist Constantin Gloger changed the original name of the paradise flycatcher in 1827 to Terpsiphone mutata. The name derives from Greek and Latin, and means as much as “delight different voice”.

One can easily differentiate males and females of this species, especially at courtship display. Then the male wears a white plumage with black head, black remiges and a white wing bar. The most noticeable characteristic of male paradise flycatchers is the tail with its distinct median feathers: They can grow up to 18 cm! The girls wear a rufous color all year long, with a typical black coloration above the beak and black remiges. Besides the two typical gender colors, there is a third variation, rufous colored males. Years ago, scientists though it might be young ones or birds out of display season, but you can find the rufous variation of the males all around the year. Scientists assume a genetic background today.

Paradise flycatcher exclusively consists of flying, small insects and spiders. Small butterflies, moth, flies and mosquitoes as well as insect larvae are part of the diet. Moreover, paradise flycatcher use the aid of other birds to catch prey: They follow common Newtonias (Newtonia brunneicauda) or rufous Vangas (Schetba rufa) and catch any insects the animal flying in front has flushed before. Generally, paradise flycatchers do not fly over long distances. They prefer to wait at their waching position point and jump through low level branches, but rarely fly above the canopy.

With the rainy season beginning in November, breeding season starts. It is the time of the year most rich in insects, and thus offers perfect conditions to raise offspring successfully. Early pairs display already in September. To be most attractive for a female, the male stretches its long tail feathers up in the air. If a couple is found, they mate. Both genders engage in nest construction. And the nest is rather special: It is in the shape of a funnel, paved to a branch up to four meters above the ground and made of dry grass, thin branchlets and – a little strange at first view – spider cobwebs. The inside is stuffed with moss. The paradise flycatchers do not need more than a week for their perfect nest, which is then ready for three small, slightly pink coloured, brown dotted eggs.

Paradiesschnäpper Männchen
Male paradise fly catcher in Ankarafantsika

Now, a hard time begins for the alert parents: Madagascar cuckoos (Cuculus rochi) try to smuggle foreign eggs into the nest. Crested Drongos and other birds disassemble the neatly arranged nest to use the material for their own creations. This is why paradise flycatchers brood alternating, for about two weeks. Then the young nestlings hatch. They are still naked, but after few days, the first feathers sprout. After ten or eleven days, the paradise flycatcher leave the nest. They are cared for by their parents until they do not jump anymore around, but fly safely.

Most paradise flycatcher couples have to clutches per rainy season. Curiously enough, couples including a male with especially long tail feathers have better breeding success than those with short-tailed males. In the beginning of the dry season, the offspring has to be fully fledged, because the food availability decreases quickly in many parts of Madagascar. Only those who have become skillful flycatchers will be able to survive.

Despite a lack of counts, the Madagascar paradise flycatcher is supposed to be not threatened. It has some natural predators such as birds of prey, colubrid snakes and large chameleons, and Madagascar rats have become a problem for the birds and their nests in many places. Nevertheless, the paradise flycatcher will remain in Madagascar for the coming decades, and surely please a lot of people with its beautiful look and delightful voice.

More worth reading and seeing about this topic:

  • Pictures, sounds in videos in The Internet Bird Collection (IBC)
  • Habitat density, song structure and dialects in the Madagascar paradise flycatcher
    Scientific article | Journal of Avian Biology 2006 | Authors: Wouter van Dongen, Raoul Mulder
  • Ontogeny of male plumage dichromatism in Madagascar paradise flycatchers
    Scientific article | Journal of Avian Biology 2003 | Authors: Raoul Mulder, Robert Ramiarison
  • The composition and foraging behaviour of mixed-species flocks of forest-living birds in Madagascar
    Scientific article| Internat. Journal of Avian Science 1993 | Authors: Kazuhiro Eguchi, Satoshi Yamagishi und Voara Randrianasolo

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