Saturday Magazine
Bird Watch
White-browed Fantail Flycatcher: The ‘dancing bird’ or ‘drunken piper’

by Jagath Gunewardane
Flycatchers, as the name denotes, feed mainly on flying insects. They are small birds with similar adaptations for catching prey in flight. All have short broad beaks and wide gapes, long wings that give them a strong flight and helps them manouvre in the air, but the legs are short and often weak. Ten species known as flycatchers are recorded from Sri Lanka. These belong to three closely related families. The largest number (seven species) belong to the family Muscicapidae (include 4 migrants). Another two species belong to the family Monarchidae (both are resident species, but one has a migrant sub-species). The family Rhipidwidae has only one species which is resident. It is the White-browed Fantail Flycatcher (Rhipidura aureola), also known as White-breasted Fantail Flycatcher and White-browed Fantail. It is known in Sinhala as endera-kurulla (which means shepherd bird, after its habit of associating with cattle) and more famously as paan-kiritta. The latter name is erroneously given to the Magpie Robin by some, probably because of the similarity in colours.

The white-browed Fantail Flycatcher is about 18cm (7 inches) long, or a little larger then a house sparrow. But, it looks smaller, due to the slender build. The upper parts are a dark, dull, blackish-brown or a dark-grey brown in colour. The two broad white eyebrows (superciliums) join in the forehead to form a white head band. Wing coverts have two rows of small white spots. The central pair of tail feathers are blackish-brown. The other tail feathers, correspondingly shorter to form the fan-shape, have white endings. The throat is blackish with white sides. The breast and belly are white. The beak and feet are black and the dark brown eyes look black from a distance. The females are browner than males.

It is a restless and active bird always engaged in a characteristic performance: It keeps on opening and closing its wings, spreading the tail and flicking it up and down or moving it from side to side. After a while it may flip to a nearby branch or even descend to the ground to start the performance again. These antics have earned it the Sinhala name natana-kurulla (dancing bird) and the English name Drunken Piper. It is often seen pairs, but could be found singly or in small groups. The call is a piping whistle, uttered always as a series of continuous notes. When alarmed, it makes a harsh scolding "chrrr" call.

A peaceful and sociable bird, the white-browed Fantail Flycatcher associates with many small birds such as grey tits, common babblers, orange and little minivets. The flight is slow and direct. But, it does not fly at a stretch. It can make various fast aerial manouvres to catch prey. Food consists of small flying insects. It makes a short selly in pursuit of an insect and eats it after coming back to a perch, most often to the same perch. This species is often seen in the company of cattle and buffalloes. This association supplies it with an abundant source of food. Some of them are insects aroused by the animals when working but mostly those attracted to the animals and their dung. It is this habit that has given it the Sinhala name endera-kurulla.

The breeding season is given differently by several authors. According to G. H. Henry (1971) it lasts from January to July, but most of the eggs are laid in April and May. W. W. A. Phillips has said that it breeds from February to August, but chiefly between March to June and occasionally in January. Mrs. Cicely Lushington (1949) has given the period to be from February to June and again from August to October. According to W. E. Wait (1930) it is from April to June. This apparent difference in breeding periods could have been due to its nesting during much of the year with the exception of the North-Eastern Monsoon period (October to December) in the dry zone.

The next is a neat little cup, made up of plant matter bound together with spider-webs. It is placed on a thin branch to which it is firmly attached by cobwebs. The two or three eggs are creamy-yellow with a dense blackish brown spotting. Both birds share the duties of nest building, incubation and feeding of young. The nest is defended not only by the harsh alarm notes, but by aggressively pecking at the intruder. But, a large number of nests are destroyed by cats, crows and common coucals. This is due to its often making nests in exposed places.

The white-browed Fantail Flycatcher is found mainly in the hills, the north-east, east and the south-east of Sri Lanka. It is more common in the hills of the Uva Province and has even been called the Uva Flycatcher by Mrs. Lushington. It is becoming scarcer around human habitations for a number of years, a fact that has not received any attention. The exact reasons for it is not known, but could be due to adults and nests falling prey to predaters and the heavy use of pesticides, especially in the hill country.