Bird of the month

Bird of the Month: February 2023

Bird of the Month: February 2023 | Wednesday, 25 January 2023

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Bird of the Month

Golden-headed Cisticola

If you’ve been in a dense grassland almost anywhere across northern, eastern or south-eastern Australia, from Broome to Adelaide, there’s a chance that you’ve seen — or at least heard — a Golden-headed Cisticola.

These tiny birds skulk about in long, dense grass, rushes or sedges in farmland, grasslands and wetlands such as saltmarsh. During their non-breeding season, cisticolas are rather quiet and unobtrusive, but as the days grow longer and their breeding season approaches, they generally begin to call more often, usually from an exposed perch, such as at the top of a grass stalk or on a fence post, sometimes cocking their tail at a jaunty angle. Their song consists of buzzing and wheezing notes, followed by a chirrup. It’s a cheery sound, contrasting with the mournful notes of Little Grassbirds, which may occur in similar habitats across many parts of the cisticola’s range. Hearing this perky call may be the first sign that a cisticola is there, as they’re often quite difficult to find if they’re hiding quietly among the dense vegetation.

In the approach to breeding season, male cisticolas often perform conspicuous Song Flights. These relatively spectacular aerial performances are thought to function as both courtship and territorial advertising displays. During the displays, cisticolas may fly up to 30 metres above the grassland, singing constantly, before suddenly plummeting back into the vegetation below — often dropping vertically at full speed! Despite this surprisingly aerobatic ability, like many birds which inhabit dense vegetation, their flight is generally rather poor, and they often appear to bounce buoyantly though the air on tiny whirring wings.

Being birds which spend their entire lives in the grass, it’s unsurprising that cisticolas breed among tall grass. Their nests, suspended from blades of grass, are globular with a side or top entrance, and are made from — you guessed it — grass, sewn together with spider webs and sometimes lined with plant fibres and fluffy seeds. Three or four bluish eggs are laid and incubated by the female, though occasionally she also unwittingly incubates the egg of an interloping cuckoo as well.

If you’d like to know where you can witness the aerobatic display flight of the Golden-headed Cisticola, check out BirdLife Australia’s Birdata website.