1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Flycatcher

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[ 584 ]

FLYCATCHER, a name introduced in ornithology by Ray, being a translation of the Muscicapa of older authors, and applied by Pennant to an extremely common English bird, the M. grisola of Linnaeus. It has since been used in a general and very vague way for a great many small birds from all parts of the world, which have the habit of catching flies on the wing. Ornithologists who have trusted too much to this characteristic and to certain merely superficial correlations of structure, especially those exhibited by a broad and rather flat bill and a gape beset by strong hairs or bristles, have associated under the title of Muscicapidae an exceedingly heterogeneous assemblage of forms much reduced in number by later systematists. Great advance has been made in establishing as independent families the Todidae and Eurylaemidae, as well as in excluding from it various members of the Ampelidae, Cotingidae, Tyrannidae, Vireonidae, Mniotiltidae, and perhaps others, which had been placed within its limits. These steps have left the Muscicapidae a purely Old-World family of the order Passeres, and the chief difficulty now seems to lie in separating it from the Campephagidae and the Laniidae. Only a very few of the forms of flycatchers (which, after all the deductions above mentioned, may be reckoned to include some 60 genera or subgenera, and perhaps 250 species) can here be even named.[1]

The best-known bird of this family is that which also happens to be the type of the Linnaean genus Muscicapa — the spotted or grey flycatcher (M. grisola). It is a common summer visitant to nearly the whole of Europe, and is found throughout Great Britain, though less abundant in Scotland than in England, as well as in many parts of Ireland, where, however, it seems to be but locally and sparingly distributed. It is one of the latest migrants to arrive, and seldom reaches the British Islands till the latter part of May, when it may be seen, a small dust-coloured bird, sitting on the posts or railings of gardens and fields, ever and anon springing into the air, seizing with an audible snap of its bill some passing insect as it flies, and returning to the spot it has quitted, or taking up some similar station to keep watch as before. It has no song, but merely a plaintive or peevish call-note, uttered from time to time with a jerking gesture of the wings and tail. It makes a neat nest, built among the small twigs which sprout from the bole of a large tree, fixed in the branches of some plant trained against a wall, or placed in any hole of the wall itself that may be left by the falling of a brick or stone. The eggs are from four to six in number, of a pale greenish-blue, closely blotched or freckled with rust-colour. Silent and inconspicuous as is this bird, its constant pursuit of flies in the closest vicinity of houses makes it a familiar object to almost everybody. A second British species is the pied flycatcher (M. atricapilla), a much rarer bird, and in England not often seen except in the hilly country extending from the Peak of Derbyshire to Cumberland, and more numerous in the Lake District than elsewhere. It is not common in Scotland, and has only once been observed in Ireland. More of a woodland bird than the former, the brightly-contrasted black and white plumage of the cock, together with his agreeable song, readily attracts attention where it occurs. It is a summer visitant to all western Europe, but farther eastward its place is taken by a nearly allied species (M. collaris) in which the white of the throat and breast extends like a collar round the neck. A fourth European species (M. parva), distinguished by its very small size and red breast, has also strayed some three or four times to the extreme south-west of England. This last belongs to a group of more eastern range, which has received generic recognition under the name of Erythrosterna, and it has several relations in Asia and particularly in India, while the allies of the pied flycatchers (Ficedula of Brisson) are chiefly of African origin, and those of the grey or spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa proper[2]) are common to the two continents.

One of the most remarkable groups of Muscicapidae is that known as the paradise flycatchers, forming the genus Tchitrea of Lesson. In nearly all the species the males are distinguished by the growth of exceedingly long feathers in their tail, and by their putting on, for some part of the year at least, a plumage generally white, but almost always quite different from that worn by the females, which is of a more or less deep chestnut or bay colour, though in both sexes the crown is of a glossy steel-blue. They are found pretty well throughout Africa and tropical Asia to Japan, and seem to affect the deep shade of forests rather than the open country. The best-known species is perhaps the Indian T. paradisi; but the Chinese T. incii, and the Japanese T. princeps, from being very commonly represented by the artists of those nations on screens, fans and the like, are hardly less so; and the cock of the last named, with his bill of a pale greenish-blue and [ 585 ] eyes surrounded by bare skin of the same colour — though these are characters possessed in some degree by all the species — seems to be the most beautiful of the genus. T. bourbonnensis, which is peculiar to the islands of Mauritius and Réunion, appears to be the only species in which the outward difference of the sexes is but slight. In T. corvina of the Seychelles, the adult male is wholly black, and his middle tail-feathers are not only very long but very broad. In T. mutata of Madagascar, some of the males are found in a blackish plumage, though with the elongated median rectrices white, while in others white predominates over the whole body; but whether this sex is here actually dimorphic, or whether the one dress is a passing phase of the other, is at present undetermined. Some of the African species, of which many have been described, seem always to retain the rufous plumage, but the long tail-feathers serve to mark the males.

A few other groups are distinguished by the brilliant blue they exhibit, as Myiagra azurea, and others as Monarcha (or Arses) chrysomela by their golden yellow. The Australian forms assigned to the Muscicapidae are very varied. Sisura inquieta has some of the habits of a water-wagtail (Motacilla), and hence has received the name of “dishwasher,” bestowed in many parts of England on its analogue; and the many species of Rhipidura or fantailed flycatchers, which occur in various parts of the Australian Region, have manners still more singular — turning over in the air, it is said, like a tumbler pigeon, as they catch their prey; but concerning the mode of life of the majority of the Muscicapidae, and especially of the numerous African forms, hardly anything is known. (A. N.)

  1. Of the 36 genera or subgenera which Swainson included in his Natural Arrangement and Relations of the Family of Flycatchers (published in 1838), at least 19 do not belong to the Muscicapidae at all, and one of them, Todus, not even to the order Passeres. It is perhaps impossible to name any ornithological work whose substance so fully belies its title as does this treatise. Swainson wrote it filled with faith in the so-called “Quinary System” — that fanciful theory, invented by W. S. Macleay, which misled and kept back so many of the best English zoologists of his generation from the truth, — and, unconsciously swayed by his bias, his judgment was warped to fit his hypothesis.
  2. By some writers this section is distinguished as Butalis of Boie, but to do so seems contrary to rule.