“Perky” best describes the cheerful Cape Robin-Chat. The orange breast and grey belly are offset by the white eyebrow and the striking black band across the face that resembles a highwayman’s mask. This species is widespread throughout southern Africa and is a favourite garden bird.
The Cape Robin-Chat prefers well wooded habitats where shrubs or bushes are available for a quick retreat when danger is observed. They are territorial and, once they have adopted a garden, become quite confiding around the birdfeeder or birdbath.
These birds are early risers and frequently sing from within the canopy before sunrise. At times they sing from an exposed perch and their call has given rise to the Afrikaans name of “Janfrederik”.
As they are primarily insectivores, their diet consists of a variety of insects taken mainly on the ground. They do visit feeding stations regularly if a supply of grated cheese is readily available each morning. If this regular treat is not forthcoming they may approach the patio door and call continuously until the problem is resolved.
Both sexes look alike. The breeding season in the Western Cape is usually from July to December. Some pairs will raise two broods within a season. The nest is cup-shaped and made from grass and lined with moss or fine rootlets. The nest is very well concealed low down in a bush, a dense creeper, or an old tree stump. Two to three eggs are laid per clutch and are greenish in colour with rusty speckling. Only the female broods the clutch which hatches after 14 to 18 days. The chicks are fed by both parents and fledge after 15 to 18 days.
The parents take great care when approaching the nest so that predators have difficulty in locating the nest. Strangely enough, this evasion tactic does not fool the Red-Chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-Vrou), which parasitizes the Robins nest. When the cuckoo chick is about four days old it evicts the Robin’s eggs or chicks so that it can become the sole recipient of all food items. The young cuckoo grows to be much larger than the adult Robins and it is amusing to see how the parents work incessantly to match the appetite of the youngster, even after it has left the nest.
The Common Fiscal, or Fiscal Shrike, is boldly marked with pitch black above and crisp white below. The white bar in the wings extends all the way up to the “shoulder” and, when perched, forms a distinct “V” pattern on the back. The robust bill is tipped with a hook and discloses its predatory habits.
The Fiscal makes itself conspicuous by perching on an exposed branch or fence post from where it drops down onto its prey. Its diet consists of large insects, lizards and the fledglings of other species. It often impales its prey on a thorn or spike, giving it the nickname of Butcher Bird (Afrikaans: Laksman).
Although the Common Fiscal prefers wide open habitats, many have adapted to suburban gardens. They are fiercely territorial and scare away any other birds that venture into their space. This habit makes them unpopular with people that go to extensive efforts to create a bird-friendly garden with feeders and birdbaths.
The Common Fiscal makes itself very conspicuous by calling frequently from its exposed perch. The call is a mixture of sweet and harsh notes. However, it is a mimic and regularly confuses the observer with passages that contain snippets of mimicking of local birds.
The Fiscal builds a dumpy cup-shaped nest in a dense bush or tree. The female can be distinguished from the male by bold russet markings on her flanks. Usually three cream-coloured eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 days. Thereafter the fledgling period is about 19 days, by which time there are very few insects left in their territory.
The Common Fiscal can be distinguished from the similar looking Fiscal Flycatcher that has a thinner bill, shorter tail, and the white markings on the folded wings are restricted to the lower half. The next time you are outside, take a moment to establish whether the black & white bird in your area is the Common Fiscal or the daintier Fiscal Flycatcher.