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Whitethroat, Sylvia communis

Identify and index birds in Southern Africa
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Whitethroat, Sylvia communis

Unread post by DuQues » Tue May 18, 2010 1:29 pm

The Whitethroat, Sylvia communis, is a common and widespread typical warbler which breeds throughout Europe and across much of temperate western Asia. This small passerine bird is strongly migratory, and winters in tropical Africa, Arabia and Pakistan.

This is one of several Sylvia species that has distinct male and female plumages. Both sexes are mainly brown above and buff below, with chestnut fringes to the secondary remiges. The adult male has a grey head and a white throat. The female lacks the grey head, and the throat is duller. The Whitethroat's song is fast and scratchy, with a scolding tone.

This species was believed by some to be closely related to the Lesser Whitethroat, the species having evolved only during the end of the last ice age similar to the Willow Warbler and Chiffchaffs. But researchers learned soon that this is not correct, and now it is known that white throats are unreliable morphological markers for relationships in Sylvia. Chestnut wing patches, like white throats, seem to be plesiomorphic, but indicate phylogeny better. Nonetheless, apart from the Whitethroat not being closely related to the Lesser Whitethroat group, little can be resolved as it seems a fairly basal taxon.

This is a bird of open country and cultivation, with bushes for nesting. The nest is built in low shrub or brambles, and 3-7 eggs are laid. Like most "warblers", it is insectivorous, but will also take berries and other soft fruit.
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Re: Whitethroat, Sylvia communis

Unread post by granjan » Fri Oct 15, 2010 9:29 pm

This one made itself at home in my garden this summer.
whitethroat by jansp, on Flickr

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Re: Whitethroat, Sylvia communis

Unread post by Johan van Rensburg » Fri Mar 17, 2017 4:23 pm

Although Whitethroats are curious birds, often investigating disturbances or checking on intruders it is inconspicuous and because of the relatively low numbers of birds making it all the way to South Africa, they are generally difficult to see here.

I actually did the mid-week run to Zaagkuildrift in search of a Eurasian blackcap that had been spotted along the same road the day before. I had hopes of maybe locating either the whitethroat or maybe a River warbler as a bonus. When none of these materialised, I turned to seriously getting the species numbers up Atlassing this pentad. One of my tried and tested strategies is to every 500m or so select an acacia that is not too densely foliated and hang my wireless speaker so that any inquisitive bird would be in the line of fire of my Canon. I then apply the Roberts MMVII Pearly magnet. It is quite amazing to note how diverse the birds are that respond to this sound byte. On this occasion a whole bird party started up with assorted species that included an olive-tree warbler, a shaft-tailed whydah, some sparrows and weavers, waxbills and even a go-away bird! I immediately realised that I had an unusual caller investigating the “impostor” and it didn’t take long before the connection to Common Whitethroat was made…


Whitethroats change their diet when they arrive on their wintering grounds in southern Africa. During the breeding season the diet is made up mainly of insects, but on autumn migration it eats mainly berries. Here in South Africa it prefers arid woodland with scattered Acacia trees with undergrowth containing fruit-bearing shrubs. Southward migration starts in late July; the real long-distance migrates having arrived by late September. The cock whitethroats leave first starting to depart back to the breeding grounds in March while the much more reticent hens start leaving a few weeks later.

This small long-distance migrant travels a 15 000 km round trip annually, crossing the Sahara twice a year! Finding enough food to make the journey north from Africa can prove tough for whitethroats. In some years, a large proportion of the whitethroats fail to make the trip due to the impact of drought. The most dramatic ‘crash’ took place in the late 1960s when the breeding population shrunk by 75 per cent following a drought in the areas bordering the southern Sahara desert.

While the average lifespan of a whitethroat is two years, the oldest bird that we know of is seven years.
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