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Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis Scientific name definitions

Walter Boles, David Christie, and Guy M. Kirwan
Version: 1.1 — Published August 18, 2021
Revision Notes

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The taxonomic history of Golden Whistler has, and continues to be, extremely confused, and at one time up to 73 subspecies were recognized for the species. Since then, it has been split into many different species, based largely on genetic data, though species limits are still not well understood, and the classifications are still changing as new data becomes available. The currently recognized taxa that make up Golden Whistler occur through eastern Australia, Tasmania, Lord Howe Island, and Norfolk Island. Males are mostly boldly patterned with a black head, white throat, and black collar, with bright yellow underparts, olive upperparts, and a black tail, although males from Norfolk Island resemble females, and are largely brown above with dark olive upperparts, a light brown breast fading to whitish-yellow below. It uses a wide variety of forested habitats with dense understory, where it feeds mostly on invertebrates by picking them from foliage after sallying to them. Monogamous with biparental care, nest is a cup built with grass, stems, and leaves often bound with spider webs. Females lay 2-3 eggs, and chicks are tended to by both parents. While the conservation status has not been assessed since recent taxonomic revisions, it is common throughout its range and likely is not threatened.

Identification

16–19 cm; 19–32 g (many subspecies), variable. Male nominate subspecies has top and sides of head and nape black, this color extending across upper breast as black breastband, enclosing white chin, throat and malar area; collar on hindneck yellow, extending to sides of breast; upperparts yellow-olive, slightly paler on rump and uppertail-coverts; remiges sooty black, edged olive-gray on outer webs (finely so on primaries, narrowly on secondaries, broadly on tertials), upperwing-coverts sooty gray, edged and tipped olive-yellow; tail black, base dark gray-brown, rectrices narrowly tipped gray; underparts below breastband yellow, flanks tinged olive; iris dark red; bill black; legs grayish black to black. Female has top and sides of head brown to grayish brown, merging with dark olive-brown on upperparts, uppertail-coverts tinged olive, lores pale brownish gray, ear-coverts gray-brown; upperwing olive-brown, remiges edged gray-olive (increasing in extent from primaries to tertials), wing-coverts edged and tipped olive-gray, tail dark olive-brown, rectrices narrowly edged olive; chin and throat off-white with faint gray-brown barring, breast light brown, belly and flanks off-white, undertail-coverts pale yellow. Juvenile has body almost entirely rufous, remiges sooty brown, edged rufous on outer web (broadly so on tertials, becoming finer towards primaries), primary-coverts edged rufous, greater and median secondary-coverts rufous, rectrices edged rufous, iris and bill dark brown; first immature as adult female except retained juvenile remiges, wing-coverts (forming rufous wing patch) and rectrices, also has brown eyes and bill; second and third immature males indistinguishable from adult female.

Systematics History

Traditionally treated as including Rusty-breasted Whistler (P. fulvotincta), Oriole Whistler (P. orioloides), Rennell Whistler (P. feminina), Fiji Whistler (P. vitiensis), Black-chinned Whistler (P. mentalis), and Yellow-throated Whistler (P. macrorhyncha), thereby constituting some 59 valid subspecies; in past, also included Black-tailed Whistler (P. melanura), and as many as 73 subspecies have been recognized (1). This complex of taxa has been notoriously difficult to reduce into coherent taxonomic units owing to mosaic and inconstant plumage patterns. Recent trend has been to accept moderately well-defined groups identified by detailed morphological analysis (2) (outlined in HBW) as species (3, 4) supplemented by biogeographical considerations and splits deriving from potentially revolutionary but incomplete and partially contradictory molecular studies (5, 6). Published rearrangements are, however, no less arbitrary and no more robust than traditional treatment, and this is true also of the arrangement offered here, which results from a partial review of morphological evidence and a consideration of modern treatments and findings in the literature. Species limits are here very tentatively based on a general sharing of characters, with usually no attempt to apply the Tobias criteria (7) owing to incomplete character constancy. Comprehensive work is needed in order to provide vocal, ecological, behavioral, and molecular evidence to support or revise these proposals. Present species defined entirely on basis of the constant characters of a white chin and throat and black breast-band in all taxa except the “hen-feathered” xanthoprocta, which appears to be close to contempta. Southwestern Australian populations of fuliginosa found to be more closely related to P. melanura, and proposed for species rank under the reinstated name occidentalis (8); more recent analyses found that fuliginosa of south-central Australia was actually closer to occidentalis than the rest of P. pectoralis, and so is included with that taxon. Of the two subspecies now included in Western Whistler, fuliginosa has priority (9).

Subspecies

Five subspecies recognized. <em>Pachycephala pectoralis youngi</em> is large, like nominate, male with yellow collar narrower, back and underparts not so bright, tail black with broader gray base, fringes of remiges and wing-coverts duller, female upperparts and tail dull medium gray, lower breast and belly grayish white, crissum white; <em>glaucura</em> is also similar, but male collar narrower, back and fringes to remiges and wing-coverts duller, tail medium gray with narrow black tip, lower breast lemon-yellow, grading to whitish on crissum, female back and tail dull brownish gray, lower breast and belly grayish white, crissum white; <em>contempta</em> is like nominate but smaller, male tail grayer with broad black subterminal bar, underparts lightly washed olive, female slightly darker, upperparts browner, underparts slightly lighter; xanthoprocta of both sexes is like female nominate, but upperparts more olive, tail slightly browner, lower breast and belly somewhat yellower.


SUBSPECIES

Pachycephala pectoralis pectoralis Scientific name definitions

Distribution
E Australia (E Queensland, NE New South Wales).

SUBSPECIES

Pachycephala pectoralis youngi Scientific name definitions

Distribution
SE Australia.

SUBSPECIES

Pachycephala pectoralis glaucura Scientific name definitions

Distribution
islands in Bass Strait (King I, Flinders I) and Tasmania.

SUBSPECIES

Pachycephala pectoralis contempta Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Lord Howe I.

SUBSPECIES

Pachycephala pectoralis xanthoprocta Scientific name definitions

Distribution
Norfolk I.

Distribution

Occurs through eastern Australia, where it is extends from eastern Queensland from near Cairns south to eastern New South Wales, and through Victoria. Also occurs on Tasmania, King Island and Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, Lord Howe Island, and Norfolk Island.

Habitat

Timbered, usually mesic habitats, entering drier and modified habitats to varying extents; substantial differences across range. In Australia usually with dense understorey , e.g. rainforest, wet and dry eucalypt (Eucalyptus) forest and woodland (including mallee and riparian growth), dense dry shrubland, softwood scrubs, casuarina (Casuarina) woodland, Melaleuca woodland, Banksia woodland, sometimes gardens and parks, occasionally exotic pine plantations; on Lord Howe I lowland forest, remnant native vegetation, more common in lowlands than in mountains; on Norfolk I shrubby understory of rainforest, palm forest, Araucaria rainforest, regenerating forest, gardens. In Australia, occurs in lowlands to higher altitudes, 500–1500 m in northern Queensland, in Southern Alps above 1,300 m when breeding, below 1,000 m in winter.

Migration Overview

Not well known; island populations presumably sedentary. Some Australian populations present throughout year at some localities. Others migratory to varying degrees, much of movement altitudinal, shifting to more open habitats at lower elevations in non-breeding season; timing of movement may depend on age and sex, with adult females and juveniles moving before adult males in some areas, whereas in others adult males may move while adult females do not. In southeastern Queensland, departure from higher elevation breeding areas in February–April, returning August to early October. Of more than 3,400 ringed individuals, 25% retrapped, with 99.7% of these within 10 km of site of original capture.

Diet and Foraging

Invertebrates, mainly insects and spiders (Araneae); occasionally fruit, rarely seeds. Large prey beaten prior to being consumed. Mainly arboreal, foraging in crown of trees or in shrubs in understory, feeding in foliage and on branches, less often on ground . Foraging strata exploited, and methods employed, vary among habitats and localities; at some sites, differences between sexes. Extensive studies conducted at several sites in Australia. In rainforest in northeastern Queensland, 14.9% of foraging at 1–5 m (understorey), 31.3% at 5–10 m (subcanopy), 25.4% at 10–17.5 m (lower canopy), 25.4% at 17.5–25 m (upper canopy), 3% above 25 m (emergents); most foraging in foliage, twigs and small branches (80%), much less in branches (7.5%), trunks (3%), other vegetation (6%), air (4.5%); main technique gleaning (77·6%), with some sally-striking on vegetation (11.9%) and in air (9%). In wet eucalypt forest in southern New South Wales, mostly at lower levels, 2% below 0.2 m, 65% at 0.2–4 m (shrub layer), 16% at 4.1–10 m (subcanopy), 17% above 10 m (canopy); feeds mainly in foliage (67%), sometimes on branches (13%) and in air (10%), occasionally on trunks (5%), loose bark (3%) and ground (2%); much more reliant on sally-striking on vegetation (71%) than on gleaning (16%) or sally-striking in air (10%). In dry eucalypt forest in central-eastern New South Wales, foraging on ground (2.8%), at 1–2 m (12%), 3–5 m (12.7%), 6–9 m (38.1%), 10–14 m (27.5%), above 15 m (6.9%); mainly in foliage and twigs (84.1%), also ground (2.3%), branches (9.4%), trunks (1.7%), air (2.4%); prey captured by gleaning (40.3%) and sally-striking on vegetation (57.4%), occasionally sally-striking in air (2.3%). In mallee woodland of northeastern Victoria, somewhat more time spent in foraging on branches (30.7%). Seasonal shift in foraging substrates recorded at some sites: in Tasmania, foliage used 43% of time in summer and 83% in winter, branches 30% in summer and 11% in winter, air 24% in summer and 6% in winter. At some sites, sexes feed mainly at different heights; in Australia, males above 5 m 90% of time and females below 5 m 77% of time in central-eastern New South Wales; in south-central Victoria, mean foraging height for males 11 m, for females 9 m. Likewise, at some localities little difference between sexes in foraging methods employed, while elsewhere males use sally-striking much more than do females, which mainly glean. Joins mixed-species foraging flocks throughout range.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

General song pattern consists of series of loud, clear whistles, sometimes varying in volume and speed, usually ending with 1–2 whipcrack-like notes. Considerable geographical and individual variation, with extensive individual repertoires from limited number of notes. In Australia, single, repeated, pure-toned note followed by shorter, sharp, high-pitched whipcrack note, “choo choo choo choo chip” or “peep peep peep pu-wit”; short song (in autumn-winter) 1–2 short notes, then whipcrack, “whi-whit” or “whi-whi-whit.” Other vocalizations: in Australia “tweet-a-weet-a-weet-a-weet,” and rising “seep” in autumn/winter.

Breeding

Information for Australian populations may refer to either present species or Western Whistler (Pachycephala fuliginosa), although they are presumably similar in most aspects of breeding biology. Season August–February (mainly September–October) in Australia, eggs September–October on Lord Howe Island, and at least September–December on Norfolk Island. Following details refer to Australian subspecies unless indicated otherwise. Forms pairs in breeding season, separate in non-breeding season; some indication that pair-bond retained at several localities, elsewhere little evidence, but also evidence of extra-pair mating. Territorial when breeding; singing contests with neighbors, particularly near joint boundaries; territory size 0.8–4.5 ha. In courtship, male perches close to side of female, facing her, female tense and erect, wings outstretched, trembling, gently swaying, bill raised, male gradually moves from side of female to front and around to other side; also darts around female while calling. Nest built by female, with some assistance from male, a cup of twigs, plant stems, grass, needles, rootlets, bark, dead leaves, vines, occasionally wool or moss, bound externally with spider web, lined with grass, rootlets, bark, sometimes needles or hair, external diameter 8.9–15.2 cm, height 5.1–8.9 cm, internal diameter 5.1–7 cm, depth 3.2–5.1 cm; placed 0.5–9 m (usually ca. 3 m) from ground in upright or vertical fork in thick outer foliage (providing overhead concealment) in shrub or small tree. Clutch 2–3 eggs, white, pale cream or salmon, spotted and blotched with dark brown, reddish brown or umber overlying dark gray and dull purple markings, often concentrated at large end, mean 23.8 × 17.3 mm (Australia), 23.9 × 17.8 mm (Lord Howe Island), 26.2 × 18.4 mm (Norfolk Island); incubation by both sexes, period 15–16 days; both also brood and feed chicks, nestling period 10–12 days; fledglings tended by both parents. Nests parasitized by Pallid Cuckoo (Cacomantis pallidus), Brush Cuckoo (Cacomantis variolosus), and Fan-tailed Cuckoo (Cacomantis flabelliformis), and predators include lace monitor (Varanus varius). Hatching success in Australia 48.9–72.3 %. Maximum recorded longevity more than 18 years.

Conservation Status

Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Moderately common to common; locally very common. In southeastern Australia, described as common in all stages of successional secondary forest. Subspecies on Lord Howe Island (contempta) and Norfolk Island (xanthoprocta) both listed as “Vulnerable” because their small ranges mean that they are potentially at risk of unforeseen catastrophe. Lord Howe subspecies remains common, but numbers just ca. 2,000 breeding individuals within area of 12 km². Norfolk Island population only ca. 1,000 breeding birds in a range of 5 km², and has also undergone steady decrease in numbers, already noted in 1960s–1970s (although it still occupied about half of the island then); was further reduced through 1980s, with almost all of the 535 pairs restricted to Norfolk Island National Park. Most of the preferred habitat of <em>xanthoprocta</em> has been either lost or fragmented, and black rats (Rattus rattus), introduced in mid 1940s, may add predation pressure. A more recent study, in 1997, indicated that the decline had leveled out and numbers remained steady.

Recommended Citation

Boles, W., D. A. Christie, and G. M. Kirwan (2021). Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), version 1.1. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.golwhi1.01.1