A family of Zitting Cisticola

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“I am in debt to Jing-Yi Tou who alerted me that this large field (about 5-6 football field size) had recently been cut and then parts of it had been burnt or caught fire. This open ‘grassland’ field is in the city surrounded by a hypermarket, a school, shops lots and houses. Parts of the field are swampy and a large overgrown drain runs through the field. The grass is a mixture of lallang (Imperata cylindrical), short course grass and tall flowering grass (the kind the Baya Weaver and Munia like). Tou and I both visit the site to watch migratory Snipe, Oriental Reed Warblers, quail, munia, etc. Soon some mal-development will destroy it.

“Of particular note are the Zitting Cisticola (Cisticola juncidis malaya) that are plentiful in the field. Over the past three years have spotted 3-4 breeding Zitting Cisticola at this location at any one time. Although the Zitting Cisticola are polygynous, most of the pairs I observed seemed to be monogamous (has been described in literature). The above image shows four out of the of five family members.

“These guys are really shrewd and not the easiest to get close to. When you get near them, they rapidly fly up to great heights with their ‘chit/zit’ call and then drop like a stone to a patch. When I get there, there is nothing – they have quietly moved thought the tall grass to a new spot and I have been fooled into thinking the nest was there or that they are still there.

“It is hard to differentiate the sexes – Wells (2007) lists the distinctive features. In addition the juveniles rapidly mature and are ‘growing their full plumage by day eight’ (Wells, 2007). The ‘juveniles’ I have seen look almost adult – ‘once postjuvenile moult has been complete, then indistinguishable from adults’ according to this article is quite informative as to differentiating sexes although may not apply specifically to Cisticola juncidis malaya.

“The damage to the field has meant that their habitat and feeding ground has been temporarily diminished. I was worried that some juveniles might have perished in the fire. I was delighted to find at least one family that had survived. I say family because I suspect it was an adult pair and three juveniles from their behaviour. Two appeared more mature and were leading the other three and playing the defensive role. They were definitely behaving as a family although juveniles were more like sub-adult as they were also able to feed independently.

“Hence I was able to get really close to them from the road and use the car as a hide to watch at close quarters. They did not seem to mind the car or even me with the windows down.”

“At one point a cat walked through the area and all five birds were alarmed and flew up together calling out at a furious pace. It was quite a sight to behold – five Zitting Cisticola ‘shouting at the top of their lungs’ and ‘hovering’ above the cat. Even after the cat left the adults took time to settle and one adult continued to call out for quite some time (above, note also the ‘erectile’ nature of the crown feathers). Was really fluffed up in anxiety.

“The image above (left) shows the plumage of a female or sub-adult; that on the right shows the typical hunting posture just before it caught a grasshopper. Much of the foraging was done on the ground. They work their way down a grass stem (or leap down) and ‘disappear’ into the dense grass near the ground to catch a prey. Saw this many times but cannot get a photograph of them in the low grass.”

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh City, Perak, Malaysia
20th February 2010

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