Even in sunny South Africa, European winter traditions are evident at Christmas time. There are Christmas cards that feature red-breasted European robins and there was a time when shop windows sported cotton-wool snow and plastic holly, even though December is at the height of the southern hemisphere summer! 

In the colonial era, British settlers the world over, named orange-breasted and red-breasted birds “robins”, and ignored the fact that these so-named birds were in fact from different species. Here in South Africa, birds that were formerly called robins are now more correctly called robin-chats.

In our garden, we have two kinds of robin-chat, the most noticeable being the highly vocal aptly named Chorister Robin-Chat. It sings loudly, especially during the breeding season, and is adept at copying the sounds not only of other birds, but also the sound of dogs barking, humans whistling and car alarms. For many years, a bird in our garden accurately imitated the way we whistled for our dogs. At dusk when these birds are more vocal, should we repeat our distinctive “dog whistling” a few times, the bird would often respond “dog whistling” back in response. For more on bird vocal copying see my post Birds just wanna have fun

Chorister Robin Chat in South African garden

Although the Chorister Robin-Chat’s orange underside is vivid, the contrast of the orange with the navy colouration on the head, back, wings and tail is most striking.

Endemic to the eastern regions of Southern Africa, the Chorister Robin-Chat favours forest habitat, and it visits gardens that border on or replicate such cover. It forages on the ground as well as in trees for insects and other invertebrates, and it also eats some berries. It is usually seen singly, although often its mate is nearby. They are monogamous and the pair-bond usually lasts for the life of one or other of the partners. Should a bird be widowed it will find a new mate. The nest is usually built by the female and both parents feed the young.


It’s is easy to see from its handsome appearance why the virtuoso songsmith, the Chorister Robin-Chat, is one of my favourite garden birds. 

Although it also occurs in our region, I have yet to see the Natal Robin-Chat in our garden, but it is very likely around. The other robin-chat that is evident in our garden is the Cape Robin-Chat. Like the Chorister, it prefers access to dense cover, but it is not limited to evergreen forests. It also occurs in thickets, fynbos and scrublands, as well as in gardens. 

It too feeds on the ground, and is commonly seen (or heard) rustling through leaf litter in pursuit of food. These birds are another good reason not to sweep up fallen leaves in the shrubbier and treed sections of the garden. Its diet is similar to that of the Chorister, and it also eats small frogs and lizards.

Cape Robin-Chat in garden pond

A Cape Robin-Chat about to take a bath in our garden pond. Like the Chorister Robin-Chat, they need ready access to water for drinking and bathing. 

The Cape Robin-Chat is a common host of the Red-chested Cuckoo (also known as the Piet-my-vrou). It is sadly comical to see an adult Robin-Chat feeding a cuckoo chick that is larger than the parent. The hardworking parents seem to struggle to keep up with the demanding cuckoo chick’s apparently voracious appetite.

Cape Robin-Chat bathing

Although its name indicates otherwise, the Cape Robin-Chat occurs as far north as Sudan and is found in most of east and southern Africa. In an online survey, BirdLife Africa invited South Africans to vote for their favourite bird, and the most popular bird, announced in 2015, was the Cape Robin-Chat. Despite being much loved, I have yet to see it being featured on a Christmas card! ★ 

Posted by Carol at letting nature back in.

Sources: Roberts VII Multimedia PC Edition.  1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/portal.html

Roberts II Multimedia cover