Extended Honeyeater family

What do you think of when you think of an extended family? Cousin Julie, Uncle John, Nanna and the rest? Or a group of related birds or mammals which is broader than a species but narrow enough to be a natural grouping?

Christmas is fresh in my mind as I write, as it may be in yours, but here I’m concerned with the taxonomic extended family, not the rellies. In particular, I have been thinking about  honeyeaters and their next-nearest kin, mainly because I have recently visited Canberra and Victoria and seen species which don’t live around Townsville.

Wikipedia defines their extended family as concisely as anyone:

The honeyeaters are a large and diverse family, Meliphagidae, of small to medium-sized birds. The family includes the Australian chats, myzomelas, friarbirds, wattlebirds, miners and melidectes. They are most common in Australia and New Guinea, but also found in New Zealand, the Pacific islands as far east as Samoa and Tonga, and the islands to the north and west of New Guinea … In total there are 187 species in 50 genera, roughly half of them native to Australia …

In and around Townsville we regularly see more than half a dozen species commonly called honeyeaters – Brown, White-gaped, Yellow, Blue-faced, White-throated, Scarlet, Lewin’s and more (links take you to older photos on Green Path). Friarbirds (Helmeted, Little and Noisy) are larger local members of the extended family and are easily identified: they are all brownish with bare black skin on their faces, and most have bumps on their beaks.

Wattlebirds and Miners

Down South, the Friarbirds’ niche is taken by Wattlebirds, which are similar in size and overall colour. Brush Wattlebirds (Anthochaera chrysoptera) were common in the South Gippsland area I visited, as were the slightly larger Red Wattlebirds (Anthochaera carunculata) in Canberra. My photo shows one visiting the outdoor tables of the Canberra Botanical Gardens cafe.

Brush Wattlebird, Meliphagidae
Brush Wattlebird on grevillea in a Leongatha garden
Red Wattlebird, Meliphagidae
Red Wattlebird at the dining table

A “wattle” is bird-talk for a flap or sac of bare skin on or around the face; turkeys are famous for them. Most Wattlebirds have comparatively small, discreet versions such as  the little pinkish patch visible below the Red Wattlebird’s ear, but the Brush Wattlebirds manage without one. Miners (not to be confused with Mynahs – more on that in a minute) also feature a wattle but theirs is a patch of colourful bare skin behind the eye.

Noisy Miner, Meliphagidae
Noisy Miner cleaning up after the humans

Townsville is on the edge of the territories of both the Yellow-throated and Noisy Miners but I’ve never seen either species in the city. The latter, however, is so common further south that it is often regarded as a pest.

I saw Noisy Miners (Manorina melanocephala) in both Canberra and South Gippsland on this trip, and have seen them in several Melbourne parks on previous trips. My photo shows one scavenging on the tables of the same Botanic Gardens cafe (not that the cafe was dirty or badly run – it’s lovely – but I spent a lot of time sitting there with my camera at hand, and the gardens are full of birds).

Chats, myzomelas and melidectes

What about the remaining groups of Meliphagidae listed by Wikipedia?

  • Myzomela is simply the name of one (large) genus and in common conversation its members are simply honeyeaters. The Dusky and Scarlet Honeyeaters, for instance, are Myzomela obscura and Myzomela sanguinolenta respectively and only recent references will use “Myzomela” as their common names.
  • Melidectes is likewise the name of a single genus. None of its members live in Australia but you can read about them here on Wikipedia.
  • The Chats are another single genus, Epthianura, within the Meliphagidae but have diverged further from the norm, mostly living in more arid environments and (perhaps in consequence) being mostly terrestrial and insectivorous.
Chat - Meliphagidae
White-fronted Chat (male) in coastal scrub at Cape Liptrap, Victoria

Miners vs Mynas

The Common Myna or Mynah (Acridotheres tristis) is not native to Australia but a naturalised exotic from southern Asia, particularly India, where it is one of about thirty related species. They are not honeyeaters but starlings, Sturnidae.

Myna
Common Mynas – perhaps Mum, Dad and the kids – on Ross Creek wharf, Townsville

Distanced in these two different ways from our Noisy Miners, the two species should never be confused but the similarities are too strong. The aural similarity of “Myna” and “Miner” is purely coincidental but encourages mistakes. Meanwhile the similarities of size, sociability, confidence in urban settings, and aggressiveness towards smaller birds all make a close family relationship credible. They even have similarly bright yellow coloration around the eyes. The best way of keeping them separate in conversation is to use an extra word – Common or Indian Myna vs Noisy Miner.

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