Urban animal life
Some mute swans (Cygnus olor) build their nest in the most unlikely places. In this picture, swans have occupied a pontoon in a canal in Copenhagen, Denmark, oblivious of passing people or tourist boats. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Taiwan squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus ssp. taiwanensis) is feeding on food, intended for birds, near the Confucius Temple, Tainan, southern Taiwan. Where they are regularly fed, these otherwise rather shy squirrels often become remarkably tame. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tree sparrow (Passer montanus), sitting on a sculpture in a Daoist temple, depicting a dragon, Taichung, Taiwan. – Dragons and other aspects of Daoism are dealt with on the page Religion: Daoism in Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Kingfishers, comprising about 114 species of small to medium-sized, often brilliantly coloured birds, are characterized by having a large head, a long, sharp, pointed bill, and very short legs. As their name implies, most of these birds eat fish, although many species live away from water, eating mainly small invertebrates.
These birds are divided into three subfamilies: river kingfishers (Alcedininae), tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae), and water kingfishers (Cerylinae). One species of the former subfamily is presented below, whereas members of the other two subfamilies are dealt with on the page Animals: Himalayan animals.
A small genus of 7 species, all feeding almost exclusively on fish. 4 species are restricted to warmer parts of Asia, 2 to sub-Saharan Africa. The seventh species is presented below.
The generic name is the Latin word for kingfisher.
Alcedo atthis Common kingfisher
This bird has a very wide distribution, from western Europe across Asia to Sakhalin and Japan, and southwards to North Africa, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and New Guinea.
The eastern subspecies bengalensis is fairly common in Taiwan, mainly in the lowland. This bird is sitting near a wall along a drainage canal in the city of Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Anatidae Swans, geese, and ducks
At present, this large worldwide family contains 43 genera with about 146 species.
Anser Grey geese
A genus of 11 species, distributed in arctic and temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The generic name is the Latin word for goose.
Anser anser Greylag goose
This species is widely distributed in northern Eurasia, from Iceland and Britain across northern Europe and Central Asia to northern China, with a scattered occurrence in south-eastern Europe, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. In many countries, the species is now breeding in city parks, where it often becomes remarkably confiding – sometimes even showing a threatening attitude towards people.
Domestic geese are descended from the greylag goose. In some places, including North America and Australia, domestic geese have escaped to form feral populations.
This child is feeding greylag geese between bars in a fence, surrounding St. James’ Park, London. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When they have goslings, greylag geese are often so bold that they sometimes threaten passing people. This male goose in a city park in Copenhagen, Denmark, is hissing at me because of its goslings in the foreground, but is itself being threatened by a male mute swan (Cygnus olor). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A genus of 6 long-necked birds, distributed on all continents except Antarctica. Genetic research indicates that the coscoroba swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) of South America is not a true swan, but more closely related to geese or shelducks.
The generic name is a Latinized form of the Greek kyknos (‘swan’).
Cygnus olor Mute swan
In 1984, the mute swan was elected the national bird of Denmark – an appropriate choice, as it is very common. This was not always the case. In the 1800s, swans were hunted in Denmark, and by 1920, only three or four pairs were breeding in the vicinity of Copenhagen. Swans were protected in 1926, and the mute swan soon began spreading across the country.
In his fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen relates the fate of a cygnet, which is ostracized by its fellow fowl in a farmyard, where it has been hatched together with ducklings. It has to undergo much suffering, before it realizes that it has matured into a beautiful swan. In reality, this story is about the fate of Andersen himself.
The mute swan is native to northern Europe, from southern Norway and southern Finland, southwards to southern France and Romania, and from Ireland eastwards to western Russia and Ukraine, and with patchy breeding occurrence in the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, eastwards to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and northern China. It has also been introduced elsewhere, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
As opposed to the other northern European swans, the whooper swan (C. cygnus) and Bewick’s swan (C. columbianus ssp. bewickii), the mute swan is not very vocal, hence the appellation mute. The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘swan’.
Some mute swans build their nest in the most unlikely places. In this picture, and in a picture on top of this page, swans have occupied pontoons in a canal in Copenhagen, oblivious of passing people or tourist boats. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In severe winters, many starving water birds gather in harbours, where conditions are often less harsh than in open areas. The picture below shows a woman in Lausanne, Switzerland, feeding various bird species, including mute swans, coots (Fulica atra) (see Rallidae below), tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) (see Laridae below), and feral pigeons (Columba livia) (see Columbidae below).
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This family contains about 19 genera and 113 species of fast-flying birds, which catch insects in the air. They are superficially similar to swallows, but are not even distantly related to them, the resemblance being a result of convergent evolution due to similar life styles.
Apus Typical swifts
A genus with 20 species, distributed in Eurasia and Africa, and on islands in the Pacific Ocean. The generic name is the Latin word for swifts, derived from Ancient Greek a (‘without’) and pous (‘foot’). Due to the tiny, weak legs of these birds, the Ancients believed that they were a type of swallow without feet.
Apus nipalensis House swift
Formerly, this bird was classified as a subspecies of little swift (A. affinis), but today, most authorities regard populations, which are distributed from Nepal eastwards to Japan, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to Indonesia, as a separate species.
Colony of house swift on a residential building, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ardeidae Herons, egrets, and bitterns
Herons comprise about 64 species of long-legged and long-beaked, fish-eating water birds, distributed almost worldwide. Some species are called egrets, mainly birds with ornate plumes during the breeding season, whereas birds of the genera Botaurus, Ixobrychus, and Zebrilus are called bitterns.
A genus with about 13 species of mainly large herons, distributed almost worldwide. The generic name is the classical Latin word for herons.
Ardea cinerea Grey heron
The grey heron is distributed in the major part of Asia, Europe, Africa, and Madagascar. Formerly, this species was a very shy bird, but in later years it has adapted to a life in cities. In America, it is replaced by the similar, slightly larger great blue heron (A. herodias).
Other pictures, depicting grey herons, are shown on the pages Fishing, and Animals – Birds: Birds in Taiwan, whereas the great blue heron is presented on the page In praise of the colour blue.
This grey heron was encountered in the harbour of Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A small genus of 4 species of small herons, 3 of which are found in warmer parts of Asia, one in sub-Saharan Africa. They were previously placed in the genus Nycticorax (below).
Gorsachius melanolophus Malayan night-heron
This small heron mainly breeds in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, with northern outposts in north-eastern India and Taiwan. The majority are resident, but Indian birds, as well as some northern birds of Southeast Asia, spend the winter in Indonesia or Malaysia. The main habitats of this species are forest and marshy areas, but in Taiwan, where it is fairly common, it is often found in city parks, where it can become remarkably confiding.
The pictures below are from the city of Taichung, Taiwan.
This pair of Malayan night-herons was encountered in a park. The bird to the left is probably a male in breeding plumage, showing deep blue lores and a long crest, whereas the other bird presumably is a female, which is not yet sexually mature, or has retained the immature plumage – a character known from females of this species. (See Chang 2000. Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus breeding in immature plumage. Forktail 16, pp. 167-168). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Immature Malayan night-heron, foraging in a polluted stream. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bird is sitting on its day-roost, a garden wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The windscreen of this long-term parked car is covered in guano, which has dropped from a Malayan night-heron nest in the tree above. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Today, this genus contains only 2 species, the black-crowned night-heron (below), which is distributed almost worldwide in warmer areas, and the Nankeen, or rufous, night-heron (N. caledonicus), which is distributed in Australia, New Zealand, Java, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Palau, and the Solomon and Caroline Islands.
In historic times, 4 other species of the genus, which were all restricted to small islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, have gone extinct.
The generic name is derived from the Greek nyktos (‘night’) and korax (‘raven’), referring to the mainly nocturnal feeding habits of these birds, and to their hoarse, raven-like call.
Nycticorax nycticorax Black-crowned night-heron
This smallish heron is found in most warmer parts of the world, except in Australia, where it is replaced by the closely related rufous night-heron (N. caledonicus). The generic name means ‘night raven’, from the Greek nyktos (‘night’) and korax (‘raven’), referring to the mainly nocturnal feeding habits of this genus, and their hoarse, raven-like call.
In Taiwan, the black-crowned night-heron is quite common and often confiding. This adult bird is sitting on a wall along a drainage canal in the city of Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These immature black-crowned night-herons were also observed in a drainage canal in Taichung. The bird in the lower picture is searching for fish. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Columbidae Pigeons and doves
A large family with about 50 genera and c. 345 species. The word pigeon generally denotes larger species, dove smaller species. These birds are found on all continents except Antarctica.
A rather large genus with about 35 species, widely distributed in the Old World. Previously, a number of American pigeons were placed in this genus, but they have been moved to a separate genus, Patagioenas.
The generic name is Latin, meaning ‘dove’, the feminine form of columbus (‘male dove’), a Latinized version of the Greek kolumbos (‘diver’). This name was applied by Greek comic-writer Aristophanes (c. 446-386 B.C.) to the common rock pigeons, due to the ‘swimming’ motion made by their wings in flight.
Columba livia Rock pigeon
City pigeons are a domesticated form of this bird, which have become feral, often forming huge populations in many cities around the world. Despite the fact that they are often a nuisance, dropping their guano everywhere, and maybe also spreading contagious diseases, feeding them is a very popular occupation.
Numerous feral pigeons, being fed on Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Warmly dressed on a chilly spring morning, a little boy has fun chasing the feral pigeons on Durbar Square. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Every morning, hundreds of feral pigeons are being fed around the Buddhist Bodhnath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This feral pigeon is scratching its head. It breeds in a hole in a wall along the Ganges River, Varanasi, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Columba palumbus Wood pigeon
Previously, this species was a shy forest bird, but in later years it has adapted to a life in cities, where it is now very common. This species is found all over Europe, the Middle East, and Morocco, with isolated populations in Central Asia and the western part of the Himalaya.
The wood pigeon may be identified by the white patches on the hindneck and wings. This one takes off from a pole near Säby Läge, Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This wood pigeon is sitting on a house chimney on the island of Fanø, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wood pigeons, feeding in the city of Nyborg, Funen, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A genus of 5 species of small, long-tailed doves, native to Southeast Asia and Australasia. The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek geo (‘ground’) and peleia (‘dove’).
Geopelia striata Zebra dove
This small dove is native from southern Thailand southwards to Indonesia, living in open areas, including shrubberies, farmland, parks, and gardens. It is a popular cage bird, and many populations have been established outside its native range from escaped birds.
Zebra dove, walking on a street, Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, members of this genus were included in the genus Streptopelia (turtle doves), but studies on vocalization, together with genetic analyses, led to the conclusion, that two birds of that genus, the spotted dove and the laughing dove (both presented below), differed sufficiently from the other members of Streptopelia to constitute a separate genus.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek spilos (‘spot’) and peleia (‘dove’), referring to the spots on the neck of the spotted dove.
Spilopelia chinensis Spotted dove
This pretty bird, also called pearl-necked dove, is widely distributed in Asia, from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to China and Taiwan, thence southwards through the Philippines and Southeast Asia to Indonesia.
The spotted dove is very common in Taiwan, also in cities. In this picture, a pair is sitting on the rail of an apartment balcony in a skyscraper in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This spotted dove is silhouetted against a high-rise building in Taichung. Tree sparrows (Passer montanus) are also sitting in the tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spilopelia senegalensis Laughing dove
This small dove is widely distributed, found in much of northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, eastwards to India. It is also found in Cyprus. In 1889, it was introduced to western Australia, where populations have been established in several locations. It lives in a variety of habitats, including semi-desert, scrubland, agricultural areas, and cities.
Other names include palm dove and Senegal dove, and in India it is known as little brown dove. The name laughing dove stems from its characteristic cooing, a low, drawn-out croo-doo-doo-doo-doo, somewhat reminiscent of a laughter.
In Dubai, where this picture was taken, the laughing dove is a common city bird, showing no fear at all of passing pedestrians. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“That dove would make a perfect lunch!” – This cat was lying in wait for a laughing dove in Istanbul, Turkey, but missed it. The laughing dove is very common in this city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Streptopelia Turtle doves
A genus of c. 13 species of small to medium-sized doves, most of which are found in Africa, with several species in tropical and subtropical Asia, one of which, the oriental turtle dove (S. orientalis), is also found in temperate areas of Asia, whereas another, the collared dove (below), has expanded its distribution area to the Middle East and the entire Europe.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek streptos, which literally means ‘twisted’, but in this connection ‘wearing a torque’ (a twisted necklace), alluding to the semi-collar of many members of the genus; and peleia (‘dove’).
Other species, which were formerly placed in this genus, have been moved to the genera Spilopelia (above) and Nesoenas.
Streptopelia decaocto Collared dove
Originally, the native area of this species was the Indian Subcontinent, but during the Middle Ages it spread to the Near East, reaching Istanbul in the 1700s. In the 1820s, it had spread to the Balkans, whereas the expansion of the major part of Europe took place very rapidly, between the 1930s and 1950s. Today, it is common all over Europe, mainly living in urban areas.
The cooing of this bird is a rather monotonous, continuously repeated “cuh-coooor-cuh”, which can at times be rather annoying. When I was young and prepared for high school examinations, it was quite hot, so I had to leave a window open. A favourite cooing place of a collared dove was our neighbour’s flag pole, situated about 15 m from my window. Its cooing got so annoying that I had to go out and chase it away, but five minutes later it was back on the pole. Well, I did pass my exams anyway.
Collared dove, drinking from a puddle on the roof of a garage, Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Streptopelia tranquebarica Red turtle dove
This tiny dove is found from Pakistan eastwards to eastern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards to Southeast Asia and the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
The male is quite distinct, having grey head, black collar on the hind neck, red wings, and reddish breast, which has given rise to the name of the species. The female is brownish, also with a black collar. The specific name means ‘from Tranquebar’, a former Danish colony on the east coast of South India, in present-day Tamil Nadu. Presumably, the type specimen of this species was collected here. – You may read about Tranquebar on the page Culture: Entrances.
The eastern race humilis of red turtle dove is common in the lowlands of Taiwan, especially in the south. In this picture, a pair has built their nest on a cornice in the Daoist Fushing Mazu Temple in the town of Xiluo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cooing male, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvidae Crows and allies
This almost cosmopolitan family, which constitute the largest passerines, contains 24 genera with more than 120 species of ravens, crows, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, nutcrackers, and others.
Due to persecution, most members of the family are very shy. However, many corvids have now adapted to a life in cities, where they are generally left in peace.
Numerous members of this family are described on the page Animals – Birds: Corvids.
Previously, jackdaws were placed in the genus Corvus (below), but, following genetic research, they have been moved to a separate genus, containing one or two species, depending on authority.
Coloeus monedula Eurasian jackdaw
This small corvid, which was previously named Corvus monedula, is ubiquitous in cities all over Europe. It is distributed from southern Finland and Scandinavia southwards to the Mediterranean, and thence eastwards to Central Asia. In eastern Siberia, Mongolia, and China, it is replaced by a near relative, the Daurian jackdaw (C. dauuricus), which may possibly be a race of the Eurasian jackdaw, as they often interbreed.
The specific name is derived from the Latin moneta (‘coin’), thus named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), allegedly because this bird often picks up coins and other shining items.
Jackdaws, feeding on a lawn, Funen, Denmark. The plant with white flowers is common daisy (Bellis perennis). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvus Ravens, crows, rooks
Members of this genus are among the most intelligent birds. Comprising about 45 species, they occur in virtually all temperate areas of the globe, with the exception of South America. The name raven generally applies to larger species, crow and rook to slightly smaller species. The generic name is the classical Latin word for raven.
Corvus corone ssp. cornix Hooded crow
As it is extensively hunted in most of its distribution area, the hooded crow is usually very wary of people, often fleeing at a considerable distance. In many cities, however, where hunting is banned, crows show little fear of people.
Around the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, crows show no fear at all of people, as these pictures clearly show. In the lower picture, a crow is trying to open a zipper on a baby carriage but must give up. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvus frugilegus Rook
For hundreds of years, the rook, which breeds in colonies, has been much persecuted, as it was traditionally regarded as a pest which ate crops in the fields. However, it is an established fact that the rook also benefits the farmer through consuming lots of crane fly larvae and other harmful insects. Young rooks are much cherished as food, and lots of young are shot on the nests in spring.
During the last 30 to 40 years, many rooks have been moving from rural areas into towns and cities, where they are secure from hunters. However, they are also persecuted in many of these new breeding areas, as they are noisy and make a mess. As a result, the rook is diminishing in many areas.
Rook, feeding along railroad tracks, Silkeborg Railway Station, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvus splendens House crow
In its native area, viz. the Indian Subcontinent, southern Iran, and Myanmar, the house crow is an extremely common bird. During the last hundred years or so, it has spread to many cities in Asia and Africa, arriving as ‘blind passengers’ on board ships. It is also found in a few coastal towns of Europe and North America.
House crows, resting on a rail around the golden Lawkananda Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These house crows are inspecting the remains of butchered water buffaloes in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A house crow and and a three-striped palm squirrel (Funambulus palmarum), feeding on offerings, brought to the Minakshi Hindu Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A small genus of long-tailed corvids, comprising 7 species, which are resident in tropical areas of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The generic name is derived from the Greek dendron (‘tree’), and kitta, which originally meant jay (Garrulus glandarius), but in this connection merely means ‘magpie’.
Dendrocitta formosae Grey treepie
This bird, also called Himalayan treepie, is distributed along the foothills of the Himalaya, eastwards through montane areas of northern Indochina and southern China to Taiwan. In Taiwan, however, the nominate subspecies formosae lives almost down to sea level. In most areas, this bird is rather shy, but in Taiwan it has become accustomed to people, showing no fear at all.
Other pictures, depicting this species, may be seen on the pages Animals – Birds: Corvids, and Animals – Birds: Birds in Taiwan.
Grey treepie, calling from the top of a street lamp pole, Taichung, Taiwan. (Foto copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This grey treepie is feeding on seeds of a Chinese tallow-tree (Triadica sebifera), Taichung. – A collection of pictures, depicting the gorgeous winter foliage of this tree, is shown on the page Autumn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In the past, only 2 species were recognized in this genus, the black-billed magpie (Pica pica) of Eurasia and western North America, and the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli), which is restricted to California. However, recent genetic research has split the former black-billed magpie into a number of separate species, the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica) (see below), the Maghreb magpie (P. mauritanica) of North Africa, the Asir magpie (P. asirensis) of south-western Saudi Arabia, the Oriental magpie (P. serica) of eastern and southern China, Taiwan, and northern Indochina, the black-rumped magpie (P. bottanensis) of west-central China and the north-eastern Himalaya, and the black-billed magpie (P. hudsonia) of western North America.
The generic name is the classical Latin name of the magpie, whereas the word pie is of Indo-European origin, meaning ‘pointed’, in this case no doubt referring to the long, pointed tail of these birds. The prefix mag– dates from the 16th Century, a short form of the name Margaret, which was a term used for women in general. The call of the bird was likened to the chattering of women, and so it was called mag-pie. (Source: etymonline.com/word/magpie)
Pica pica Eurasian magpie
This bird is widely distributed across Eurasia, with 6 subspecies recognized. As described above, others have been upgraded to separate species.
Like the hooded crow, the magpie was formerly a shy bird, fleeing from people at a long distance. Today, however, it is a common breeding bird in cities, where, under normal circumstances, people do not constitute a danger to the birds.
The role of the magpie in folklore is described on the page Animals – Birds: Corvids.
Magpie, resting on a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young magpie is sitting on the rail of a foot bridge across a canal in Copenhagen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Magpie nest, built in a silver birch (Betula pendula) with thousands of catkins. – Copenhagen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This family contains only a single genus, Dicrurus, with altogether 25 species. The plumage of most species is black, often with a sheen. The generic name is from the Greek dikros (‘forked’) and oura (‘tail’), referring to the forked tail of these birds.
Several species are excellent imitators, one example described on the page Quotes on Nature.
Dicrurus macrocercus Black drongo
This bird is a common resident in tropical and some subtropical areas of Asia, from southern Iran through the Indian Subcontinent to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards to Indonesia. It has also been introduced to certain Pacific islands, where it constitutes a threat to native bird species.
The black drongo lives in open areas, where it catches flying insects from a prominent perch, such as an electric wire or a bare branch. As its name implies, the plumage of this species is jet-black, with very little sheen. Previously, it was regarded as con-specific with the African fork-tailed drongo, which is today treated as a separate species, named D. adsimilis.
In Taiwan, subspecies harterti is very common in the lowlands, found in open areas, such as farmland and parks, and also often in cities. This bird is sitting on a bamboo pole, placed on a wall along a drainage canal in the city of Taichung. The tree is a papaya (Carica papaya). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hirundinidae Swallows and martins
A large family with 19 genera and about 90 species, distributed around the world on all continents, including Antarctica, where the barn swallow (below) is an occasional visitor. The greatest diversity is found in Africa.
In Europe, the term swallow is mainly used for species with forked tails, martin mainly for species with squarish tails. In America, however, the term martin is reserved for members of the genus Progne.
This genus contains about 16 species, all except one restricted to the Old World. The barn swallow (below) also occurs in the Americas. The generic name is the Latin word for swallow.
Hirundo javanica House swallow
Previously, one of the common swallows of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan was regarded as belonging to the widespread Pacific swallow (H. tahitica). However, 7 subspecies from these areas have recently been split to form a separate species, the house swallow. (Source: hbw.com/species/house-swallow-hirundo-javanica)
This species can be told from the barn swallow (below) by its shorter outer tail feathers, the greyish, checkered vent, and lack of black breast band.
House swallows readily nest in cities. These birds were observed in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. Subspecies namiyei is common in the lowlands of Taiwan, and is also found on the Ryukyu Islands, southern Japan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
House swallow, yawning while preening, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hirundo rustica Barn swallow
This bird is the most widespread swallow in the world. It mainly nests on or inside buildings, very often in stables or barns – hence its name. Six subspecies are spread across the major part of the Northern Hemisphere, from the British Isles eastwards to Japan, and from northern Norway, central Siberia, and Kamchatka southwards to North Africa, Egypt, southern Iran, and southern China, and in most of North America, from northern Canada southwards to southern Mexico. Four of the subspecies are migratory, spending the winter as far south as South Africa, northern Australia, and Argentina. The birds may be seen year-round in southern Mexico, southern Iberian Peninsula, Egypt, the Himalaya, southern China, and Taiwan.
Subspecies gutturalis is a common summer visitor in Taiwanese cities, and some birds are resident. The pictures below all show this subspecies, photographed in the city of Taichung.
Barn swallows as city birds. In the lower picture, the bird is sitting on a door lamp. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This barn swallow has built its nest above the entrance to a shop. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This nest, containing two almost full-grown young, is resting on a wire along a house wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Barn swallows, feeding near a rotary water spray on a lawn in a city park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shrikes are a group of striking passerines, which perch on trees, bushes, poles, or wires, scanning the surroundings for small prey, such as beetles, dragonflies, bees, lizards, and mice. They constitute a small family with 33 species in 4 genera, mainly distributed in Eurasia and Africa, with one species reaching New Guinea, and 2 in North America.
Previously, the family was much larger, encompassing bushshrikes, puffbacks, tchagras, boubous, and helmetshrikes. However, genetic research has shown that these groups are not closely related to shrikes. As a consequence, bushshrikes, puffbacks, tchagras, and boubous have been moved to the family Malaconotidae, helmetshrikes to the family Vangidae.
Lanius Typical shrikes
The major part of the 29 species of this genus occurs in Eurasia and Africa. The great grey shrike (L. excubitor) has a circumpolar distribution, and the loggerhead shrike (L. ludovicianus) is confined to North America.
The generic name is derived from the Latin lanio (‘butcher’), referring to the habit of some species of impaling their prey on thorns to be consumed later. The English name stems from Old English scric, alluding to their call. African species are known as fiscals, derived from Afrikaans fiskaal (a public official, especially a hangman), likewise alluding to the food-storing habit.
Lanius cristatus Brown shrike
Altogether four subspecies of this bird have been described. They breed over much of eastern Asia, in most of Siberia, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan, spending the winter in Tropical Asia. Further west, it is replaced by two sister species, the red-backed shrike (L. collurio) and the isabelline shrike (L. isabellinus).
In Taiwan, subspecies lucionensis is a common migrant and winter visitor. The pictures below are all from the city of Taichung.
Male brown shrike, resting on a concrete pillar in a city park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This female is sitting on a shrine, dedicated to the Daoist earth god Tu di Gong. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female, sitting on a scaffold for drying crops. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This immature bird was photographed in front of a blooming Taiwanese cherry tree (Prunus campanulata). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lanius schach Long-tailed shrike
This species, divided into 8 subspecies, is distributed from Uzbekistan eastwards to China and Taiwan, southwards to Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, with an isolated population in Papua New Guinea. In the lowlands of Taiwan, where the nominate race schach is a rather uncommon resident, it has adapted to a life in cities.
Long-tailed shrike, observed in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Laridae Gulls and terns
This large cosmopolitan family constitutes 22 genera with about 100 species.
Previously, the majority of gulls were breeding in wetlands, and they were rather shy of people. During the last 50 years, however, many species have readily adapted to a life in cities, feeding mainly on garbage and often breeding on house roofs.
This genus with 11 species of small to medium-sized gulls is found almost worldwide. Until recently, they were included in the genus Larus (below). The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek khroizo (‘to colour’) and kephale (‘head’), alluding to the dark head of many of the species in the breeding season.
Chroicocephalus ridibundus Black-headed gull
This small gull breeds from southern Greenland and Iceland across most of Europe and temperate areas of Asia, eastwards to Kamchatka, Russian Ussuriland and north-eastern China. It is also a rare breeding bird in north-eastern North America. It winters in Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast and East Asia, Japan, and along the east coast of North America.
The specific name is from the Latin ridere (‘to laugh’), referring to one of its calls, ke-ke-ke, mostly heard in the breeding colonies.
In former days, this species was very common in most of Europe, but it has declined drastically during the last 30 to 40 years. It does not breed on house roofs, but often on islands, constructed in ponds in city parks.
Black-headed gulls, resting on a pleasure boat in a harbour, central Jutland, Denmark. The bird in front is wearing a numbered plastic ring. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, most gulls were placed in this genus, but genetic research has lead to the resurrection of the genera Ichthyaetus, Chroicocephalus, Leucophaeus, and Hydrocoloeus. The systematics of the larger species is very complicated, and a number of former subspecies have recently been elevated to separate species. Today, the genus may contain about 30 species.
Larus argentatus Herring gull
Previously, the herring gull was regarded as being a circumpolar species, divided into a number of subspecies. Today, however, it has been split into several species, and the herring gull proper is restricted to north-western Europe, from Iceland, northern Norway and north-western Russia, southwards along the coasts of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and the Atlantic Sea, to southern France.
In later years, numbers of European herring gulls have increased significantly in cities, where the birds place their nest on top of high-rise buildings.
The following birds, which are now regarded as full species, were formerly treated as subspecies of the herring gull: western yellow-legged gull (L. michahellis) (below), Caspian gull (L. cachinnans), Armenian gull (L. armenicus), Vega gull (L. vegae) (below), and American herring gull (L. smithsonianus).
Herring gulls, feeding on scraps from a fishing vessel, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This herring gull is waiting for tidbits beside a fisherman, who is gutting fish in the harbour of Kerteminde, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Larus canus Common gull
This species has a very wide distribution, from Ireland and Scotland eastwards through the Siberian taiga belt to Alaska and western Canada. It mostly breeds on the ground in coastal regions and lakes, but may occasionally build its nest on roofs or in trees. It resembles the herring gull, but is smaller and has a narrow red eye-ring, and a greenish-yellow bill without a red dot. The European and Russian subspecies also have dark eyes.
A pair of common gulls have established their nest on a building at Alvesta Railway Station, Kronobergs Län, Sweden. In the two lower pictures, the male mates with the female, who remains lying on the nest. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Larus michahellis Western yellow-legged gull
This species is found in the Mediterranean Sea. It resembles the herring gull, but can be identified by its yellow legs and very powerful beak. This bird is extremely common in Istanbul, Turkey, where these pictures were taken. In this city, it often breeds on house roofs, and if a window is left open, it may enter to search for edibles.
Western yellow-legged gull with chicks in its nest, which is placed on a house roof. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This narcissistic western yellow-legged gull is gazing at its reflection in a window pane. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Western yellow-legged gull, drinking from a fountain, oblivious of the courting couple in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“Get lost! This is my lamp!” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This western yellow-legged gull has just killed a domestic pigeon and is now eating it on a roof top. It shows a threatening attitude towards an intruding hooded crow (Corvus corone ssp. cornix), which is very interested in the kill. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Larus vegae Vega gull
Previously, the Vega gull was treated as a subspecies of the herring gull, but is today regarded as a separate species. It is distributed in north-eastern Siberia, from the Lena River eastwards to the Bering Sea.
Vega gulls, Anadyr Airport City, Chukotka Peninsula. Note the different eye colour of the birds on the roof, a common trait in this species. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Motacillidae Wagtails, pipits, and longclaws
This family, which occurs almost globally, contains 6 or 7 genera with altogether c. 65 species.
These birds, comprising about 13 species, were named for their long, wagging tail. They are widely distributed in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with 2 species also encountered in Alaska.
The generic name is the classical Latin word for the white wagtail (below). It is actually a diminutive of motare (‘to move about’), but some time during the Middle Ages, based on a misunderstanding, the belief arose, that cilla meant ‘tail’. ( : J.A. Jobling 2010. The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Christopher Helm, London)
Motacilla alba White wagtail
Altogether eleven subspecies of this bird breed from eastern Greenland eastwards across Europe and Siberia to Alaska, southwards to Morocco, Iran, the Himalaya, and Taiwan.
The nominate race alba is found in eastern Greenland, Iceland, and the entire Europe, apart from the British Isles, and further east, almost to the Ural Mountains. In the British Isles, it is replaced by the race yarrellii, in Morocco by subpersonata, and from the Ural Mountains southwards to the Caspian Sea by dukhunensis. In Siberia and western Alaska, the race ocularis is breeding, in Iran persica, in the western part of Central Asia personata, in Central Asia baicalensis, in the Himalaya alboides, in China, Korea and Taiwan leucopsis, and in Japan, Sakhalin and Kamchatka lugens. Many of the northern races are migratory, whereas the southernmost are resident.
The white wagtail is confiding, often breeding in buildings.
Male of the nominate race of white wagtail, ssp. alba, photographed on the island of Christiansø, Bornholm, Denmark. Red roof tiles are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male of the nominate race, sitting on the roof of a lighthouse building at the northern tip of Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male Amur wagtail, ssp. leucopsis, sitting on a concrete wall along a river in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male Amur wagtail, feeding in a drainage canal, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This male Amur wagtail is feeding in some muck that has accumulated beneath a leaking water pipe, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male Himalayan wagtail, ssp. alboides, sitting on a dilapidated wall in Hutiao Xia (Tiger Leaping Gorge), Jinsha River, Yunnan Province, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male masked wagtail, ssp. personata, stretching a wing on a boat, Phewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Motacilla cinerea Grey wagtail
The grey wagtail is distributed over a huge area, breeding in most of Europe, Morocco, the Middle East, the Himalaya, Siberia, Central Asia, China, Japan, and Taiwan. Northern populations spend the winter further south, in Ethiopia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia.
In Taiwan, where subspecies melanope breeds in the lower hills, it is common in winter along streams and canals, also in cities. This bird is sitting on a wall along a drainage canal in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Passeridae Old World sparrows, snowfinches
As the family name implies, these birds, comprising about 43 species in 8 genera, are restricted to the Old World. They are not closely related to the New World sparrows, which belong to the family Passerellidae. When the European settlers arrived in America, these birds reminded them of the sparrows back home, so they named them ‘sparrows’.
Despite their name, snowfinches of the genera Montifringilla, Onychostruthus, and Pyrgilauda are not finches, but members of the sparrow family.
Passer Typical sparrows
A genus of about 28 species, widely distributed in Africa and Eurasia. The generic name is the Latin word for sparrows.
Passer domesticus House sparrow
In later years, the house sparrow has declined drastically in large parts of Europe, whereas it is very common in the United States, where it was introduced several times between 1851 and 1875, and in New Zealand, where it was introduced around 1865. In both countries, it was thought that the sparrows would be able to control populations of harmful insects in cereal crops.
However, they only catch insects when feeding their young, whereas the rest of the year they eat the very crops they were supposed to protect. However, as early as the 1880s, the sparrow itself was regarded as a pest in New Zealand, and in North America, it is considered a serious crop raider in large parts of the continent.
Male house sparrow, sitting on a roof, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hand-feeding house sparrows in St. James’ Park, London. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
House sparrows at a roadside restaurant, Muriwai Beach, New Zealand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Passer montanus Tree sparrow
This bird, a close relative of the house sparrow, has a huge distribution, found from western Europe across Central Asia to Japan, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and the Philippines.
In Taiwan, the tree sparrow is very common and has taken over the role of the house sparrow as a city bird, as the latter is not found in Taiwan. The pictures below are all from the city of Taichung.
This flock of tree sparrows is sitting on plastic dividers on the roof of a greenhouse. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tree sparrows, feeding on seeds of a Chinese tallow-tree (Triadica sebifera). – A collection of pictures, depicting the gorgeous winter foliage of this tree, is found on the page Autumn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This flock is sitting on barbwire, erected around an abandoned lot. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tree sparrows, gathered on a mast, Central Taiwan Science Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Grebes are aquatic birds with webbed feet, encompassing 22 species in 6 genera, found almost worldwide.
A genus of 9 species, breeding on all continents except Antarctica. The generic name is derived from the Latin podicis (‘vent’) and pes (‘foot’), alluding to the position of the legs of these birds near the vent.
Podiceps cristatus Great crested grebe
This bird has a very wide distribution, found from the British Isles and the Mediterranean eastwards across temperate regions of Eurasia to China. Furthermore, it has isolated populations in southern Africa and in Australia. In many European countries, it has adapted to a life in harbours.
Great crested grebe in the harbour of the town Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Great crested grebes, feeding a young, Enkhuizen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pycnonotidae Bulbuls and allies
These birds are medium-sized passerines, encompassing 27 genera with c. 150 species. They are distributed in much of Africa, and across the Middle East to Tropical Asia and Indonesia, and thence northwards to Japan.
Sub-Saharan members of the family, called greenbuls, brownbuls, leafloves, and bristlebills, are mainly forest birds, whereas the majority of North African and Asian species live in open areas.
Pycnonotus Typical bulbuls
Members of this genus, comprising about 32 species, are widely distributed in Africa, and from the Middle East across the Indian Subcontinent to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards to Indonesia.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek pyknos (‘thick’ or ‘compact’) and noton (‘back’), applied in 1826 by German zoologist and lawyer Friedrich Boie (1789-1870), who described many new species and several new genera of birds. Presumably, Boie found that these birds were quite compact. He and his brother Heinrich also described about 50 new species of reptiles.
Several species of bulbul are described on the pages Animals – Birds: Birds in Taiwan, and Animals: Himalayan animals.
Pycnonotus sinensis Light-vented bulbul
This species, also called Chinese bulbul, is distributed from central China southwards to Vietnam, and eastwards to Japan and Taiwan. It is one of the commonest birds in Taiwan, living in a wide variety of habitats, such as secondary forest, farmland, parks, gardens, and even city areas with scant vegetation.
Light-vented bulbul, surveying its surroundings from the top of a white leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala), Taichung, Taiwan. – This tree is presented on the page Nature: Invasive species. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This light-vented bulbul is enjoying the morning sun, sitting on the rail of a balcony in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rallidae Rails and allies
This family, which includes gallinules, waterhens, coots, crakes, and rails, is divided into 41 genera with altogether c. 156 species.
A genus of 10 species, distributed worldwide with the exception of the polar regions.
Fulica atra Eurasian coot
As a breeding bird, the black coot is widely distributed across Temperate Eurasia, eastwards to Japan, and in north-western Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, New Guinea, and Australia. Siberian populations are migratory, whereas African, Indian, Australian, and most European birds are resident. Very similar species are found in the Iberian Peninsula, Africa, the Americas, and Hawaii.
In many places, the Eurasian coot has adapted to a life in cities. These birds in Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland, have built their nests, made from twigs, water plants, and plastic bags, in canals. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This is a genus of 6 species, of which 3 are widespread, one is restricted to Gough Island in the Atlantic Ocean, whereas the remaining 2 are critically endangered, or maybe already extinct.
The name mor hen can be traced as far back as the 13th Century, meaning marsh hen, as the word mor in those days referred to marshes, rather than to moorland, which today indicates areas with heather (Calluna vulgaris) and other plants of dry, poor soils.
The generic name is Latin for ‘little hen’.
Gallinula chloropus Moorhen
The moorhen is widely distributed in the Old World, found in most of Europe and Africa, much of Central Asia, on the Indian Subcontinent, and in Southeast and East Asia, southwards to Indonesia. Central and East Asian populations are migratory, mixing with the resident populations further south in winter.
In the Americas, this species is replaced by the similar common gallinule (G. galeata), which was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the moorhen.
Like the coot, the moorhen has adapted to a life in cities. This bird is building a nest among plants and rubbish in a drainage canal in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Scolopacidae Sandpipers and allies
A large family with about 15 genera and c. 95 species of waders, found across the globe.
This genus contains only 2 species, the common sandpiper (below) and the spotted sandpiper (A. macularia), which breeds in North America.
The generic name is from Ancient Greek aktites (‘living on the coast’), derived from akte (‘coast’).
Actitis hypoleucos Common sandpiper
This small wader breeds across large parts of temperate and subtropical Eurasia, spending the winter in Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. In North America, it is replaced by a close relative, the spotted sandpiper (A. macularia).
The specific name is from the Greek hypo (‘beneath’), and leukos (‘white’), referring to the whitish belly of this species.
In the Nukumanu Islands of Papua New Guinea, the common sandpiper is called matakakoni, meaning ‘the bird that walks a little, then copulates’, referring to the habit of this bird of pumping its hind body up and down while foraging. (Source: D.W. Hadden, 2004. Birds of the northern atolls of the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea. Notornis. 51 (2): 91-102)
The common sandpiper is a common winter visitor to Taiwan, often feeding in drainage canals, like this bird in the city of Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sturnidae Starlings and mynas
Starlings and mynas constitute a family of about 118 species of medium-sized passerines, divided into c. 30 genera. Their natural area of distribution includes Europe, Africa, Asia, northern Australia, and some Pacific islands. Many species have been introduced elsewhere, including North America, Hawaii, and New Zealand. They often compete with native birds, and many are regarded as invasive species, in North America especially the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris), which is dealt with on the page Nature: Invasive species.
A genus with 10 species, found from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran eastwards to China and Taiwan, southwards to Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek akridos (‘locust’) and theras (‘hunter’). When locusts or grasshoppers are abundant, starlings and mynas gorge themselves on these insects. An example is described on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist.
Acridotheres ginginianus Bank myna
This smallish myna is restricted to the Indian Subcontinent, from the Indus Valley eastwards to the Ganges delta, and from the foothills of the Himalaya, southwards almost to the southern tip of India. The original habitat of this bird was open country, but it has adapted to a life in cities, where it is often observed along rivers, in markets, in railway stations, and even in airports. It has been introduced elsewhere and has formed feral populations a number of places, including Kuwait, the Maldives, Taiwan, and Japan.
The bank myna is similar to the common myna (below), but is a bit smaller, its plumage is more greyish, and the bare skin around the eye is orange rather than yellow.
The pictures below were all taken on the banks of the Ganges River, Varanasi.
(Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The bird to the left in this picture had escaped from captivity. The string, which was used to attach the tiny bells to its leg, was tied to tightly, causing the leg to swell, but it didn’t seem to bother the bird too much. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bank myna is preening by taking ants in its bill, gleaning its feathers with them. Presumably, the purpose of this behaviour is to kill pests with the formic acid. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acridotheres javanicus Javan myna
As a native, this bird is restricted to the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. However, it has been introduced to numerous other countries as a cage bird and has escaped in many places to form feral populations, including Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, and Puerto Rico.
Today, the Javan myna is very common in Taiwan, where it outcompetes local bird species, especially the native crested myna (A. cristatellus).
Javan mynas, sitting on a street lamp, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Javan myna has made its nest in a pipe above a road in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acridotheres tristis Common myna
This bird, also called Indian myna, is native to Asia, distributed from Turkmenistan and eastern Iran eastwards across the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia to south-western China, and thence southwards to Singapore. Escaped cage birds have established populations in numerous other countries, including South Africa, Madagascar, several Arabian states, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand.
The common myna was originally a woodland bird, but has adapted very well to agricultural as well as urban environments. In many places, it has become a pest, which expels native birds, especially in Australia, where it has been called “a most important problem”. The IUCN Species Survival Commission has declared it one of the world’s most invasive species and a threat to “biodiversity, agriculture, and human interests”.
Common myna, resting on a power pylon, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common mynas and spotted doves (Spilopelia chinensis), eating rice, which has been spread out on top of a sewage outlet, Taichung. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common mynas, feeding on the remains of a discarded lunch box, together with tree sparrows (Passer montanus) and a single Javan myna (the slate-coloured bird), Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A small genus of 2-4 species, distributed in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Some authorities include these birds in the genus Sturnus, others in the genus Sturnia.
Gracupica contra Asian pied starling
This colourful bird, which was formerly known as the pied myna (Sturnus contra), is native to the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It lives mainly in lowlands, but may be found up to an altitude of c. 700 m. In later years, it has been expanding and is now found in Pakistan, Sumatra, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The population in the latter country was established from escaped cage birds.
Asian pied starling, feeding among washed-up marigold garlands, which have been brought as an offering to the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi, India. – The important role of the Ganges River to Hindus is related on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Dubai, where this picture was taken, Asian pied starling has established a population from escaped cage birds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Thrushes constitute a large, almost global family of small to medium-sized birds, which spend much time feeding on the ground for worms and other invertebrates, and many species also eat fruit. Previously, this family was much larger, including many genera which are today included in the Old World flycatcher family (Muscicapidae).
The word thrush is derived from Old English throstle, from Proto-Germanic þrustlō, an ancient name for the song thrush (Turdus philomelos). In Old Saxon, þrustlō became throsla, in German Drossel. The latter name was adopted by the Danes, whereas the Swedes use the name trast for these birds, and the Norwegians trost.
A number of thrush species are dealt with on the page Animals – Birds: Thrushes.
Turdus Typical thushes
This genus, comprising 84 species, has an almost cosmopolitan distribution. Most of the northern species are migratory. The generic name is the Latin word for thrush.
Turdus merula Blackbird
The black plumage of the male blackbird has given rise to its name. Until about the 17th century, another name of this thrush was ouzel, or wosel, from Old English osle. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the weaver Nick Bottom sings:
The woosell cocke, so blacke of hew,
With orenge-tawny bill,
The throstle, with his note so true,
The wren and little quill.
Formerly, the blackbird was a shy forest bird, but in the last hundred years or so, it has spread to virtually all urban areas in Europe, today being one of the most common city birds. It is distributed across Europe and the Middle East, eastwards to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and it has also been introduced to Australia and New Zealand.
Male blackbird, preening on a house roof, Funen, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Blackbird, adult male (top) and immature male on the roof of a garage, Jutland, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cercopithecidae Old World monkeys
This large family, comprising 24 genera and about 140 species, is widely distributed in Africa and Asia. Members include baboons, macaques, colobus monkeys, langurs, and many others.
In Hinduism, Rama is the seventh incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu, and main character in the great epic Ramayana. One day, his fiancée, Sita, is abducted by Ravana, a demon king from Sri Lanka. Hanuman, who is the leader of the monkey army, is a great help to Rama in his struggle to liberate Sita. As a reward for his services, Hanuman was raised to become a Hindu deity.
Due to the great deeds performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred among Hindus, and troops of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), bonnet macaques (M. radiata), or grey langurs (Semnopithecus) often live around temples, where part of their diet consists of rice, sweets, or other edibles, brought as offerings by devout Hindus. They also roam the cities in search of food, often being a pest to street vendors, who sell vegetables and fruit.
These monkeys, and numerous other species of monkeys and apes, as well as a more detailed account of the role of Hanuman in the Ramayana, are presented in depth on the page Animals – Mammals: Monkeys and apes.
The number of species in this genus has been growing steadily in later years to 23, as two new species have recently been described.
The generic name stems from the word makaku, plural of kaku, a West African Bantu name for a species of mangabey. In Portuguese, makaku became macaco, and in French macaque, the latter adopted by the British. In 1798, French taxonomist Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825) applied this word of African origin, in the form Macaca, to an almost exclusively Asian group of monkeys, presumably because he was familiar with the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) – the only species of the group outside Asia, living in north-western Africa and on the Rock of Gibraltar, southern Spain. (Source: itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003458.html)
Macaca mulatta Rhesus monkey
The common brown monkey of northern India, in Hindi called bandar, is found almost everywhere in the country north of the rivers Tapti in Gujarat and Godavari in Maharashtra. The total distribution area is from Afghanistan eastwards through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos to Vietnam, and thence northwards to central China.
The rhesus monkey has become well-known through its usage in medical research, which detected the rhesus factor, an inherited antigen in the blood of humans. Its fur is mainly brown, with an orange tinge on the hind parts, and the tail is rather short, 20-30 cm. This monkey lives in very diverse habitats, from semi-desert via various forest types to temple groves and cities, from the lowland up to about 2,500 m altitude.
This rhesus monkey is walking along a narrow wall, surrounding the Hawa Mahal Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkey, sitting on a balcony in front of a residential home in Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey jumps from one house wall to another, likewise in Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Macaca radiata Bonnet macaque
In South Indian cities, this species takes over the role of the North Indian rhesus monkey, especially around Hindu temples, where they eat offerings of rice and flowers.
In temples, bonnet macaques often become obese, as this one, resting on a sculpture of an elephant in the Sri Minakshi Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This street performer in the city of Tirumalai, Andhra Pradesh, has caught two young bonnet macaques, training them to perform. They seem to be arguing about something. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Semnopithecus Typical langurs
Today, this genus contains 8 species, all restricted to the Indian Subcontinent. In the past, all grey langurs living here were regarded as belonging to a single species, Semnopithecus entellus, divided into six subspecies. However, recent morphological studies, combined with DNA-analyses, have revealed that the grey langurs should be regarded as 6 full species: northern plains langur (S. entellus), terai langur (S. hector), Nepal langur (S. schistaceus), Kashmir langur (S. ajax), black-footed langur (S. hypoleucos), and tufted langur (S. priam). A seventh species, dussumieri, has been declared void.
The generic name is from the Greek semnos (‘sacred’) and pithekos (‘monkey’), alluding to the sanctity of monkeys to Hindus.
Semnopithecus entellus Northern plains langur
This species is widespread in northern, central, and south-central India, from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal southwards to Telangana and northern Karnataka and Kerala, with a small population in western Bangladesh.
The northern plains langur is quite common, living in a variety of habitats, including forests, scrubland, temple groves, gardens, and towns, up to an altitude of c. 1,700 m. It is locally threatened by habitat loss due to intensified agriculture and fires, and by hunting for food by newly settled people in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
Previously, western and southern populations of this species were regarded as a separate species, the southern plains langur (S. dussumieri), but recent genetic research has declared this species invalid.
Like a bunch of street urchins, these northern plains langurs are sitting on a roof top in the city of Pushkar, Rajasthan, India, from where they survey the surroundings for fruit or other edibles to steal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These langurs are resting in a pavilion near the sacred lake in Pushkar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Muridae Old World mice and rats
This is the largest mammal family, containing more than 700 species of mice, rats, and allies, native throughout Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, but accidentally introduced to the rest of the world.
The family name is derived from the Latin mus (genitive muris), meaning ‘mouse’.
Rattus True rats
A genus of about 64 species, native to Asia. Several species have been accidentally introduced elsewhere, especially the black rat (below) and the brown rat (R. norvegicus).
Rattus rattus Black rat
The black rat originated in Asia, probably India or Southeast Asia. Later, it spread to the Near East and Egypt, and then throughout the Roman Empire. Research indicates that it reached Britain as early as the 1st Century A.D., and when Europeans began emigrating, it was spread to almost all parts of the world.
Formerly, the black rat was a serious pest, consuming huge amounts of cereals and other food items. Furthermore, it spread various diseases among humans. During the Middle Ages, rat fleas were carrying bubonic plague, which in some places reduced the human population by 50 to 75%. This much feared disease was aptly named The Black Death.
The brown rat (R. norvegicus) spread throughout the world at a later stage than the black rat. It is a much stronger and more adaptable species, and the black rat has now been expelled from many of its former strongholds by its more aggressive sister species.
In the town of Deshnok, Rajasthan, north-western India, a local goddess, Karna Mata, is regarded as an incarnation of the Hindu Mother Goddess Devi (see Religion: Hinduism). Her followers believe that if you are reborn as a rat, you escape the wrath of Yama, the God of Death. For this reason, rats are sacred, and pilgrims feed them in temples.
The Karna Mata Mandir Temple in Deshnok is teeming with black rats. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A huge family with about 51 genera and c. 300 species, distributed in the major part of the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa. They have also been introduced by humans to Australia.
The word squirrel, which has been in use as early as 1327, is from the Anglo-Norman name esquirel, which is again from the Old French escurel, a corruption of the Latin sciurus, which is derived from Ancient Greek skiuros, ultimately from skia (‘shadow’) and oura (‘tail’), thus ‘shadow-tailed’, alluding to the large, bushy tail of many squirrels. Some species have a habit of flicking their tail over their back, and in this way tropical species are able to use their tail as a protection against the fierce sunshine.
In city parks, where squirrels are regularly fed, these otherwise rather shy animals often become remarkably tame.
A selection of squirrel species is presented on the page Animals – Mammals: Squirrels.
This genus contains about 15 species, found mainly in Southeast Asia, with a few species occurring in Nepal, northeastern India, Bangladesh, southern China, and Taiwan. Most species live in tropical rain forests, but some have adapted to a life in city parks and gardens. Their food consists of nuts, fruits, and seeds, and also insects and bird eggs.
The first part of the generic name is derived from the Greek kallos (‘beautiful’) – although many of the species are of a rather plain brown colour.
Callosciurus erythraeus ssp. taiwanensis Taiwan squirrel
This squirrel, which is ubiquitous in the lowlands of Taiwan, is a subspecies of the widespread red-bellied squirrel, which is distributed from eastern Nepal, Bhutan, and north-eastern India eastwards to Southeast Asia, southern China, and Taiwan.
In these pictures, Taiwan squirrels are feeding on food, intended for birds, near the Confucius Temple, Tainan, southern Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Funambulus Palm squirrels
A small genus of 6 species, restricted to the Indian Subcontinent and south-eastern Iran.
Funambulus palmarum Three-striped palm squirrel
This squirrel is very common in the southern half of the Indian Peninsula and in Sri Lanka, also in urban areas. It has been introduced to Madagascar and surrounding islands, and to Australia, where it has become a minor pest.
This three-striped palm squirrel is eating offerings of rice flour, placed at a shrine in the Minakshi Hindu Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Funambulus pennantii Five-striped palm-squirrel
This species replaces the three-striped palm squirrel in northern India. The total area of distribution is from south-eastern Iran eastwards to the Indian Subcontinent, where it is found southwards to the state of Karnataka. It is very common in North Indian cities, even metropoles like Delhi and Kolkata. It has also been introduced to New Guinea and to many Pacific islands, and a population is found in the city of Perth, Australia, established from zoo escapes.
The five-striped palm-squirrel is ubiquitous in North Indian cities. This picture is from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Neosciurus carolinensis Eastern grey squirrel
A genetic study from 2020 concludes that this species, which was formerly included in the genus Sciurus, now constitutes the sole member of the genus Neosciurus.
It is among the most widespread of the North American squirrels, found in the eastern half of the continent, and has also been introduced to several areas in the West. It is very common in towns, as long as there are trees, where it can take shelter from dogs and other enemies.
This species has been successfully introduced to South Africa, Britain, and other places. In Britain it has become a pest, as it competes with the native European red squirrel (S. vulgaris), which is now scarce south of Scotland.
In Kew Botanical Gardens, London, the grey squirrels are fed by many people and have become very tame. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Emydidae Terrapins, pond turtles, marsh turtles
A family of 10 genera with about 50 species, distributed in the Americas, with the exception of two species of pond turtle (Emys), occurring in Europe and western Asia.
This genus, comprising about 16 species, is distributed from the United States southwards to northern Argentina.
Trachemys scripta ssp.elegans Red-eared terrapin
The native area of this animal, also known as red-eared slider, is the southern United States and northern Mexico. However, due to its popularity as a pet around the world, it has escaped and become established in the wild in numerous countries – or people have simply gotten tired of their pets and have released them. It has been included in the list of the world’s 100 most invasive species, published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Red-eared terrapin in a drainage canal, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This family contains about 64 genera with more than 950 species, occurring globally in warmer areas.
A genus with about 80 species, distributed in Southeast Asia. Some species have a very small range and are considered endangered.
Gekko gecko Tokay gecko
This species is found from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melanesia. In the United States, it has been introduced to the Florida Keys, where it has become invasive. It is easily identified by its loud call, rendered as geck-oo or tuc-too.
In Chinese medicine, tokay geckos are used for various ailments and diseases, including stroke, paralysis, arthritis, impotence, premature ejaculation, frequent urination, nocturnal urination, and emaciation. New research has shown that it has a positive effect on malignant tumours, especially in the digestive system. Today, the species is threatened due to over-collection and habitat loss.
Formerly, in China, a number of superstitions were related to the tokay gecko. It was believed that its urine was deadly poisonous. If a pregnant woman consumed it, she was certain to deliver a boy. As tokay geckos mate for a very long time, it was believed that consuming them would cure impotency.
In Southeast Asia, the tokay gecko is often encountered in houses, as in this picture from the island of Mindoro, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tokay geckos, conserved in alcohol, displayed for sale in a shop in Wuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Geckos of this genus are often called house geckos, as many of the species have adapted to a life inside houses. They are native to most tropical areas of the world, and a few species are also found in subtropical parts of Europe and Africa. Presently, about 90 species are known, with new species being described every few years.
House gecko, sitting on a house wall, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Varanidae Monitor lizards
This family is a group of about 80 species of large, carnivorous and frugivorous lizards of the genus Varanus, native to Africa, Asia, and Australia. It includes the largest living lizard, the Komodo dragon (V. komodoensis), which is dealt with in depth on the page Travel episodes – Indonesia 1985: Difficult journey to Komodo.
The generic name is of Semitic origin, meaning ‘dragon’ or ‘lizard beast’. The English name is explained in various ways. Some say it has its origin due to the occasional habit of these animals to stand on their two hind legs, seemingly ‘monitoring’ something. Others say that it arose from an old superstitious belief that they would warn people of the approach of venomous animals.
Some authorities include the earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) in the family, others place it in a separate family, Lanthanotidae.
Varanus salvator Asian water monitor
As its name implies, this large lizard, growing to about 2 m long, lives close to wet habitats. It is native from Sri Lanka and coastal north-eastern India eastwards to Southeast Asia and thence southwards to the Indonesian archipelago. Usually, people chase these animals away, as they are notorious plunderers of chicken yards, but where left in peace, they often become confiding.
The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘saviour’. Its origin is unexplained, but possibly indicates a religious connection.
This Asian water monitor is resting at the edge of a pond in a city park, Bangkok, Thailand. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Araneidae Orb-weaver spiders
The common name derives from the old English word orb, meaning ‘ball-shaped’ or ‘circular’, in this case referring to the circular webs of these spiders, which are suspended among vegetation, in fences, and other places.
This cosmopolitan family, comprising more than 3,000 species, is well-known to most people, as many of these spiders are quite colourful, and their webs are often found in gardens and along roads. Initially, araneid spiders make a framework of non-sticky threads, before adding final spirals of threads, covered in sticky drops.
In these pictures from the town of Anping, Taiwan, sunshine is reflected as the colours of the rainbow in an orb-weaver spider’s web. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Blattodea Cockroaches and termites
This order includes about 500 genera and 4,400 species of cockroaches, and about 300 genera of termites with app. 3,000 species, both groups distributed worldwide in warmer areas.
Many species of cockroaches have adapted to a life in cities, where they are often an immense nuisance. In traditional Chinese medicine, these animals are used against a number of ailments, such as abdominal problems, stroke, and bone fractions, and also as an anti-ageing agent. An ethnic minority in the Yunnan Province used cockroaches to treat open wounds. New research has shown that these animals contain at least nine different antibacterial substances, and one substance is able to kill AIDS virus.
For hundreds of years, cockroaches have been utilized as food in northern China. A cream, containing intestines of cockroaches and other ingredients, is applied by Chinese women to their skin to keep it young. A booming industry is producing skin cream and medicine from millions of cockroaches, kept in captivity.
Cockroaches prefer humid surroundings. This one was photographed in a bathroom in the town of Bontoc, northern Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded September 2020)
(Latest update October 2021)