Just a bit bigger than a finch. BirdLife South Africa and partners to start new captive breeding program on critically endangered bird

7 Apr

DSC_0060The critically endangered White-winged flufftail. Only found in Ethiopia and South Africa: Photo Miona Janeke

At this stage not many finch enthusiasts in the world know much about the critically endangered White-winged flufftail. The bird, which is just a bit bigger than most finches, weighs approximately 30 grams and it is estimated that there are less than 250 of these little wetland birds left in the world. Scientists, at this stage, are not yet sure if the species between Ethiopia and South Africa are genetically linked. And if the little bird migrates the massive 4,500 km distance between the two countries

Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, from BirdLife South Africa, recently shared with the RFCG their exciting new captive breeding plans to try and find out more about this fascinating little bird. Below is her story

Saving the world’s rarest flufftail

The White-winged Flufftail

Sarothrura ayresi is, to our knowledge, restricted to the high altitude wetlands of Ethiopia and eastern South-Africa.  It is severely threatened by habitat destruction, especially from commercial afforestation, mining activities, damming, draining and overgrazing and is believed to be undergoing a continuing decline.

BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust have initiated a number of projects during 2013 to aid in our current understanding of conservation action required;  sponsored by the BirdLife International Species Champion, Eskom.

Uplisted to Critically Endangered

The current estimate of the global population size of White-winged Flufftaill is less than 250 birds, with only about 50 birds left in South Africa, making this species the world’s rarest flufftail. During 2013, this species was uplisted by the IUCN to globally Critically Endangered, one level from extinction in the wild.

South African wetland surveys

To inform the protection of the flufftail’s preferred environment, we need to understand more about its habitat requirements. With this in mind, Greg Davies, ornithologist at the Ditsong Museum, Pretoria, undertook surveys of the high-altitude marshes in Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal over the summer period of 2013–14 to identify suitable habitat for this rare species. Greg flushed a White-winged Flufftail at Middelpunt Wetland near Dullstroom, Mpumalanga, in December 2013.

Genetic and isotope analyses

To shed light on the migratory connection between South Africa and Ethiopia, genetic and isotopic analyses are currently under way. The DNA analyses are done in collaboration with Professor Antoinette Kotzé and her team at the National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria, and the isotopic studies with Professor Craig Symes at the University of the Witwatersrand.

We collected blood and feather samples from seven flufftails in Ethiopia in August 2013 in collaboration with our Ethiopian colleagues, the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society.

During the past season the fresh material from South African birds has increased from zero to three specimens. A male White-winged Flufftail was captured in a mistnet by Dirk van Stuyvenberg at Wakkerstroom in January. Another bird, an immature individual, was trapped by the research team at Middelpunt Wetland in February. In addition, material from a bird that collided with a powerline was obtained from Dr Barry Taylor. At long last with blood and feather samples from South African individuals, we anticipate that the White-winged Flufftail mystery could soon be unveiled.


The critically endangered White-winged flufftail is a very small wetland bird. Photo Miona Janeke

Captive breeding program planned for the critically endangered White-winged flufftail. Photo Miona Janeke

 New planned research facility at the National Zoological Gardens, Pretoria

The goal of this aspect of the work on White-winged Flufftails is to construct a research facility for captive flufftails in order to study their biology and behaviour. This facility will be used as a research laboratory to study species of flufftails and to raise awareness for the conservation of flufftails and wetlands. Initially the facility will be for Red-chested Flufftails, a closely related species. Later White-winged Flufftails will be sourced for the facility and a captive population will be established.  The facility will be open to visitors at the NZG and would have conservation, research and education value.

 Project Collaborators:             

  • National Zoological Gardens
  • BirdLife South Africa
  • Middelpunt Wetland Trust
  • University of Pretoria: Research on behaviour and other unknown aspects of the birds to be done in collaboration with Prof. Andrew McKechnie and his students.

Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson.

Conservation Manager/Oppenheimer Fellow of Conservation

BirdLife South Africa

For more information on BirdLife South Africa visit http://www.birdlife.org.za

We sincerely thank Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson for kindly sharing the above information with the RFCG. And we wish them lots of success with their conservation initiatives on this tiny little bird.

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation and is dependant on donors and sponsors to carry out its conservation work on finches in the wild. For more info visit http://www.rarefinch.org or write to the secretary at editor@avitalk.co.za



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