Black-faced woodswallow (Artamus cinereus)
|Also known as:||black-faced wood swallow, black-faced wood-swallow, grey woodswallow, grey-breasted woodswallow, white-bellied woodswallow, white-vented woodswallow|
|Size||Length: 18 cm (2)|
|Weight||30.9 - 40 g (2)|
- The black-faced woodswallow is a small but highly vocal bird, with largely greyish plumage and a black ‘mask’ that gives this woodswallow its name.
- The black-faced woodswallow imitates other bird species by learning parts of their song and incorporating them into its own.
- The eggs of the black-faced woodswallow are particularly colourful, being bluish-white with splotches of reddish-brown and purplish-grey.
- To avoid energy loss in harsh conditions, black-faced woodswallows huddle together, using shared body heat to stay warm.
The black-faced woodswallow is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The largest of the Australian woodswallows (3), the black-faced woodswallow (Artamus cinereus) is a vocal and conspicuous bird (4). Adults of both sexes are similar in appearance, with a grey-brown crown and neck, and a lighter grey-brown throat that blends into sooty grey on the abdomen. Jet-black lores and a jet-black chin (2) (3) give the black-faced woodswallow a striking mask that makes it easily distinguishable from the related white-breasted woodswallow (Artamus leucorynchus) (4).
The rump and uppertail-coverts of the black-faced woodswallow are black, as are the tail feathers, which are all tipped white except for the central pair (2) (3). The grey wings have bluish-grey primary feathers (3). The legs and feet are greenish-grey and the bill is pale blue with a black tip (2) (3). The black-faced woodswallow’s eyes are dark blackish-brown (3).
Juvenile black-faced woodswallows are darker brown than the adults, with whitish streaking from the crown to the hind neck, throat and underparts. This streaking is more prominent on the brown upperparts, and the face mask is a duller black. The juvenile’s flight feathers are all finely tipped with white (2).
There are five recognised subspecies of black-faced woodswallow, which vary slightly in colour, size and geographical location (2).
A very vocal bird, the black-faced woodswallow occasionally mimics the songs of other species (2) (4). Its calls include a noisy chattering ‘chaf chaf’ (4), and a higher, longer, ‘tchiff-tchiff-tchiff’ cry. It also gives a soft twittering song mixed with mimicry (2).
The black-faced woodswallow has an extremely large range, being found across Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste (5). It is generally considered to be a resident species, but some unexplained movements have been reported in northern Australia (2).
This species has also been recorded on Barrow Island, just off the northwest coast of Australia, but this is not generally considered part of the black-faced woodswallow’s normal range (6).
The black-faced woodswallow prefers open country such as arid coastal savanna forest and mangrove fringes, as well as open woodland, shrubland, cultivated land and cleared pastures dotted with coconut trees and scrub (2) (4). Although normally occurring at sea level, it is occasionally found up to elevations of 300 metres inland (4).
Foraging alone, in pairs or in small flocks, sometimes with other species, the black-faced woodswallow typically hunts from the air, soaring over grassland searching for insects. Sometimes prey may be located and pursued from a perch, with lower perches chosen in windy weather. The black-faced woodswallow consumes a wide variety of invertebrates, but during locust plagues it becomes a specialist predator, taking only locusts (2). Although its diet is primarily insectivorous (2) (3), this species has also been seen feeding on Xanthorrhoea seeds (3).
The breeding season of the black-faced woodswallow is from spring to early summer, mainly October and November (2) (3). However, eggs have been recorded in all months, with the exception of June (2). Usually breeding co-operatively in groups of up to six (2), the black-faced woodswallow builds a cup-shaped nest of fine roots, twigs and grass (2) (3). The nest is placed approximately three to five metres above ground in a tree, shrub or artificial structure such as a telegraph pole. Clutches of up to 5 eggs are laid, although more commonly 3 to 4, and the eggs are usually incubated for 13 to 14 days. Incubation is carried out by all individuals in the mixed-sex co-operative group (2).
Black-faced woodswallow eggs are variable in colour and markings, but are normally bluish-white with reddish-brown blotches and spots of purplish-grey. The eggs are visibly more marked towards the wider end (3). The nestling period of the black-faced woodswallow is around 18 days, during which time the chicks are fed by all members of the group (2).
The black-faced woodswallow is a sociable species, sometimes roosting in groups of hundreds of individuals, huddling together to keep warm and save energy. More dominant birds are often found towards the centre of the clusters, burning less energy than those on the outer edge (7).
Not generally considered threatened, the black-faced woodswallow is described as common, and in fact appears to be increasing in number and expanding its range as a result of the clearance of closed habitats for agricultural purposes (5). However, it may face a localised threat in the Cape York Peninsula due to a change in the fire regime for grazing purposes, which can increase the density of woodland and reduce available grassland habitat (8).
No specific conservation measures are currently in place for the black-faced woodswallow. However, in the Cape York Peninsula region the use of fire management techniques has been recommended to manage suitable habitat for this species, as these have been successful in the past (8).
Find out more about the black-faced woodswallow and its conservation:
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities - Black-faced woodswallow in the Cape York Peninsula:
Queensland Government - Black-faced woodswallow:
BirdLife International - Black-faced woodswallow:
More information on woodswallows:
The Internet Bird Collection - Woodswallows:
This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
- Co-operative breeding: in birds, when three or more individuals contribute towards raising a single brood at a single nest site. Non-parental helpers at the nest assist with the feeding and raising of young birds.
- Coverts: small feathers concealing the bases of larger flight feathers, usually on the wings or tail.
- Flight feathers: the feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- Incubate (incubated): to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Incubation: the act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Insectivorous: insect-eating.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
- Lores: the space between a bird’s bill and eyes.
- Primary feathers: the main flight feathers projecting along the outer edge of a bird’s wing.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (October, 2012)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2009) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 14: Bush-Shrikes to Old World Sparrows. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. John Gould, London.
- Strange, M. (2003) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
BirdLife International - Black-faced woodswallow (October, 2012)
Moro, D. and MacAulay, I. (2010) A Guide to the Birds of Barrow Island. Chevron Australia, Perth. Available at:
- Joseph, L. and Olsen, P. (2011) Stray Feathers: Reflections on the Structure, Behaviour and Evolution of Birds. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
Garnett, S.T. and Crowley, G.M. (2000) Black-faced woodswallow (Cape York Peninsula). In: The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra. Available at: