Crimson chat (Epthianura tricolor)

Also known as: crimson-breasted nun, red-breasted chat, saltbush canary
Synonyms: Ephthianura tricolor
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMeliphagidae
GenusEpthianura (1)
SizeLength: 10 - 13 cm (2) (3)
Weight9 - 14 g (2)
Top facts

The crimson chat is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Named for its strikingly beautiful colouration, the crimson chat (Epthianura tricolor) is a distinctive Australian passerine (4). During the breeding season, the adult male crimson chat has a stunning crimson crown, breast and rump (3), with a starkly contrasting white throat (2) (3) (5) and pale eyes that stand out against a dark facial mask (3). The remaining upperparts are brown, while the tail is blackish-brown with a white tip which is more obvious in flight (2) (5). The underparts of the male crimson chat are mostly scarlet, although the lower belly, thighs and undertail-coverts are white, sometimes with scarlet mottling, and the bill and legs are black to dark grey (2).

In its non-breeding plumage, the male crimson chat is less brightly coloured on the top of the head and underparts, while the facial mask, neck and side of the upper breast are paler brown (2).

The female crimson chat’s plumage is quite different to that of the male (2) (3) (6), and is generally much duller (5). The upperparts of the female are brown (3), including the top and side of the head, while the forehead and crown may occasionally be tinged with faint orange or a pinkish hue. The whitish underparts are mottled pinkish on the lower breast, belly and flanks (2). Although similar to the female, the juvenile crimson chat can be distinguished by its dull orange uppertail-coverts, the broad buff fringes on its upperwing feathers (2), and its lack of red or pink colouration on the underparts (2) (3).

All five Australian chat species (Epthianura) have relatively long wings, short tails, and slightly downward-curving bills (6). The crimson chat has a brush-tipped tongue (3) (6), which enables it to feed on nectar when flowers in the outback are in bloom (3).

Territorial male crimson chats are said to produce mournful ‘tee-whee’ or strong oscillating calls, while flocks in flight tend to make chattering, metallic or nasal notes. A sweet ‘seee’ whistle is given in alarm or as a contact call (2).

An Australian endemic (7), the crimson chat has an extremely large range (1). This partial migrant is found across Australia, mainly in the arid interior (2) (3), with a few records from the northern tropics (2).

The crimson chat prefers areas of open shrubland, particularly those dominated by Acacia species (2), in Australia’s arid and semi-arid interior (6). Eucalypt woodlands are also a favoured habitat type (8), and the crimson chat is known to be found on the edges of salt lakes (2) (3), dunes and occasionally on agricultural land (2).

The crimson chat has been reported to be abundant in recently burnt areas (9).

All Australian chat species show some degree of seasonal movement (6), and the crimson chat in particular is highly nomadic (2) (6). This species is generally gregarious, travelling and breeding in flocks of varying sizes, and it moves and breeds opportunistically when conditions are suitable (6). However, the seasonal movements of this species are generally poorly understood and unpredictable (2), although it has been reported to appear in large numbers in some areas after rainfall (10).

The crimson chat is primarily insectivorous (2) (5) (6), feeding on a wide variety of small insects from beetles and grasshoppers to butterflies and ants (2). However, this species also eats spiders (2) (6), as well as nectar, fruit and seeds (2). Feeding largely on the ground (2) (3) (6), the crimson chat is one of the few small species of Australian birds that walk and run rather than hop (3), although it is also known to perch on low bushes or reeds (3) (6), where it probes for food among the foliage and flowers (2).

The crimson chat often feeds by roadsides (10), and is usually found in small flocks of up to 30 individuals, sometimes in mixed-species flocks with other chats (2). This species’ brush-tipped tongue may be useful in feeding on nectar, but is also thought to be an adaptation for drinking dew and other sources of water (6).

The breeding season of the crimson chat usually runs from July or August to November or December. However, breeding may occur in other months following good rainfall (2), during the flush of vegetation and insects which follows (4). Crimson chats form breeding pairs (2), and the male attracts a mate by impressing the female with a display flight and by erecting its beautiful scarlet crown feathers (4).

Both sexes take part in nest building, incubation and rearing of the young (2). The crimson chat builds a neat, cup-shaped nest made from grass, fine stems, bark fibre and twigs (2) (6), often bound with hair and feathers (2). The nest is usually placed in low shrubs (6), not usually more than 40 centimetres above the ground (2).

The female crimson chat lays a clutch of between two and four eggs (2), which are whitish with black, red, brown and grey spots (6). The eggs are incubated for a period of between 10 and 14 days, and the nestlings remain in the nest for a further 9 to 11 days after hatching. Domestic cats are known to kill nestlings, while introduced foxes (Vulpes) sometimes destroy nests (2)

The crimson chat is locally common (2), and does not appear to be facing any substantial threats at present (7).

Given the fact that the crimson chat has an extremely large range (1), and is not considered to be globally threatened (2), there are currently no known conservation measures specifically in place for this species.

Find out more about the crimson chat:

Learn more about bird conservation in Australia:

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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:
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  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2007) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. BirdLife International (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., London.
  4. Joseph, L. and Olsen, P. (2011) Stray Feathers: Reflections on the Structure, Behaviour and Evolution of Birds. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  5. Leach, J.A. (2005) An Australian Bird Book: A Complete Guide to the Identification of Australian Birds. Kessinger Publishing, Montana, USA.
  6. Campbell, B. and Lack, E. (2011) A Dictionary of Birds. A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London.
  7. BirdLife International (September, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5389
  8. Schodde, R. and Mason, I.J. (1999) Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  9. Bradstock, R.A., Williams, J.E. and Gill, M.A. (2001) Flammable Australia: The Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  10. Thomas, R., Thomas, S., Andrew, D. and McBride, A. (2011) The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.