Fuerteventura stonechat (Saxicola dacotiae)

Also known as: Canary chat, Canary Islands bush chat, Canary Islands chat, Canary Islands stonechat
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMuscicapidae
GenusSaxicola (1)
SizeLength: 11 - 12.5 cm (2) (3)
Wing length: c. 6.0 cm (3)
Weight12.2 g (2) (4)

The Fuerteventura stonechat is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Fuerteventura stonechat (Saxicola dacotiae) is a small passerine with one of the most restricted ranges of all bird species in the western Palaearctic (5). The genus name Saxicola is derived from Latin and translates as ‘rock-dwelling’, referring to the Fuerteventura stonechat’s habitat preference (3).

The colouration of the male Fuerteventura stonechat can be variable, but in its breeding plumage the head and upperparts are generally dark brown or black (3) (4), with a dark brown, black-streaked rump (4).

The male has a narrow white stripe, called a ‘supercilium’, which runs from the base of the beak to above the eye (4) (6). The throat is also white, and this colouration continues around the ear-coverts and forms a narrow half-collar (4) which almost joins at the back of the neck (3). An orange-buff patch is visible on the upper breast of the male Fuerteventura stonechat, while the remainder of the underparts are dull white (4). The tail is relatively long and narrow, and the uppertail-coverts are often white (3). The bill, legs and feet are all dark brown (3).

The plumage of the female Fuerteventura stonechat is generally paler and greyer than the male’s, and lacks several distinctive features, including the black head and white neck collar (3) (4).  However, as in the male Fuerteventura stonechat, the female has a white throat, and a broad, buff-white stripe between the eye and the bill. The rump of the female Fuerteventura stonechat is pale tawny-brown. Between July and December when the plumage is still fresh following a moult, the underparts of the female are buff, while in worn plumage between January and May they are more off-white with a yellow-buff tone on the upper breast (3).

The upperparts of the juvenile Fuerteventura stonechat are dull greyish-brown and it has a white throat, much like the female. The forehead and crown have small buff-white streaks, while the pale buff-brown rump and uppertail-coverts are unspotted. The juvenile Fuerteventura stonechat has a narrow, indistinct buff-white stripe from the eye to the bill, and the ear-coverts are dark greyish-brown flecked with buff-white streaks. The chestnut-buff breast has irregular dark brown fringes, while the rest of the underparts are paler buff (3).

The usual call of the Fuerteventura stonechat is a sharp, stony ‘chep’ which is often repeated several times. During the breeding season, this can also be accompanied by a thin, high-pitched ‘sit’ note (3).

The song of the Fuerteventura stonechat is a rather scratchy ‘bic-bizee-bizeeu’, and is sung only by the male. The song is usually performed from a perch, although a different song is sometimes given in flight (3).  

Endemic to the Canary Islands, the Fuerteventura stonechat was once widespread across the archipelago. However, its dwindling numbers mean that this non-migratory species (3) is now restricted to the island of Fuerteventura (4), the easternmost and oldest of the Canary Islands (7).

The Fuerteventura stonechat is found on rocky slopes and in ravines with plenty of shrubby vegetation cover including aulaga (Launaea arborescens), Mediterranean saltwort (Salsola vermiculata) and box-thorn (Lycium intricatum) (3) (4) (8). These earthy and stony habitats support an abundance of invertebrate species for food, and also provide suitable nesting sites and perches from which the Fuerteventura stonechat can search for prey (3) (4).

The Fuerteventura stonechat is also known to occur on the edge of vegetated lava flows, in cultivated areas, gardens (3) (4) (8), and around dry and flowing watercourses (4).

Little information is available on the diet of the Fuerteventura stonechat, but this species is known to be a largely insectivorous bird (9). However, it also consumes other small invertebrates (3) and berries (8), including the fruit of the box-thorn.The Fuerteventura stonechat hunts from a post site, either a bush or a stone, and will catch prey both in flight and on the ground (3) (8). When catching invertebrates on the ground, the Fuerteventura stonechat either hops or runs after its prey (3). Young stonechats are thought to be fed mainly on terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers (3).

The Fuerteventura stonechat has an early breeding season, often starting in January (3) (8) and carrying on through to April, although nests with eggs and chicks have been recorded in the middle of December (8). The male Fuerteventura stonechat will start to sing, and pairs will search for nest sites before mating begins. This species is monogamous during the breeding season (3), and the male will display to the female in the early part of this period. The courtship display involves the male slowly flicking its tail and subsequently flying at the female, to which the female will respond by hopping about and flicking its wings in an excited manner. The male Fuerteventura stonechat will then point its bill under its breast and bow forwards to expose the black colouring of the back of its neck. This movement is then followed by the two birds fluttering together just above the ground before resuming normal behaviour (3).

Most of the egg-laying occurs in February and March, once the female Fuerteventura stonechat has selected a site and built a nest. The male will accompany the female during the collection of nest material, but will not assist in building the nest itself (3). The nest is located on or very near the ground, and is a firmly built cup which is either open from above, or hidden under stones or bushes including the box-thorn (3) (8). It is built from grass, plant stems and roots, and is lined with wool, goat hair and sometimes feathers (3).

The average clutch size for the Fuerteventura stonechat is three to four eggs (3) (8), although as few as two and as many as five eggs can be laid in a single clutch (3). Each pair will normally only produce one clutch of eggs, but during wet years the breeding period may be extended and each pair can produce two clutches (10). The female Fuerteventura stonechat lays one egg a day, and will start incubating the eggs once the last egg of the clutch has been laid (3). Incubation lasts between 13 and 15 days, and is performed only by the female (3), although the male Fuerteventura stonechat will accompany the female when it leaves the nest to feed (3).

The smooth, glossy eggs of this species are usually pale green-blue with some mottling or freckling of pale reddish-brown (3). The young Fuerteventura stonechats are fed and cared for by both the male and the female, and remain in the nest for 16 to 18 days. Once the young have fledged, they will hide under dense scrub for a few days until they are able to fly well (3).

Outside of the breeding season the Fuerteventura stonechat can be found singly, in pairs or in scattered groups formed of adults and juveniles, but the species becomes territorial during the early part of the breeding season (3).

Habitat destruction as a result of rapid infrastructure expansion, including the development of tourist and residential centres, is the primary threat to the Fuerteventura stonechat (4) (8). The subsequent fragmentation of suitable habitat could also pose problems for this species (8), particularly given its small population size (4).

Additional threats to the Fuerteventura stonechat include livestock grazing, which reduces vegetation cover (3) (4) (8), and nest predation by introduced mammals including feral cats (Felis catus) and rats (Rattus spp.) (3) (4) (8) (9).

The Fuerteventura stonechat is listed on Annex I of the EU Birds Directive, meaning that it requires special habitat protection measures (11). It is also listed on Annex II of the Bern Convention, which offers this species strict protection (12).

An action plan was established for the Fuerteventura stonechat in 1999 (4) (9), and several studies relating to habitat availability, breeding biology and dispersal patterns have been undertaken (4).

Several conservation measures have been proposed to secure the future of the Fuerteventura stonechat. Implementing a national conservation plan and establishing and enforcing protection of suitable habitats is vital for conserving this species, as is the constant monitoring of population numbers and distribution (3) (4) (9). This includes identifying and designating Special Protection Areas (SPAs), Protected Sites, and Areas of Ecological Sensitivity for the Fuerteventura stonechat (8).

The control of both off-road driving and the opening of new tracks is considered to be an important step in conserving the Fuerteventura stonechat (4) (8), and a reduction in the numbers of feral goats in coastal areas would be greatly beneficial (4) (8). The introduction of harsh penalties for egg collecting or deliberate disturbance of the Fuerteventura stonechat might also help to protect this threatened species (3).

More information on the Fuerteventura stonechat:

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Illera, J.C. and Díaz,M. (2006) Reproduction in an endemic bird of a semiarid island: a food-mediated process. Journal of Avian Biology, 37(5): 447-456.
  3. Urquhart, E. (2002) Stonechats: A Guide to the Genus Saxicola. A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London.
  4. BirdLife International (October, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=6681
  5. Bibby, C.J. and Hill, D.A. (1987) Status of the Fuerteventura Stonechat Saxicola dacotiae. The International Journal of Avian Science, 129: 491-498.
  6. Beaman, M. and Madge, S. (1998) The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic. A&C Black Publishers Ltd., London.
  7. Illera, J.C. (2001)Habitat selection by the Canary Islands stonechat (Saxicola dacotiae) (Meade-Waldo, 1889) in Fuerteventura Island: a two-tier habitat approach with implications for its conservation. Biological Conservation, 97(3): 339-345.
  8. Illera, J.C. (2002) Action Plan for the Conservation of Fuerteventura Chat (Saxicola dacotiae). BirdLife International for the European Commission, Strasbourg, France.  Available at:
    https://wcd.coe.int/wcd/com.instranet.InstraServlet?command=com.instranet.CmdBlobGet&InstranetImage=1312813&SecMode=1&DocId=1451396&Usage=2
  9. MobileReference (2008) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of European Birds: An Essential Guide To Birds Of Europe. MobileReference, Boston.
  10. Illera, J.C. and  Díaz, M. (2008) Site fidelity in the Canary Islands stonechat Saxicola dacotiae in relation to spatial and temporal patterns of habitat suitability. Acta oecologica, 34(1): 1-8.
  11. EU Birds Directive (October, 2011)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1373
  12. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (October, 2011)
    http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/104.htm