Taita thrush (Turdus helleri)

Synonyms: Turdus olivaceus helleri
GenusTurdus (1)
SizeLength: 20-22 cm (2)

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Shy and inconspicuous, the Critically Endangered Taita thrush occupies a total range of no more than four square kilometres in south east Kenya’s Taita Hills (2) (3). A medium-sized thrush, the upperparts, head and breast are dark, the underparts are whitish, and the flanks are a rich rufous, while the bill and the eye-ring are bright orange (2) (4). The Taita thrush was originally treated as a subspecies of the much more common olive thrush (Turdus olivaceus), but was raised to full species status on account of its distinct appearance (2) (4) (5).   

The Taita thrush is confined to four tiny forest patches around 15 kilometres apart in the Taita Hills, south-eastern Kenya (2) (3) (6).

A forest specialist, the Taita thrush only occurs in good quality montane forest, preferring patches with a dense understorey and a thick covering of leaf litter (2) (3) (6).

The Taita thrush keeps well hidden in dense thickets and undergrowth, rarely ascending more than two metres above the ground (2). The diet is predominately composed of fruit, but it will also forage for insects amongst the leaf litter (2) (3) (5). Social foraging is common, with flock members maintaining communication through low sounding whistles (6). Apparently monogamous, pairs breed between January and July, with clutch sizes ranging from one to seven eggs (2). Little else is known about the natural history of the Taita thrush but ornithologists presume that its behaviour is similar to that of the closely related olive thrush (5).

Decades of forest clearance for cultivation and non-native timber plantations have reduced the indigenous forest of the Taita Hills to a tiny fraction of its former range. Today, the surviving forest patches, on which the highly specialised Taita thrush depends, remain under serious threat from clearance and degradation. As a result, the Taita thrush is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. One of the smaller sub-populations also has a highly male-biased sex ratio, which might have significant consequences for the subpopulation’s long term survival (2) (3) (6) (7).

In cooperation with local communities, considerable conservation work is underway in the Taita Hills. In order to restore existing forest fragments and hopefully enhance connectivity between them, efforts are being made to reforest areas with indigenous seedlings. Farmers are also being educated in environmentally responsible agricultural practices, and local people are being taught alternative income generating activities such as bee-keeping and butterfly rearing. In addition, an ongoing collaborative research project is in place which will provide the ecological data necessary to implement appropriate conservation measures. As part of future conservation measures, a translocation project for the most threatened subpopulation of the Taita thrush is being developed (2) (3) (6).

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)