White-breasted mesite (Mesitornis variegatus)

Synonyms: Mesitornis variegata
French: Mésite variée
GenusMesitornis (1)
SizeLength: 31 cm (2)
Weight103 – 111 g (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

The white-breasted mesite is a ground-dwelling bird with chestnut-brown plumage on the upperparts, white underparts dotted with black crescents, and a distinctive creamy or white line over the eye (2) (3). It is one of only three species in the Mesitornithidae family, all of which are found in Madagascar. Like the other two species, the white-breasted mesite has short, round wings and although it is capable of flight, it spends almost all of its time on the ground (3). When moving about its forest habitat it has a characteristic silhouette, with a short, straight bill, short legs, and with the head, back and broad tail all held horizontally. In the early morning and during the day the melodic song of the white-breasted mesite can be heard (3).

Endemic to Madagascar, the white-breasted mesite is known from just a few widely separated sites in the north and west of the island, and one site in the east (2) (4).

The white-breasted mesite inhabits dry deciduous forest, from sea level up to 150 metres. There is also one record of the white-breasted mesite in rainforest at 350 metres above sea level (4).

This secretive, terrestrial bird is generally found in groups of two to four (3), consisting of an adult breeding pair and their most recent young (2). They walk around the forest floor, with their body horizontal and their head rocking slight forwards and backwards, rummaging amongst dead leaves and probing the ground in search of food (3). The white-breasted mesite feeds mostly on invertebrates (small adults and larvae), but it also consumes some plant matter. Its diet varies according to the season, but includes crickets, cockroaches, spiders, beetles, centipedes, moths, flies and seeds (2).

The white-breasted mesite may be seen resting on a carpet of dead leaves in the shade, and at night, they perch together on a low branch. Only rarely does this bird fly; if in danger, it runs on a zigzag course, frequently freezing in an attempt to confuse the pursuer, and will only fly a few metres if necessary (3).

November to January is the peak of the egg-laying season for the white-breasted mesite. This apparently monogamous bird, forms long-lasting bonds and lays clutches of one to three eggs in a simple platform-like nest of interwoven twigs, situated close to the ground in a clump of vegetation (2). The eggs are white with rust-coloured spots (3), and hatch to reveal red-brown chicks (2)

The forest within the small range of the white-breasted mesite is being lost to slash-and-burn agriculture, uncontrolled fires, and intensive commercial exploitation for timber, charcoal and firewood (2) (4). As a result of this habitat destruction, numbers of this Vulnerable bird are suspected to be declining (4). In addition, this bird is occasionally hunted (4), with even adults incubating their eggs known to have been taken (2).

The white-breasted mesite occurs in a number of officially protected areas, including the Menabe forest, Ankarafantsika Strict Reserve, Ankarana Special Reserve and Analamera Special Reserve (4). However, this protected status does not exclude these areas from all threats. For example, the Menabe forest is increasingly threatened by illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, caused by immigration and the resultant population growth (4). Reducing illegal activities and destructive agriculture in areas such as Menabe is a necessary measure to protect the dry forests of Madagascar and its threatened avian inhabitants (4).

For further information on the white-breasted mesite see:

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:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2007)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Langrand, O. (1990) Guide to the Birds of Madagascar. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
  4. BirdLife International (May, 2008)