White-breasted woodswallow (Artamus leucorynchus)

Also known as: ashy woodswallow, lesser woodswallow, white-breasted swallow-shrike, white-rumped swallow-shrike, white-rumped woodswallow
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyArtamidae
GenusArtamus (1)
SizeLength: 17.5 - 19 cm (2)
Weight36 - 49.6 g (3)
Top facts

The white-breasted woodswallow is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Part of the unique woodswallow family (Artamidae), the white-breasted woodswallow (Artamus leucorynchus) is a small, short-tailed, large-headed bird with a top-heavy appearance (4). Its upperparts are charcoal-grey, as is the hood down to the throat (2), while the white rump, uppertail-coverts and whitish-cream underparts provide a stark contrast to this dark colouration (3). Primary feathers and the short, broad tail (2) are blackish (3) and slightly darker than the secondaries (5). The flight feathers and tail are finely tipped white when the bird has fresh feathers following a moult (3).

The eyes of the white-breasted woodswallow are dark brown, its conical bill is pale blue-grey with a black tip, and its legs are dark blue-grey (3) (5). Both the adult male and female white-breasted woodswallow are similar in appearance (3). Juvenile white-breasted woodswallows are similar in pattern to the adults, but are darker brown (3). The coverts, flight feathers and tail of the juvenile are narrowly tipped and fringed in buff-white (5), its breast feathers and underparts are off-white and its bill and legs are brown-beige (3).

There are nine recognised subspecies of white-breasted woodswallow, which vary in overall size, bill size and wing length, as well as slightly in the colour of the head and upperparts (3).

The white-breasted woodswallow demonstrates several varied calls, including a loud, scolding ‘pirt pirt’, mainly used in flight, as well as a nasal chatter and a soft song that includes mimicry of other species (3).

A species with an extremely large range (6), the white-breasted woodswallow is native to the Andaman Islands, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea, north and east Australia, and the southwest Pacific (7).

In Australia, the white-breasted woodswallow may be found in the northern coastal regions of Western Australia, as well as in the Northern Territory, through most of Queensland, New South Wales and western Victoria. It is also found on Barrow Island, off the coast of Western Australia (8).

White-breasted woodswallow subspecies vary in range as well as in appearance (3).

The white-breasted woodswallow prefers open country habitats with trees, often being found in dry open woodland, cultivated land, mangroves, the occasional forest clearing, and on the coast near the beach (3) (4). Occurring predominantly at elevations from sea level to 1,500 metres (3), this species has also been known to occur locally at above 2,000 metres on Sulawesi and Timor (4).

The white-breasted woodswallow is commonly found near populated areas, regularly occurring among herds of cattle or water buffalo and in areas near water (3) (8). 

Principally an insectivorous bird, the white-breasted woodswallow hunts alone or in small groups. First perching conspicuously on a high vantage point to locate prey, the bird then gracefully glides over the canopy or skims low over fields, taking insects in mid-air (3) (7). The white-breasted woodswallow also has a brush-tipped (divided) tongue as a morphological adaptation for feeding on nectar (8) (9).

The breeding season of the white-breasted woodswallow varies with location, running from March until May in the northwest of its range and from August to February in Australia, where occasionally two broods may be recorded. The white-breasted woodswallow has sometimes been observed to breed cooperatively, attending to young in groups of up to five individuals (3). Both sexes help build the open-cup nest, which is placed in a tree fork, hollow branch, man-made structure or even in the abandoned nests of other species (3) (9). The nest is made of grasses, roots and twigs (9), and is unlined (3).

The white-breasted woodswallow lays clutches of two to five eggs, and the hatchlings are fed by both the adult male and female, as well as other individuals within the cooperative group. At present there is no information regarding the incubation time or nestling period of this species, but fledglings are dependent on the adults for up to 50 days or so after leaving the nest (3).

The white-breasted woodswallow is locally nomadic outside of the breeding season (3) (9), and some migratory movement is also seen from north to south in Australia (3). This species is highly sociable, roosting in large clusters of 50 to 60 birds (8) (9). By roosting in large flocks, woodswallows are able to reduce heat loss, enabling them to save energy by going into a state of torpor in harsh conditions (10). The white-breasted woodswallow is an aggressive and territorial species, and is known to mob larger birds when threatened (7).

Not considered to be globally threatened, the white-breasted woodswallow is common throughout most of its range (3). The overall population is considered to be stable, with no indication of any threat of future declines at present (6).

There are no current conservation measures specifically in place for the white-breasted woodswallow. However, all birds remain protected on Barrow Island, Australia, and in the surrounding area (8).

More information on the white-breasted woodswallow and other birds on Barrow Island, Australia:

Learn more about bird conservation in Australia:

Find out more about conservation in Australia:

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, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  3. 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.
  4. Grewal, B. and Harvey, B. (2003) A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India: And the Indian Subcontinent, Including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  5. Wells, D. (2009) The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Volume 2. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  6. Birdlife International - White-breasted woodswallow (October, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5858
  7. Pearson, A. (2012) A Field Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Moro, D. and MacAulay, I. (2010) A Guide to the Birds of Barrow Island. Chevron Australia, Perth. Available at:
    http://www.chevronaustralia.com/environment/protectingenvironment/nature-books.aspx
  9. Grrlscientist (2012) Mystery bird: white-breasted woodswallow, Artamus leucorynchus. The Guardian, 2 November. Available at:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/grrlscientist/2012/feb/11/3
  10. Maddocks, T. and Geiser, F. (2007) Heterothermy in an Australian passerine, the dusky woodswallow (Artamus cyanopterus). Journal of Ornithology, 148: 571-577.