Yellow-breasted pipit (Anthus chloris)

French: Pipit à gorge jaune
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMotacillidae
GenusAnthus (1)
SizeLength: 16–18 cm (2)

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

The yellow-breasted pipit is a rare and secretive bird found in the high-altitude grasslands of South Africa and Lesotho (3). This species is most striking when in its breeding plumage, developing bright yellow underparts and wing linings (2) (4); in contrast, outside the breeding period, the underparts are brown or dull white with dark streaks (2). The upperparts, which remain greyish-brown throughout the year, are boldly dappled with dark spots and patches, giving a distinctive scaled appearance. The juvenile is generally pale brown and lacks the adult’s bright yellow colouring, having creamy brown underparts instead. The characteristic calls of the yellow-breasted pipit consist of a rapid, continuous chip chip chip and a quieter suwiep (4).

Found only in South Africa and Lesotho, the yellow-breasted pipit mainly occupies the Drakensberg mountain range within the South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, and the margins of Lesotho. Additional small populations are found in the north-east of the Eastern Cape and eastern parts of the Free State (2).

The yellow-breasted pipit spends much of the year at elevations above 1,500 metres in the lush, expansive grasslands found upon the undulating slopes of the Drakensberg Mountains (2) (3).

The yellow-breasted pipit can generally be found skulking through its grassland habitat, foraging for prey such as mantises and beetles. When disturbed, it will attempt to escape on foot, running swiftly through the grass, only taking to the air when close to capture. One of the most remarkable behaviours of the yellow-breasted pipit is its acrobatic, aerial song display, during which it soars high into the air and cruises for a short distance, before diving vertically into the grass (3). These displays help to establish and maintain lifelong, monogamous pairs, which breed during the summer rains between November and February (2) (3). The nest is constructed on the ground from grass and rootlets, with a lining of hair and finer rootlets, and is usually hidden beneath a grass clump to conceal it from predators (3). In the dry winter months following the breeding season, the birds may aggregate into small flocks, with some spending the winter at the breeding sites, living around the snowline, and others migrating to lower elevations and to the coast of KwaZulu-Natal (2) (3).

Historically, the yellow-breasted pipit was far more abundant and widespread than it is today. Sadly, the effects of intense grazing, commercial forest planting, and agricultural practices that involve the burning of grasslands, have greatly reduced and fragmented this species’ habitat. Such practices are only increasing in intensity; for example, in the Wakkerstroom district, a region which supports a large number of yellow-breasted pipits, over 100,000 hectares of grassland has been targeted for conversion to forest plantations. If this conversion goes ahead, it could prove to be catastrophic for the yellow-breasted pipit, as the land would no longer be suitable for it to breed (2) (3).

The yellow-breasted pipit occurs within a number of public nature reserves, but the populations that they support are generally small. Currently, only Natal Drakensberg Park holds a significant population (2) (3), but plans are underway to create a one million hectare Grassland Biosphere Reserve in the threatened region around Wakkerstroom that will protect and conserve a much larger proportion of this species’ total population (6). Should the reserve be created it will need careful management, so that the livelihoods of the local people and the population of the yellow-breasted pipit can both be preserved. This is also true of the other areas supporting populations of this species, where the landowners must be given incentives to manage the grassland beneficially, rather than opt for the plantation of commercially valuable forests (3) (6).

For more information about the proposed Grassland Biosphere Reserve 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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. BirdLife International (November, 2008)
    http://www.birdlife.org
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits And Wagtails. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. Sinclair, I., Hockey, P.A.R., Hayman, P. and Arlott, N. (2005) The Larger Illustrated Guide to Birds of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  5. BirdLife International (November, 2008)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sites/index.html?action=SitHTMDetails.asp&sid=7091&m=0