Colours of Wildlife: Orange Ground Thrush

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Orange Ground Thrush

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Orange Ground Thrush by Willem


We're leaving the deer behind for just one article before we'll get back to them. But for today, a birdie! (I had a bit of a laugh; when I use the word 'birdie' I always think of Peter Sellers' 'Birdie num-num' scene in the movie 'The Party'.) Well this particular birdie is the Orange Ground Thrush, Zoothera gurneyi. Most South Africans have never seen it. It is a shy inhabitant of the understory of moist, dense evergreen forests, a kind of habitat covering less than a percent of South Africa's land surface. Even going after it in its native haunts, you'll have trouble seeing it. I've made it easy for you, with a more-than-life-size painting! But you'll have no trouble hearing it. The mellodious, melancholy whistles of this thrush constitute an essential feature of the misty, mountain forest ambiance. I saw it first in 1988, on my first Birding Big Day outing.


Also called Gurney's Ground Thrush, this bird belongs to a group of thrushes in the genus Zoothera, all called Ground Thrushes. The name means 'animal hunter'. This group occurs in Africa and also in tropical Asia, with two species further northward to Japan, Manchuria and Eastern Siberia. Australia also has a few species sometimes included in this genus, sometimes split from them. Conversely, though, the Australian ones are grouped within Zoothera while the African members and some others of the Asians are split off into a new genus called Geokichla which simply means 'ground thrush'. As you might guess, they spend most of their time on the ground rather than in trees or in flight. In behaviour, they're typical thrushes, thrashing leaves aside in search of insects and other yummy snacks in the forest understory. Several of the Asian species have beautiful, bold plumage patterns. The African ones are more muted, most coloured orange or brown, one with bold black spots on white.


In Africa, ground thrushes are primarily birds of forest patches. The huge, expansive equatorial rainforests of the Congo basin are almost entirely devoid of these thrushes. Instead, they are apparently attracted to isolated mountain forest regions, with most species restricted to fairly small areas. The orange ground thrush occurs mostly in mountain forests of the eastern part of Africa from Kenya southwards to South Africa. It is rarely found at sea level in Kenya, but in the more temperate South Africa, some mountain populations move to lower altitudes during the winter. It likes shady, moist forest with lots of ferns and mosses and deep leaf litter. If seen well, it can be told from the other similar thrushes in South Africa by its uniform orange underparts, its narrow white eye-ring, and the two rows of white spots on each wing. Its call sounds similar to that of some of the forest robin-chats but with careful listening can be distinguished from them. They are territorial, their song carrying far and telling nearby thrushes that the territory has been claimed, thank you very much. They are sometimes driven off by larger thrushes of the genus Turdus.


On the forest floor, the orange ground thrush hops about, scratching with its feet and flicking leaves aside with its bill. It may hop onto a fallen, half-decayed branch or stump, probing into the soft material with its bill. Sometimes it follows mole-rats, which disturb many forest understory critters with their diggings, without eating any of them, being vegetarians. By contrast, ground thrushes are mostly hunters eating almost every kind of invertebrate: insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, pill-bugs, snails, earthworms and more. They even eat small vertebrates, mostly tiny, recently-metamorphosed frogs or toads. They supplement this diet with small amounts of plant foods, mainly fruits such as figs and berries, or seeds.


The nest of the orange ground thrush is a bulky structure made from twigs, leaves, rootlets, plant fibers and festooned with living and dead mosses and lichens on the outside, camouflaging it well. It is situated not far above the ground, usually at 2 m/6" or so, in a densely vegetated spot such as a tangle of creepers or clump of ferns. In it the female thrush lays two or three eggs, beautifully turquoise blue, sometimes with reddish-brown and/or mauve spots or blotches. The female incubates them for about 15 days, and the chicks fledge usually before the age of 19 days. They remain dependent on their mom for a couple of months, learning to navigate the forests and where and how to find the titbits they feed on.


Although rare and rarely-seen, orange ground thrushes are not endangered. Most forests in South Africa are protected, and thrushes can inhabit even very small patches. But there are places in Africa where rampant, ongoing deforestation is putting this and many other species at risk.

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