Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The African, Asian and European Stonechat

Male Stonechat, Saxicola torquata
Although more common in the west of Ireland than other areas, I recently spotted a group of Stonechats (Saxicola torquata) near Cork city centre, their hard "see tak tak" call identifying them immediately. This call for all the world sounds like two stones being bashed together. I saw both males and females, perched proudly on nearby hawthorn trees and gorse bushes, keeping an eye on me while regularly flicking their tails. Of the two, the male is the most attractive with a black head and a slash of contrasting white across the sides of the throat. Its underbelly is a ruddy orange and has a distinctive white shoulder patch. Females are rustier in colour with duller throat sides.
Female Stonechat, Saxicola torquata
Stonechats have a very large range, extending right across Europe and Asia and down into Africa and as such many subspecies are recognised. The status of these as actual species has lead to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis of some 171 individuals from 30 locations across their range. This showed that some subspecies that are very similar in appearance (S. maura maura and S. m. stejnegeri) are not in fact each other's closet relatives. Three distinct subspecies, European (S. torquata rubicola), central Palearctic (S. m. maura) and eastern Palearctic (S. m. stjnegeri) were recognised as likely phylogenetic species. However the fact that in some locations individuals from other groups occurred means that it is unclear if they are indeed biological species.
  1. Sterry, 2004. Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 82
  2. Hayman and Hume, 2002. The New Birdwatcher's Pocket Guide to Britain and Ireland p. 187.
  3. Zink et al., 2009. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 52 pp. 769-773

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