Family : Muscicapidae
Text © Dr. Gianfranco Colombo
English translation by Mario Beltramini
It is not frequently occurring in the Mediterranean area but sometimes it happens that is reported the sighting in the garden in front of the house, of a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with the throat of azure colour, instead of reddish, like our usual friend.
At times they talk of a Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), seen also the presence of the reddish rectrices typical to this bird, creating even more confusion between these two species on the part of those not specialist on the subject.
The unskilled people are immediately ready to justify the fact, putting forward a malformation in the plumage of the sighted subject or imaginative soilings with chemical products or dyes that now surround us, or even alleged or lanky genetic evaluations borrowed from educational television programs talking about albinism, melanism, leucism, flavism and so, why not, of a hypothetical and macaronic azurism!
On the other hand, the Bluethroat, this unknown, moves like a Robin or a Redstart, behaves in the same way, displays the same at times shameless confidence with the human being and is reserved and discreet like these two, just that it has this odd and nice azure on the chest.
Were it not for this characteristics it has, it would certainly go unnoticed.
Who knows then what a mess would be done in some Asian localities where cohabit the four species of small birds with coloured chest, having the same size, the same behaviour and sharing the same territory!
The Siberian rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) with its crimson chest, the Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with orange chest, the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) with azure chest and the Red-breasted flycatcher (Ficedula parva) with its reddish chest.
And this without talking of the subspecies and their possible crossbreeding.
The difficulty shown by the inexperienced in the identification is as much as the facility of a good ornithologist in classifying this bird at the slightest opportunity, however not so common and rather intriguing in the case of females, due to the evident dimorphism: a coveted sighting in our latitudes and only rarely satisfied.
The Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica Linnaeus, 1758) is a nice small bird belonging to the order of the Passeriformes and to the family of the Muscicapidae, a group of birds specialized in the seizure of small flying insects.
As we shall see a little further, the Bluethroat is a strong migrant, therefore is actually only passing through our territories, hence only occasionally it may be observed in its nuptial livery, when it displays that bright azure colouring on the chest. However, even if the subject had already changed the plumage, some more or less accentuated trace is always visible.
The etymology of the scientific name of the genus Luscinia gets its origin from the eponymous Latin term “luscinia” = nightingale, whilst the name of the species svecica = of Sweden, has much broader and anecdotal roots.
Linnaeus, him too Swedish, was directly involved during the scientific classification of this small bird, being this a well-known bird and fairly known in his country, as well as for a certain patriotic involvement that led him to better interpret the indications received from his mentor, Olaf Rudbeck the Younger, who identified it scientifically for the first time, about sixty years before, under the discussed absolutist kingdom of Karl XII.
Rudbeck, during a naturalistic mission commissioned by the Swedish royal house in Lapland, among various discoveries counted the Bluethroat, bird on whose chest were clearly evident the colours of that time flag of Sweden, and, of course, felt obliged to dedicate the discovery to his King, ruler at the time; he in fact, did call it Avis carolina = bird of Karl.
A few decades later, Linnaeus, while working on the texts of the Systema Naturae, in a period now more progressive where the power was then highly reappraised decided that for the taxonomical officialization of this well-known bird, the most appropriate scientific name had to be honoured to the whole nation and not to a King representing a decayed power.
So it was why he adopted the name svecica not in the meaning of Sweden, but in honour of its flag.
Moreover, Linnaeus, strong of his preparation in botany and faithful pupil of Rudbeck, dedicated him in the following years a genus of flowers, rather unknown, Rudbeckia, honouring him for his professionalism and scientific skills.
In the European regional dialects, and in particular in the central Mediterranean area, are not special names for this species thus showing that this same bird is little known, difficult to recognize and rarely observed in these locations.
Some Mediterranean dialects indicate it as Roscignêu, Rossignol, Ruiseñor, Rozinjol ikhal, Rossinyol, Ruscignolu, Resegnuolo, clearly mistaking it, for inability to recognize it as a common Nightingale.
International names are: in English Bluethroat, in German Blaukehlchen, in Spanish Ruiseñor Pechiazul, in French Gorgebleue à miroir , in Portuguese Pisco de peito azul and in Italian Pettazzurro.
Whether it is due to the present abused motivation of the global warming or simply to a more assiduous and punctual monitoring of mountainous areas potentially suitable previously left uncovered or even more to the discretion and the confidentiality typical of this bird, the fact is that always more often we get information concerning findings of new nesting sites of the Bluethroat on our Alps.
From the very few instances reported in the 80’s and considered as fortuitous, we have passed to a constancy of numbers confirming the desire of repossession of an area that maybe over the past millennia was part of their usual territories.
Not that it’s common, but surely the present data confirm a diffusion bigger than what might be imagined just a few decades ago.
The Bluethroat could be defined as a typical Siberian bird, living in the cold zones of the taiga and in humid and cool alpine environments in the southern part of their territory, where the altitude regains the same atmospheric conditions of the plains located further north.
The Alps and the European mountain ranges partially recreate the same conditions found in the plain in the lowland forests of the continental areas, Asian as well as European and, increasing gradually the altitude, what they lose in latitude is equally reacquired with the increase of the altitude. A precarious and indefinite balance that the animals are easily able to feel.
Nevertheless, some niches of North Europe plain, for instance in Holland and in Poland have conversely observed contrasting reductions probably due to human intervention rather than that of nature.
The Bluethroat occupies a very vast area that from the Scandinavian peninsula reaches the extreme margins of Siberia and even further, crossing the Bering Strait and creating populations in north-western Alaska.
Europe is not their choice continent, seen that maintain isolated populations, fluctuating in time and quantity, only in some particular locations such as the Netherlands, in some corridors of the Iberian Peninsula, on the Alps, along the Danube River, in Poland and Baltic republics and overall cisuralian Russia.
Also in the Scandinavian peninsula it is present almost exclusively on the Norwegian Alps and along the hilly system of the peninsula but sometimes rarefied in the surrounding plains.
It is present all over central Asia, where there exist the environmental situations suited to their needs.
The Bluethroat is a migratory species, even long range, and the populations winter in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the Asian tropical area. Occasionally, it can winter in the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North African areas.
Ecology and Habitat
The ideal environments chosen by the Bluethroat for nesting, are characterized by low shrubby thickets, edges of reed beds, limits of brushes in humid and often swampy habitats, usually without high vegetation. At the border of peaty lands run by small streams and having small lakes surrounded by willows and alders but also covered by high grass and spaced by ample zones totally open and clear, alpine tundras with presence of big emerging rocks surrounded by nettles and low rhododendrons.
In the wintering quarters and in the territories passed during the migration, it is possible to meet it in sites even if not conforming to its habits, such as gardens and reed beds, small riparian thickets, cultivated and then abandoned areas, and, not rarely, particularly in the Middle East, also in arid zones like dry wadis as is the case in the Israeli Negev desert and along the sea coasts.
Morphological characteristic of this bird is the azure spot that only the mal has, well evident, in the chest.
This particular pattern can appear in various tonalities and different varieties of colour matchings, depending on the subspecies and on the seasonal liveries.
The azure colour covers wholly the throat and the fore part of the neck forming a bib in whose centre remains uncovered a small crescent that may be either of white colour or of hazelnut colour, or, at times, also filled with azure. Under this bib runs a belt, also crescent-like, of black colour and immediately under a last ampler and elongated belt, also of hazelnut colour, that gets to touch the sides.
In fact, as Linnaeus imagined, the Bluehtroat is practically wrapped in a multicoloured banner.
The remainder of the plumage is the typical one of a muscicapid, with an almost anonymous livery on the back, that appears totally brownish and with a whitish belly. Conversely, the tail is bicolour with rectrices equally divided between blackish and hazelnut, this last colour being in the initial part of the feather.
Many are the classified subspecies for this small bird but the most important and characteristic ones are the Luscinia svecica svecica, typical to the northern populations of the Palearctic, displaying the reddish hazelnut colour in the chinstrap lunette and the Luscinia svecica cyanecula, of southern and central areas of Europe, that has instead it of white colour.
The females and the young do not have the azure in the throat if not occasionally and just hinted and never exhibited as is a habit for the males.
Usually, on the neck they have some whitish moustaches and blackish striae more or less diffused, with just hinted hazelnut hues. Legs and bill are blackish at any age and in both sexes.
The dimensions are rather reduced: 14 cm of length, 20 g of weight and a wingspan of about 23 cm.
Excluding the Luscinia svecica namnetum typical of the south of France, the other subspecies are uniquely Asian and identify races showing more or less different and marked hues in the plumage and are relegated to mountain chains or in well delimited areas.
– Luscinia svecica volgae
– Luscinia svecica pallidogularis
– Luscinia svecica abbotti
– Luscinia svecica przewalskji
– Luscinia svecica kobdensis
– Luscinia svecica luristanica
Not easy differentiation because when the ranges do overlap are present also the crosses.
The nest is usually placed on the soil, well hidden in a niche in the ground, close to a shrub or a robust grass stem and is built by the female with dried grass and leaves, with a deep cup well defined and adorned inside with small and soft rootlets, vegetable fibers and animal hairs.
Are laid 4 to 6 eggs of bluish cream colour, finely dotted with reddish that are hatched by the female for about two weeks. The chicks are cared for by both parents for two more weeks till the take off with the almost immediate independence. Usually two broods are laid per each reproductive season and the couples are monogamous and last only one season.
The Bluethroat is an insectivorous bird, usually it catches the preys while flying, starting from the top of a small elevation of the ground or from the top of a shrub from which it rules and controls all surrounding areas. Of course, it eats also their larvae and also arachnids, worms and small snails.
In the premigratory season, but occasionally also during all seasons, it does not disdain to eat berries and fruits rich in sugars that are used to store the fat necessary for undertaking the long migration.
Motacilla svecica Linneo, 1758; Cyanecula svecica Brehm 1828
The Bluethroat is known also as Cyanecula suecica, Luscinia svecicus, Erithacus svecius, Erithacus svecicus, Cyanosylvia suecica.