Mallacoota Birds: Brown Thornbill

Brown Thornbill East Gippsland Rob Clay

Bird of the Week: Brown Thornbill 2 April 2021

This is one of the most frequently-seen small birds in East Gippsland. They are everywhere, brave and cheerful, dear little birds.

Thornbills are cute, but hard core – telling thornbills apart is like doing a jigsaw where every piece is almost the same, and WON’T STAY STILL!!!

Luckily, thornbills make up for their challenging identification by being quite confident and familiar. They will come quite close to you if you are patient.

Brown Thornbill East Gippsland Rob Clay
Brown Thornbill East Gippsland by Rob Clay

Keep in mind that high quality photos you see of this bird are not what you see with your own eyes. Pics of adults, like Rob Clay’s pic above, show a scalloped forehead and ear coverts, but that’s hard to see in the field.

With the Brown Thornbill, I look for a bird without strong features. The overall impression is brownish-grey. They often look a bit chubby compared to other thornbills, I don’t know why.

Brown Thornbill East Gippsland Rob Clay
Chubby! Brown Thornbill East Gippsland by Rob Clay

The big dark eye in a smooth, mid-grey face is the first thing I look for (compare Striated: bright white face, Buff-rumped: white eye). The front/breast has streaks but they’re not always really strong (compare Striated: really strong streaks). The forehead is a bit rufous and the rump is too, but not really strong (compare Striated: strong rufous forehead but yellowish rump. Buff-rumped: slight rufous forehead but yellowish rump).

Brown Thornbill Mallacoota Michael Barnett & Gregory Storer
Brown Thornbill Mallacoota by Michael Barnett & Gregory Storer. Note the big dark eye in smooth, unstreaked face.
Brown Thornbill East Gippsland Rob Clay
Brown Thornbill East Gippsland by Rob Clay

Both sexes are the same as adults, juveniles have less streaking, brown eye and a yellow gape (base of bill)

Brown Thornbill juvenile Mallacoota Erica Siegel
Brown Thornbill juvenile Mallacoota by Erica Siegel. Note the yellow gape and lack of streaking on the breast

Juvenile Brown Thornbill You Yangs Janine Duffy Echidna Walkabout
Brown Thornbill juvenile, You Yangs by Janine Duffy. The yellow gape on this bird is very bright

Also Brown Thornbills are more likely to be alone, or just a pair. Other thornbills are more likely to be in flocks of 10 or more.

Here’s a useful guide to telling the local thornbills apart:

Thornbills are a very Aussie group of birds – they only live here and in New Guinea. They are generally southern in distribution – they are pretty absent from Australia’s extreme North. Interestingly, there are some unrelated hummingbirds in South America called thornbills.

LISTEN TO THE CALLS & Scroll through to see lots of great pics here:

Details: Brown Thornbill Acanthiza pusilla pusilla

Location: Eastern Australia from central coast of Qld to Kangaroo Island SA and Tas. Our subspecies pusilla from southern Qld to Adelaide, SA

Conservation status/learn more:

Thanks to Rob Clay, Michael Barnett & Gregory Storer, and Erica Siegel for your wonderful pics and information.

Brown Thornbill Superb Fairywren You Yangs Janine Duffy
Thornbills are very tiny! Brown Thornbill (right) with a much larger Superb Fairywren, You Yangs by Janine Duffy

A quick guide to identifying thornbills in south-eastern Australia

So first, narrow it down to thornbill.

Is it very small with a short tail? Yes = thornbill, gerygone, scrubwren, pardalote, mistletoebird, firetail/finch
Does it have a small, thin bill? Yes = thornbill, weebill, scrubwren, Striated Fieldwren, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren
Is it streaky on head, face or breast? Yes = thornbill, White-browed Scrubwren (a little), Striated Fieldwren or Chestnut-rumped Heathwren
Is it really really small, smaller than a fairywren? Yes = thornbill (scrubwren is twice the size, and fieldwrens & heathwrens are 3 x the weight of a Brown Thornbill)

Now you’re sure it’s a thornbill, which one is it?

Start with habitat – these are the thornbills most likely:
Wet forest, thick gardens: Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill
Open forest: Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill, Buff-rumped Thornbill, Yellow Thornbill, Yellow-rumped Thornbill
Shrubby coastal, tea-tree or casuarina forest: Brown Thornbill, Yellow Thornbill
Farmland, lawn: Yellow-rumped Thornbill

Then height – these are the thornbills most likely:
High in foliage of trees and large shrubs: Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill, Yellow Thornbill
Middle shrub level: Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill, Buff-rumped Thornbill, Yellow Thornbill
Ground: Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Buff-rumped Thornbill

Check the most likely ones against your field guide. Of course, this guide is not absolute – you could see a Yellow-rumped Thornbill high in a treetop, or a Brown Thornbill on the ground. But if you do, double check.

Published by echidnaw

we're a wildlife IN THE WILD tour operator. Our mission is to ensure the free-living future of Australian wildlife, and to give them a voice. Wild animals have inherent value, as wild creatures, but we need to learn to value them. Good, respectful, sustainable wildlife tourism gives them a value and a voice.

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