The Master of Garden Birdsong

The Master of Garden Birdsong

Oriental Magpie-robin in urban and suburban environments. Is it thriving?

Deepal Warakagoda, 13 May 2024

The Oriental Magpie-robin in Sri Lanka

The Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) or Polkichcha (in Sinhala) and Katikuruvi (in Tamil) is a very familiar garden bird throughout the country. It’s doubtful that there’s anyone out there (with normal hearing) who has not heard the voice of the magpie-robin in the vicinity of their home, whether paying attention to its sounds or not. The magpie-robin is a songbird, not just an ordinary one but a master of singing, at which it can challenge all but very few bird species in the world. The singing is powerful, far-carrying and often includes melodious passages. Songs of male magpie-robins resound in every part of the country, except the interior of rainforests and cloud forests, in many months of the year. These are some reasons for Sri Lanka Nature Sounds to choose this bird as Sri Lanka’s first ‘Songbird of the Year’ in 2024 (see here).

Magpie-robin as a songbird

The Oriental Magpie-robin belongs to a distinct group recognized as ‘true’ songbirds, or ‘turdiform’ (thrush-like) birds in the Superfamily Muscicapoidea under the Order Passeriformes. They have a remarkable ability in singing and have a widely varied song repertoire. They can sing notes of different pitches in a rapid succession or even lower and higher pitched notes at the same time, producing complex, modulated and highly variable song. The songs are melodious, which is pleasing to us. The magpie-robin has this ability at the highest level among the songbirds (see here).

A preliminary study

I have been studying a few pairs of magpie-robins in the larger vicinity of my residence at Udahamulla in the suburbs of Colombo for 17 years now (since 2007). My observations have been mostly focussed on their singing and related behaviour. However, I have observed and audio recorded songs of the magpie-robin since 1991 in many areas of the country, though roughly in the western half, from Jaffna in the North to Yala in the South-east. These recordings are archived at the Drongo Nature Sounds Library. Throughout the 17 years my main focus has been on the pairs in my vicinity which live in a suburban environment.

Magpie-robins in our cities and suburbs – are they on a silent decline?

A good number of magpie-robin pairs are readily found in urban and suburban areas of Colombo. It may well appear to anyone noting this that the species is thriving in this environment. Male magpie-robins sing more or less continuously for about eight to ten months (mostly from October to June or August of the following year) during their breeding season. This prolonged singing might make one think that there is successful breeding every year.

However, my observations in my area in these past years suggest that the pairs here do not succeed in producing young for a number of years. During these 17 years I have observed not more than 11 young birds born in the larger vicinity of my residence. The pair occupying my and a few neighbouring gardens as part of its territory during this time had only three young ones! All sightings of the species showed only one young bird for a pair. This poor rate of breeding success is of great concern.

Magpie-robins appear to be fairly long lived birds, apparently over 17 years, from personal observation of two singing males in my near vicinity since 2007. It is not clear whether: having fewer offspring is a natural phenomenon to cope with increasing demand to establish new territories for males in decreasing habitat in urban and suburban environments; or suitable nesting sites in this environment are diminishing; or nests are often disturbed or predated thus preventing pairs from incubating eggs or raising young; or there is a lack of food, maybe sources of protein, to raise young successfully in successive years; or yet other causes are involved.

We need to seek answers for the deficiency in breeding to see whether our urban and suburban magpie-robins require appropriate attention from us, to also have them continue singing in our home gardens. It is also important to assess the situation with the pairs of magpie-robins in rural areas to compare the two populations.

For these reasons I think it is important to have information gathered from many urban and suburban areas, and from rural areas too, to assess the situation with regard to the magpie-robin pairs in cities and adjacent areas.

If you are interested in sharing some observations from the area you live in I would like to invite you to join the following facebook group. What is requested from you are reports: of magpie-robins singing, as all singing indicates attempted or successful breeding; of them nesting, which is done typically in tree hollows; and of the presents of young ones, described below.

How to detect the magpie-robins in your area

Magpie-robins are highly territorial birds throughout the year. The two birds of a pair occupy an area which they have separated clearly for themselves from other magpie-robin pairs in surrounding areas. Hence the pair in an area is easy to detect most of the year, especially the male as it sings for a number of months in a row in the year from every vantage position within its territory.  The female is less easily detected except when she stays in the vicinity of the singing male or is feeding on the ground nearby. If she is incubating then there is minimal chance to find her. Sometimes the two are seen together also when the male chases after her calling loudly in courtship. If there’s a bird feeding table in your vicinity then it is very likely you will see the pair here either singly or together at various times of the day. During the period, the months of year, the male is not singing the places to detect the birds of a pair are the regular feeding sites in their territory. Young birds accompany one or both parents for a few weeks after they are fledged out of the nest.

You can see below the images and identification captions of male, female and young birds of the magpie-robin.





Male, deep blue-black upperparts and breast with white underparts and wing-stripe.

(Photo by Uditha Hettige)





Female, duller than male with greyer on upperparts and breast.

(Photo by Uditha Hettige)









Young bird, resembles an adult female but duller and has small brown spots on throat to breast and brown on wings.






Older young bird, more like an adult female but has some brown spots on throat, breast and head, and brown on wings.


Join our facebook group to share your observations of the magpie-robin in your home garden – facebook group


Sri Lanka Nature Sounds Songbird of the Year 2024

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds Songbird of the Year 2024

Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) – the garden songbird in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds in conjunction with Drongo Nature Sounds Library has decided to present a songbird in Sri Lanka each year as ‘Songbird of the Year’.

For 2024 we present Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) as the Songbird of the Year.

(Photo by Namal Kamalgoda)

The background for this recognition is as follows. The founder of the two organizations above Deepal Warakagoda accompanied a bird photographer Frank Haugwitz on his photography tour of Sri Lanka in January. During their field explorations Frank suggested to Deepal naming a species as ‘Bird of the Year’ in Sri Lanka as done every year in his country Germany. One result hoped for is a special focus on it during that year by bird and nature observers.

Deepal then gave thought to the idea, and decided to name a ‘Songbird of the Year’ through his above two foundations, with his partiality to studying songbirds in Sri Lanka during the last few decades. The choice was also influenced by a discussion last year with his friend Rajith Dissanayake who was much impressed by the singing of magpie-robins in the Colombo area during a visit to Sri Lanka at the time.

In the early 1990s veteran birder Upali Ekanayaka, who was the leading expert on bird sound identification in Sri Lanka, drew Deepal’s attention to the Magpie-robin as the songbird most striking to him in the country, pointing out the extraordinary variability and musical quality in its songs. A few years later Prof. Valentine Basnayake, a well-known Western classical musician and educator in the country, commented to Deepal that the bird has clear notes that match those of Western musical scales. Deepal worked in a project to provide Prof. Basnayake with sounds of some of our bird species as educational material for Western music in the secondary school curriculum.

He recollects here with gratitude these three persons, and all the early writers who recognized the species to be one of the finest songbirds of Sri Lanka.

‘Songbird of the Year in Sri Lanka’ was first announced at the talk Deepal delivered on the topic ‘Bird Songs in Nature Soundscapes’ on 5th May 2024 (which was also International Dawn Chorus Day: please see the preceding blog post) at the exhibition National Wildlife Photography Awards, 2024, organized by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka.

Audio albums: It is planned by Sri Lanka Nature Sounds to launch a few audio albums featuring some of the melodious songs of our Magpie-robin, from the recordings archived at the Drongo Nature Sounds Library, in due course. Below are a few samples of the recordings of the Magpie-robin’s songs heard in three different areas in the country.

at Gangodawila, off Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo

at Seenuggala, Udawalawe National Park, in the Intermediate climatic zone of Sri Lanka

at Weddagala, off Kalawana, near the Sinharaja rainforest


Sri Lanka Nature Sounds & Drongo Nature Sounds Library                                                                                                                                        6th May 2024




New MP3 digital album of Sri Lanka Bird Sounds

For bird watchers and nature explorers interested in learning and enjoying our bird sounds!

Link to MP3 Bird Sounds Album

Link to Bird Sound Ringtones

Blue-throated Flycatcher

Blue-throated Flycatcher Cyornis rubeculoides

I had been looking for a Blue-throated Flycatcher in Sri Lanka for a very long time as it had been known as an extremely rare migrant here. Due to the close resemblance of the male Blue-throated in the general appearance of plumage to the resident Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) a male can easily be overlooked by being mistaken for the latter in the field. Thus, a rare occurrence of a Blue-throated in the country can possibly go unrecognized and unrecorded. This may have been the reason why this migrant flycatcher did not come to our attention in the past many years.

Early last year there was a pair of Blue-throated Flycatchers photographed in Wilpattu National Park. But I had no chance to visit the site. Then in October of the same year I very closely missed one in South India, which was moving in a small ‘bird wave’ seen by my colleague Uditha while photographing birds at a site where I was too busy recording bird sounds. On our subsequent search for the bird there we failed to find it again.

Thereafter, on 12th January this year on a visit to a forest patch in Tanamalwila I noticed a small flycatcher capturing insects near the ground. Close observation of this bird revealed that it was a male Blue-throated Flycatcher! I was thrilled. Finally I had managed to find one by myself. I managed to get a few photographs and make some recordings of its songs on the second visit to the site on 14th.

The two photos above feature the male I came across on the first occasion.

Its songs are reminiscent of the song of Tickell’s Blue but richer and more “musical”, and varied too. The sound clip below features a couple of songs of the Blue-throated, that from the recordings I made.


Although I spotted the flycatcher closely at two sites and managed to get a few photos on both occasions, on my second visit I did not realise that actually two males were involved in the sightings. My fellow birders (and bird photographers) Dulan Ranga, Gehan Rajeev and Uditha Hettige who visited the site later found that there were two males. It was confirmed by the difference in their markings seen in the very good photographs they took.

On my third visit to the site on 25th January, together with Palitha Antony and Gehan Rajapaksa and my family, I managed to make out the two birds by the small differences in their plumage. Below is a (poor) photo I was able to take of the second male.

International Dawn Chorus Day





International Dawn Chorus Day

Sunday 3rd May is the International Dawn Chorus Day. The birds that utter their sounds in the early morning make the dawn chorus. This day is marked to enjoy this nature’s daily wonder and thereby understand importance of the natural world and its conservation.

On this day people can experience the dawn chorus either in their home garden or at another habitat nearby. Listening in the early morning you can learn what birds mix their sounds in to the dawn chorus this time of the year. Also, you can enjoy melody and pleasant nature of the sounds of these birds. We are in the tropics can experience the birds that breed in the area this time of the year would be the first to come to sing in the chorus. If you wish, you are welcome to share your experience of dawn chorus that you will hear on the day, in this blog by emailing your relevant notes, etc.

Enjoy the dawn chorus in your area on the Sunday 3rd May.

Below is a part of recording of dawn chorus that I made at Nilgala forest a few years ago.

In this chorus the following birds are present (roughly in order of they appear along the sound track): Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Coppersmith Barbet (in background), Marshall’s Iora, Common Iora, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Black-capped Bulbul (in background), Black-headed Oriole, White-rumped Shama (in background), Grey-breasted Prinia, Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Cinereous (Grey/Great) Tit and Brown-headed Barbet (in background).


Heronry at Diyawanna Oya

Heronry at Diyawanna Oya

There is an active heronry at Diyawanna Oya near the Parliament, where Black-headed Ibises, Black-crowned Night Herons, Little Egrets, Intermediate Egrets, Night Herons and Little Cormorants are still continue nesting. Breeding activities of waterbirds at this heronry has been going on for a several months now. Before Sinhala New Year my friend Plaitha, a wildlife photographer, and I paid our second visit to this heronry mainly to photograph some of the birds in their breeding plumage.








Black-headed Ibises, Black-crowned Night Herons, Little Egrets, Intermediate Egrets and Night Herons at the heronry.



While Palitha was photographing the birds I tried to capture sound at this heronry. Though passing traffic was quite loud  I managed to get some sound recordings of the nesting site. Track below features some selected parts of the recordings.


Palitha had also captured the sound recordist at work.










Deepal Warakagoda,  April 2015.



Sound of Koha in Sinhala New Year time

Sound of Koha in Sinhala New Year time

The sound of Koha ( Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus) begins to come to our notice somewhere in the period of February to April in every year. It is generally believed that this distinctive sound connects with oncoming Sinhala New Year in April. Hence the author of this sound is popularly known as Avurudu Koha in Sinhala. The familiar sound of the Koha  is the song of male bird, which the males sing to attract their females for breeding.

Asian Koel, male



Asian Koel, female




The song of Koha:


The Koha is one of the few birds in our country (amongst a few other cuckoos), which does not build its own nest for laying eggs. Instead, the females lay eggs in nests of crows. Nests of both House Crows (Corvus splendens) and Large-billed Crows (a.k.a. Jungle or Black Crows) (Corvus macrorhynchos)  are victimized  by the Koels . So, the male Koels begin to sing when the crows start building their nests in an area. The nesting season of the crows is around April and so is the time for male Koels to sing for their mates  to inform to get ready for egg laying.

It’s now Sinhala Avurudu season and so we have started to hear the sound of Avurudu Koha from various parts of the country.

Deepal Warakagoda,  7 April 2015.

IDCD 2 – Dawn chorus at a scrubland

Dawn chorus at a scrubland

On the 3rd of May, the International Dawn Chorus Day, I visited a scrubland about 20 min. from my home. It is a scrubland with a few tall trees. When I visit the habitat it was around 5.30 am and was still dark, and there was a small drizzle. Due to the rain birds were a little slow to start. A pair of Common Iora was the first to start singing. Brown-headed Barbet and Red-vented Bulbuls also started in the background.


When the rain blew away the birds started their usual chorus which led by Common Iora, White-browed Bulbul, Brown-headed Barbet and Red-vented Bulbuls. A Common Palm Squirrel was calling throughout.


Uditha Hettige, 4th May 2015




IDCD 1 – A wetland awakening, and home garden dawn chorus

A wetland awakening, and home garden dawn chorus

Today, International Dawn Chorus Day, I planned to visit a wetland to experience the dawn chorus there, while my daughter and wife agreed listen to the dawn chorus at our home garden. I reached Talangama tank by 5.10 am while it was still dark about 20min before to the dawn of the day.  When I arrived there a male Oriental Magpie-Robin had already started to sing its beautiful songs from a tree along the tank bund. Soon an Asian Koel started to call and then a White-bellied Drongo began its repertoire, while shrub frogs vocalizing from plants in the area nearby. Those birds started to sing well before dawn as this is their breeding season.


Before the dawn waterbirds that vocalized was only a pair of White-breasted Waterhen while the magpie-robin  was still singing its powerful and melodious song. It was also lightning and thundering that time.


Dawn was around 6.30am when other birds at the wetland began to fill the chorus with their sounds. White-breasted Kingfisher, White-breasted Waterhens and an egret were amongst others in the dawn chorus.


Soon after the dawn the chorus became significantly rich with bird sounds. More individuals of most of the birds mentioned earlier contributed to the dawn chorus.  There was also a Purple Heron calling while it was leaving the night roost (heard between 33 sec. and 36 sec. in the sound track below).


At dawn egrets and herons were roosting at their regular night roost began to flying out while Asian Openbills and Black-headed Ibises were still remaining at the roost. Mainly the Black-crowned night Herons were heard while they were leaving the roost.



Common Kingfisher, a pair of Little Grebes and Red-wattled Lapwing heard  at other places.


There were other birds, such as Greater Coucals, Green-imperial pigeons, Spotted Doves, White-browed Bulbuls,  Red-vented Bulbuls, Common Mynahs, Black-headed Orioles, etc. from trees on bank of  the tank or from surrounding home gardens participated in the morning bird chorus. Heavy rain began by 6.30 am following the lightning and thundering that continued from predawn.

As it expects from having an International Dawn Chorus Day it indicates profusely to the listeners the presence of a rich birdlife at wetlands and adjoining habitats in suburban areas, and also it signifies the importance of preserving these habitats.

Deepal Warakagoda, 3rd May 2015

Dawn chorus at home garden

In the end of April my father told me that the International dawn chorus day is on 3rd of May. He told that he is going to Talangama Tank to listen to the dawn chorus there on that day and asked whether my mother and me can do the same at our home garden. So, today my mother and me went in to the garden at 5.20 a.m. equipped with an audio recorder which my father set up for me yesterday. At first there was only insects and shrub frogs calling and it was still dark. Dawn was around 6.30 a.m. and the first one to call was the Asian Koel.


Then the other birds began to call, Red-vented Bulbul  and Yellow-billed Babbler joined the koel.


The Oriental  White-eye joined the chorus with singing its rather soft, undulating and melodious song. And the Red-vented Bulbul continued to sing with more of its different types of songs.


And there were two Red-vented Bulbuls singing from their own territories while the other birds continue their chorus. The finest songbird in our home gardens the Oriental Magpie-Robin participated only with a single ‘peee..’ note in the background.


As the dawn chorus continues more birds joined in. Such as Common Tailorbird, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Black-headed Oriole, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Greater Coucal,  and the Rose-ringed Parakeet flew over.


Two Common Tailorbirds joined in the chorus with their very loud calls. The Brown-headed Barbet came in to the chorus with its fast, loud song while the parakeets flew over and thunder  rumbled in the sky.


While I was recording my mother wrote down the birds which called. At about 6.20 a.m. we had to stop our listening session, because the rain started to pour down. The dawn chorus day is meant to listen and enjoy the chorus of birds in the morning, so actually my mother and me enjoyed it very much today. Also it was an opportunity to learn about the bird calls further.

Himesha Warakagoda, 3rd May 2015



Subsong of Oriental Magpie-Robin

Male Magpie-robin sings its subsong in a flower tree.

Subsong of Oriental Magpie-Robin 

A male Oriental Magpie-Robin is singing its subsong these days in my home garden. It sings from inside of a dense flower tree, fairly well hidden in the foliage, perched about six feet from the ground, and sings mostly in mid morning and afternoon. These singing sessions are long, and also phrases of the subsong are much longer than those of the magpie-robin’s full song.

Male Magpie-Robins start to sing their subsong when their breeding season approaches. Once they are ready to start their breeding activities the males sing their loud, full song from a quite exposed, high positions (i.e. top of tall trees, top of TV antennas) within the territory of each pair. Their subsong is quite soft and hardly heard beyond several metres unlike the full song.  Composition of the subsong is also very much different to that of the full song, a phrase of it is quite long and composed of a number of different softly uttered notes.

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Tail of this male magpie-robin is in moult. It’s another sign that it is getting ready for on coming breeding season (they moult their feathers and get ready to breeding with their newly grown fresh plumage). Once it gets its tail feathers fully grown it will soon start to sing its loud phrases of full song from tree tops and the like.

I recorded a couple of sessions of the singing male and parts of these phrases of its subsong are featured below. (A Spotted Dove also sings in the background).

Male Magpie-robin sings its subsong in a flower tree.