Cisticolas can be tough! Even people who aren’t birders know that “tinktinkies” are little brown birds that all look the same! But there is an easy shortcut to identifying them. If you look at the habitat you can already guess which ones will live there. And if you know their calls and songs, they are as easy as pie!

Read along:

You know, I think Highveld grasslands may be my favourite birding habitat. Especially now in summer when everything is green and lush, and all the birds are singing and displaying. And grassland is the domain of cisticolas. I reckon we can hear three species from this very spot. There’s the first: Zitting Cisticola. His name describes his song exactly: zit-zit-zit…with about one note every second. It’s kind of like holding your ear right up to a wristwatch. There he is! See him displaying there, about 20 m above the ground? He flaps, then closes his wings, then flaps, then closes. And with each dip in his flight path he gives one zit-note. Easy! 

Who’s next? Oh, there we go! On the left here in this somewhat more open area with shorter grass. I suspect it was an agricultural field that is now abandoned. That’s Desert Cisticola. He’s calling from that little bush there, but he’ll probably start his display flight in a second. Yip, there he goes. See? He flies lower than Zitting, often just above the grass. And his song is more random: short, sharp notes that he repeats very quickly. And then every now and then he snaps his wings together. Can you hear that snapping sound? Cool hey?

Now, what about a third species? Oh yes, okay. Listen carefully. Way up in the sky. By that grey cloud. See him? Just a little speck – barely visible, even with binoculars. And that’s why he’s called Cloud Cisticola – because his display flight is way up, almost among the clouds (not really though). The other cisticola that displays high up like that is the Wing-snapping Cisticola. These two actually sound pretty similar too. But the Cloud is faster…while Wing-snapping is slow. Once they’re done displaying they dive back down to the ground, and give a continuous series of ticking notes. 

There is one more of these tiny, short-tailed cisticolas that displays in the sky. It is the rarest of the bunch, but you can find them around wetlands in mountain areas. The Pale-crowned Cisticola. To me Pale-crowned’s always sound like they are angry about something and are complaining. Their voices are super-high; I’m sure some older people won’t be able to hear them at all! Let’s drive up that hill and see if we can find any other species up there.

Wow, what a view! You can see forever from up here. The habitat is a little different: for a start the ground is sloping and not flat; and it’s a lot more rocky. It’s grassland with some scattered shrubs: perfect habitat for Wailing Cisticola. You won’t find these guys in the Bushveld or in wetlands. They are mountain specialists! They are called Wailing, because they have loud whistles that sounds like they’re crying. Often they also work in these cheerful bubbling trills.

There’s another species that likes rocky slopes: the Lazy Cisticola. But unlike Wailing, the Lazy variation likes mountainsides with lots of trees and bushes. You can even find them in ferns and at the forest edges in some areas. Lazy’s bound around on the rocks, and they almost always keep their tails lifted up high. They have various little clicks and whistles, but their most characteristic call is a moaning, complaining sound:

As I’m sure you can see, habitat is very important when identifying cisticolas. Each habitat has its own set of species. Expert birders can tell which cisticolas will occur simply by looking at the landscape. For example, in the Western Cape’s Fynbos and in dry, scrubby habitats you will bump into the Grey-backed Cisticola. They sound very similar to Wailing Cisticolas: bubbling trills and sharp whistles. They usually sing from atop a bush, but sometimes they launch into a short, low display flight with their tails hanging down. 

What about in Bushveld and savanna habitats? Here, the most common cisticola (and one of the most common birds in general) is the Rattling Cisticola. The challenge is that Rattlers have extremely variable songs. It’s like each one sounds a bit different. But the structure of their song – the way the notes are put together – stays the same. It’s always a few notes, then a trill or a rattle. I remember it as “1-2-3-cheers!”. Here are a few examples of different males. It’s also useful to learn the Rattling Cisticola’s alarm call. This will often lead you to snakes, owls or other predators. It’s like they are saying the word “chair” over and over. Hear it?

The other cisticola that occurs in savanna and woodland habitats is the much rarer Tinkling Cisticola. His call sounds like a tiny little bell that someone is shaking very fast. They also give pure whistles. Beware that the whistles can sound like some other woodland birds, such as Golden-breasted Bunting and Cape Penduline Tit.

Another useful alarm call to learn is this one. To me it sounds like you’re shaking a bag of marbles. This is the alarm call of the Neddicky – the bravest cisticola. Why brave? Well, despite being so small and fragile, male Neddickies like to sing from the highest and most exposed perch that they can find – usually a dead tree. And from there they will give their simple, insect-like song for what feels like hours. There’s a bit of a trick here. The Neddickies in the Bushveld are more brownish. They say ‘creep-creep-creep-creep…’. But the ones further south are sort of bluish-grey below. They say ‘seep-seep-seep-seep…’. Can you hear the difference?

Which cisticola has the most beautiful song? Mmm, that’s a tough one. You would think that it would be the Singing Cisticola that occurs in eastern Zimbabwe. But actually, while their songs are really loud, they are also really simple. Basically just repeated loud clicks. I think the prize should go to the Red-faced Cisticola. They are shyer than most other cisticolas and you hear them more often than you see them. They live in reeds and dense bushes near water, in subtropical areas. The song is a series of loud whistles, that goes up-up-up and then down-down-down.

I know this is a lot, but there are a few more cistics that we need to talk about. In wetland habitats the classic species is Levaillant’s Cisticola. They are quite colourful and attractive with their red caps and black backs and sit in open, obvious spots. Their songs are a short, chirpy, cheerful little phrase. Sometimes it goes down, like these ones from the Highveld; and sometimes it goes up, like these ones from the West Coast. And this is their alarm call – these ones were angry at a Cape Grey Mongoose in their territory. In subtropical wetlands, such as along the coast of KZN or in Mozambique, you’ll see the similar Rufous-winged Cisticola. Their songs are much simpler:

And the last one – which is probably my favourite – is the big and chunky Croaking Cisticola. Why Croaking? Because they sound like frogs! Here are three variations that I recorded in Malawi.

So there you have it. Many birders will tell you that cisticolas are the most difficult of all birds to identify. Perhaps. But if you know their songs and calls, they are as easy as pie!

Birds featured:

Zitting Cisticola | Landeryklopkloppie (p. 400) | 00:19

Desert Cisticola | Woestynklopkloppie (p. 400) | 00:55

Cloud Cisticola | Gevlekte Klopkloppie (p. 401) | 01:38

Wing-snapping Cisticola | Kleinste Klopkloppie (p. 400) | 01:56

Pale-crowned Cisticola | Bleekkopklopkloppie (p. 400) | 02:35

Wailing Cisticola | Huiltinktinkie (p. 397) | 03:35

Lazy Cisticola | Luitinktinkie (p. 394) | 04:04

Grey-backed Cisticola | Grysrugtinktinkie (p. 397) | 04:56

Rattling Cisticola | Bosveldtinktinkie (p. 398) | 05:26

Tinkling Cisticola | Rooitinktinkie (p. 397) | 06:30

Neddicky | Neddikkie (p. 395) | 07:05

Singing Cisticola | Singende Tinktinkie (p. 396) | 08:13

Red-faced Cisticola | Rooiwangtinktinkie (p. 396) | 08:35

Levaillant’s Cisticola | Vleitinktinkie (p. 399) | 09:10

Rufous-winged Cisticola | Swartrugtinktinkie (p. 399) | 09:56

Croaking Cisticola | Groottinktinkie (p. 398) | 10:21

ABOVE: A gorgeous male Pale-crowned Cisticola. Photo by Anton Kruger/Firefinch App.
ABOVE: Rattling Cisticolas are one of the most common birds in the Bushveld. Photo by Anton Kruger/Firefinch App.
ABOVE: The cute Tinkling Cisticola is relatively quiet and elusive. Photo by Anton Kruger/Firefinch App.