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Order Song birds/Passeriformes, Family Warblers /Sylviidae

Blackcap/Sylvia atricapilla - Male

The Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) usually known simply as the Blackcap, is a common and widespread sylviid warbler which breeds throughout temperate Europe, western Asia (east to about 85°E) and northwestern Africa, and winters from northwestern Europe south to tropical Africa. Its colour pattern is unique in the genus Sylvia; the Eurasian Blackcap's closest living relative is the Garden Warbler which looks different but has a fairly similar song. These two, whose ranges extend farther northeastwards than most other Sylvia species (except for Lesser Whitethroat and Common Whitethroat), seem to form sister species well distinct from the other typical warblers.

Description

It is a robust typical warbler, mainly grey in plumage. Like most Sylvia species, it has distinct male and female plumages: The male has the small black cap from which the species gets its name, whereas in the female the cap is brown. It is a bird of shady woodlands with ground cover for nesting. The nest is built in a low shrub, and 3–6 eggs are laid. The song is a pleasant chattering with some clearer notes; it can be confused with that of the Garden Warbler, but in the Eurasian Blackcap, it is slightly higher pitched, more broken into discrete individual songs (more continuous rambling song in Garden Warbler) and characteristically ends with an emphatic fluting warble. In isolated Eurasian Blackcap populations (such as in valleys or on peninsulas and small islands), a simplified song can occur; this song is said to have a Leiern-type ("drawling") ending after the term used by German ornithologists who first described it. The introduction is like that in other Blackcaps, but the final warbling part is a simple alteration between two notes, as in a Great Tit's call but more fluting.

Systematics

Five subspecies are accepted:

Sylvia atricapilla atricapilla. Breeds Europe (except Mediterranean area), northwestern Asia; winters northwestern Europe south to tropical western Africa.

Sylvia atricapilla gularis (syn. S. a. atlantis). Breeds and winters Azores and Cape Verde.

Sylvia atricapilla heineken (syn. S. a. obscura). Breeds and winters Madeira, Canary Islands, southwestern Iberia, and (?) Morocco, Algeria.

Sylvia atricapilla pauluccii. Breeds and winters eastern Iberia, Italy, western Mediterranean islands, and Tunisia.

Sylvia atricapilla dammholzi. Breeds southwestern Asia; winters tropical eastern Africa.

The variation is minimal and largely clinal, making subspecific boundaries hard to define. S. a. heineken and S. a. gularis are prone to melanism on the Atlantic Islands, but only exceptionally on the European mainland; melanistic birds have the whole head and upper breast black in males, and females and the rest of the body in males darker grey-brown. The exact distribution of S. a. heineken is unclear; as well as the Canary Islands (from where it was described) and Madeira, birds from the Atlantic coasts of Iberia and northwest Africa may also be referrable to it. The melanistic birds, morph obscura, were at first considered a distinct subspecies.

Behaviour

This small passerine bird is partially migratory; central and northern European breeders winter in southern Europe and north Africa, where the local populations are resident. It is hardier than most warblers, partly because it will readily eat small berries as well as the more typical warbler diet of insects.

In recent years, substantial numbers of central European birds have taken to wintering in gardens in Great Britain, Ireland, the Benelux countries, and even southern Scandinavia, migrating northwest or north, instead of southwest. Presumably the ready availability of food, particularly from bird tables, and the avoidance of migration over the Alps and the Sahara Desert compensate for the sub-optimal climate. Bearhop et al. (2005) reported that German birds wintering in England tend to mate only among themselves, and not usually with those wintering in the Mediterranean or western Africa. This is because the short-distance migrants arrive back from the wintering grounds for breeding earlier than birds wintering around the Mediterranean, and form pairs before Mediterranean-wintering birds arrive. The authors point out that division of a population by different migration routes can be a first step towards speciation. The increasing populations have been traced to a tiny population of Eurasian Blackcaps caught in Germany which exhibited a tendency to migrate in a north-westerly direction (instead of the majority that migrate southwards across the Alps to Africa) - the combination of more food and milder temperatures in Britain means that the birds that migrate from Germany to Britain are now apparently at an advantage over those migrating south. It has been postulated that they are spared the long flight to and from Africa and their overwinter survival rate may be relatively high and they may also gain better breeding grounds and territories as they return earlier in the spring than the birds that winter in Africa. This recent change has been related to the recent environmental changes in Britain as the Blackcap populations wintering in Britain did not have this survival advantage and hence the populations were much smaller.

Cultural references

The presence and sounds of this bird have since long inspired Italian writers. "La Capinera" (Italian for Blackcap) is the title of one of the most famous poems by Giovanni Pascoli. Storia di una capinera is a 1993 movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli and distributed with the international title "Sparrow". The Blackcap is considered a delicacy in some Mediterranean countries where many are illegally trapped and killed every year. The Blackcap's call symbolises St Francis in Messiaen's opera, Saint-François d'Assise.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_atricapilla

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