Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)

Cover image: Grey-backed Cisticola by Gregg Darling – St. Francis Bay Air Field, Eastern Cape –  BirdPix No. 10983

Identification

The head of the Grey-backed Cisticola has an indistinct eyebrow and a dark rufous crown, merging to grey on the mantle. The back is grey to brownish grey with dark blackish streaks. The underparts are a paler, plain brownish grey. Southern populations have grey underparts with fine blackish streaking on the breast, belly and flanks. The tail is longish and dusky-brown with buff tips and a black subterminal band.

Identification guide to Grey-backed Cisticola
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla) 
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

There is considerable variation in plumage with six subspecies in the region. Southern subspecies have grey upperparts streaked blackish, and finely streaked flanks. The northern subspecies are browner on the upperparts, and without streaking on the grey-buff underparts.

Cisticola subruficapilla
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)
Birds in the Western Cape are grey below with dark streaking on the undersides.
Riversdale district, Western Cape
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

There is little seasonal variation in plumage and the sexes are alike. Immatures and juveniles are similar to the adults but are duller overall and with a yellowish wash to the underparts.

Grey-backed Cisticolla
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla). Juvenile showing the yellow wash.
St. Francis Bay Air Field, Eastern Cape
Photo by Desire Darling

The Grey-backed Cisticola is usually the only ‘long-tailed’ cisticola within its range. It can be difficult to distinguish from the wailing cisticola (Cisticola lais) in the Eastern Cape, where the two species overlap slightly. The two species have similar calls, but are distinguished by different habitat requirements, and in the region of overlap, the Grey-backed Cisticola is grey ventrally whereas the Wailing Cisticola is buff-coloured.

Status and Distribution

Cisticola subruficapilla
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)
St. Francis Bay Air Field, Eastern Cape
Photo by Gregg Darling

The Grey-backed Cisticola is a locally common to very common resident and is near-endemic to southern Africa. It only extends beyond the sub region into southern Angola. It occurs from Namibia southwards to the Cape Peninsula, and eastwards through the Karoo to the south-western Free State and the Eastern Cape province. The northern population in Namibia appears to be well isolated from the southern populations.

SABAP2 distribution map for Grey-backed Cisticola
SABAP2 distribution map for Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla) – March 2024.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The historical distribution is not known to have differed from its present range. The Grey-backed Cisticola is able to occupy a variety of scrubby habitats and can therefore tolerate some vegetational changes. It is able to persist in a highly fragmented landscape. The Grey-backed Cisticola is not threatened.

Habitat

Habitat for this species
Habitat near Carnarvon, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Grey-backed Cisticola occurs in a wide range of habitats where low scrub is present. These include coastal and montane fynbos, shrubby Karoo plains, grass and scrub covered hillsides, ravines in semi-arid areas, grass covered dunes and saline grassland near estuaries.

It is most numerous in the Succulent and Nama Karoo biomes, followed by the Fynbos biome.

Habitat
Habitat near Montagu, Western Cape
Photo by Karis Daniel

Behaviour

Found singly, in pairs or family groups. The Grey-backed Cisticola is a fairly conspicuous species. The male makes distinctive display flights and calls from an exposed perch during the breeding season. It is frequently detected by its call, which can be heard throughout the year, but sings only in the breeding season.

Cisticola subruficapilla
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)
St. Francis Bay Air Field, Eastern Cape
Photo by Desire Darling

The Grey-backed Cisticola forages low down in shrubs and among grass tufts, but often perches conspicuously on top of vegetation. This is especially so when alarmed or calling. The Grey-backed Cisticola feeds entirely on small insects like termites, beetles, beetle larvae, caterpillars, small grasshoppers, bugs and likely also spiders.

Grey-backed Cisticola
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)
Lion’s Head, Western Cape
Photo by Itxaso Quintana

Breeding has been recorded between August and December. During courtship the male displays in bouncing flight over the female, while hovering and flicking his tail. The Grey-backed Cisticola is territorial and is a monogamous, solitary nester. The nest is a ball of dry grass and plant down with a side entrance. It is placed on or near the ground in a grass tuft or low shrub, with growing grass incorporated into the roof and sides. The nest is lined with soft plant down.

Cisticola subruficapilla
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla)
Struisbaai district, Western Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

2 to 4 eggs are laid per clutch. The eggs are laid at 1 day intervals and are whitish to pale greenish blue with reddish-brown and purplish spotting. Incubation begins upon completion of the clutch. Further details regarding incubation and the nestling period are unrecorded.

Grey-backed Cisticola
Grey-backed Cisticola (Cisticola subruficapilla) 
St. Francis Bay Air Field, Eastern Cape
Photo by Gregg Darling

Further Resources

Species text in the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Desire Darling, Gregg Darling, Itxaso Quintana, Johan Van Rooyen, Karis Daniel and Tino Herselman is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Red-headed Cisticola (Alt. English); Grysrugtinktinkie (Afrikaans); Cisticole à dos gris (French); Rotsgraszanger (Dutch); Bergzistensänger (German); Fuinha-de-dorso-cinzento (Portuguese).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Grey-backed Cisticola Cisticola subruficapilla. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/03/26/grey-backed-cisticola-cisticola-subruficapilla/

Bird identificationbirding

Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!