This elusive species is listed as Critically Endangered as its population is now thought to be very small, and is believed to be undergoing a very rapid continuing decline in extent, area, and habitat quality, owing to the high rate of loss and degradation of its preferred habitat, seasonal marshland. Populations in both Ethiopia and South Africa are now thought to be extremely small, and it remains uncertain whether the species migrates between the two countries.
del Hoyo, J.; Collar, N. J.; Christie, D. A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L. D. C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
Distribution and population
14 cm. Tiny rail. Adult male has chestnut head. Both sexes have black-barred chestnut tail and white wing-patches (very obvious in flight, not visible at rest). Similar spp. No other flufftail Sarothrura has white wing-patches. Female paler below than other female flufftails Voice Was believed to make a soft, double-noted hooting, but it has been proposed that these calls may in fact refer to nocturnal calls of Grey Crowned-crane Balearica regulorum. Hints Best chance of seeing this secretive bird is during the wet season in upland marshes in central South Africa and Ethiopia.
The species occurs in Ethiopia
(three known sites in the central highlands, the only known breeding area for this species) (Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Taylor 1998, 1999), Zimbabwe
(one record in 1988 [Hustler and Irwin 1995
], two records in the 1970s [Taylor and van Perlo 1998]
, and a possible breeding record in the 1950s [Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Taylor 1999]), and South Africa
(ten sites in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga [De Smidt 2003]). Claimed records from Zambia and Rwanda are unproven (Taylor and van Perlo 1998, F. Dowsett-Lemaire and R. J. Dowsett in litt.
1999, P. Leonard in litt.
1999). In South Africa, the total population was estimated to be 235 birds by Taylor and van Perlo (1998), but the area of occupancy has since been estimated at 3.92 km2
in South Africa (72 ha suitable habitat at Middlepunt and 320 ha at Wakkerstroom, the only two recently reliable sites; H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
2013), and due to low confidence in past estimates and continued threats to the species and its habitat over the past 10 years, the regional population in South Africa is thought to be fewer than 50 birds (H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
2013, Evans 2013).
In the Ethiopian highlands, 10-15 pairs bred at Sululta in the late 1990s (Atkinson et al.
1996a, Anon. 1997c, J. S. Ash in litt.
1999) and c.200 pairs were discovered at a new breeding site (Berga floodplain) in 1997 (Anon. 1997c,
A. Shimelis in litt.
1998, M. Wondafrash in litt.
). In 2005, a small breeding population was discovered at Bilacha in Ethiopia (M. Wondafrash in litt.
, with three adults recorded initially in July, followed by the location of three eggs in August and 19 nests in September (Anon. 2006)
. However, surveys at Bilacha and Weserbi since 2007 have found no evidence of breeding at either site. Bilacha in particular is highly overgrazed, with one bird seen in 2010 the only recent record, and Weserbi is thought to support a maximum of 1-2 pairs (Y. D. Abebe in litt.
2013). At Berga, the average number of birds flushed annually since 2007 was just four, and two days of intensive searching in August 2013 located only 12 individuals in suitable habitat now limited to c.300 ha (Y. D. Abebe and G. Gebreselassie in litt.
2013). Although there are many wetlands in the Ethiopian highlands similar in altitude and vegetation to Berga, almost all have become unsuitable owing to overgrazing, and monitoring of wetlands in the vicinity of Berga and Woserbi has failed to produce any records (Y. D. Abebe and G. Gebreselassie in litt.
2013). The Area of Occupancy is estimated at just 5.5 km2
at the three Ethiopian breeding sites in 2013 (based on 150 ha of suitable habitat at Weserbi, 100 ha at Bilacha, and 300 ha at Berga; H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
2013), and searches of apparently similar sites nearby have failed to find the species (Y. D. Abebe and G. Gebreselassie in litt.
Whether a single population migrates between Ethiopia and South Africa, or each country hosts its own subpopulation, is still not known (Taylor and van Perlo 1998, Barnes 2000
), although observations from a breeding site in Ethiopia discovered in 2005 show that birds continue to breed into the dry season and may remain in Ethiopia after breeding, rather than migrate (A. Tefera per
Anon. 2006). Suggestions that the non-breeding grounds for the Ethiopian population could be within south-west Ethiopia have not been substantiated; seven days of intensive surveys in the Kaffa area in April 2013 found no evidence of the species at seven major wetlands (M. Ewnetu in litt.
2013). A genetic and isotopic analysis is in progress to assess whether the species is migratory (Smit-Robinson 2014). Population justification
The population in South Africa was previously estimated to be 235 birds, with at least a further 210-215 pairs in Ethiopia (A. Shimelis in litt.
1998), i.e. probably 700 mature individuals in total. The species can only be reliably surveyed in the breeding season, but surveys risk disturbing nesting and thus have been avoided in the past (Y. D. Adebe in litt.
2013). Nevertheless, the lack of recent records and tiny area of remaining habitat suggest that the total population is now almost certainly fewer than 250 mature individuals, with both the Ethiopian and South African populations numbering fewer than 50 mature individuals each (Y. Adebe, M. Ewnetu, G. Gebreselassie and H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
This species's population is suspected to be decreasing very rapidly in line with levels of disturbance, habitat loss and degradation in Ethiopia and South Africa (Atkinson et al
. 1996a, Taylor and van Perlo 1998, P.B. Taylor in litt. 1999, De Smidt and Evans 2003, Taylor and Grundling 2003, M. Drummond in litt. 2005, Y. Adebe, M. Ewnetu, G. Gebreselassie and H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
The movements of this species are not fully understood. Lack of subspeciation has been interpreted to imply that the birds migrate between the two range areas (del Hoyo et al
. 1996, Taylor and van Perlo 1998), and this is supported by the fact that breeding has not been observed in South Africa where it is considered by many to be a non-breeding summer visitor (Urban et al.
2005). However the fact that there are overlaps in occurrence has prompted suggestions that strict migration is unlikely (Taylor and van Perlo 1998). One suggestion is that long-distance dispersal occurs when numbers are high (del Hoyo et al
. 1996, Taylor and van Perlo 1998), with local movements being predominant at other times. In 2012 a survey was carried out in south-west Ethiopia during the non-breeding season to understand more about the possible movement of birds between Ethiopia and South Africa, however, no birds were found (Drerup 2015). In Ethiopia birds that breed in the central highlands in June-September may move to lower-level habitats during the non-breeding season when the highland areas becomes unsuitable (del Hoyo et al
. 1996, Taylor and van Perlo 1998). In South Africa the species is thought to be nomadic, moving in search of its transient habitat (del Hoyo et al
. 1996, Anon. 1997c, J. S. Ash in litt.
1999). It is also considered nomadic in Zimbabwe (D. Ewbank in litt
. 2014). Birds in Ethiopia are present between June and October (J. S. Ash in litt.
, while non-breeding birds in South Africa are present from November to March (P. B. Taylor in litt.
, with a few records in May, August and September (Urban et al.
2005). Breeding occurs in July-August (Taylor et al.
. Breeding birds occur at a density of 2-4 pairs per hectare (Taylor and van Perlo 1998). Non-breeding birds occur in loose associations (Taylor and van Perlo 1998).
The species breeds in high-altitude seasonal marshes (between 2,200 and 2,600 m) with dense, rapidly growing vegetation dominated by sedges, grasses and forbs (Taylor 1996, Taylor and van Perlo 1998). It occurs here when vegetation has reached 20-40 cm in height and the ground has not yet become entirely flooded (Taylor et al.
2004). Very soon after hatching, it appears to move its chicks to areas of denser vegetation where the ground is more deeply and continuously flooded (Taylor et al.
2004). The species may have specific microhabitat requirements that have not yet been established. Non-breeding
In South Africa it inhabits moist to flooded peat-based habitats (Urban et al.
2005) (mostly at 1,100-1,900 m) where vegetation is dense and dominated by sedges (Carex
(Urban et al.
2005), although it is occasionally found in pure stands of Bulrush and reeds (Urban et al.
2005). It forages in mud at the edges of reed beds, in shallow water, in floating mats of aquatic vegetation and occasionally on dry ground (Urban et al.
2005). Of the 10 important sites for the species in South Africa, 9 are within the Eastern Uplands, Great Escarpment Mountains and Highveld peatland ecoregions, emphasising the importance of peat-based habitats (Taylor and Grundling 2003)
. In 2002, a new site was discovered in northern coastal KwaZulu-Natal following speculation that the species no longer occurred in coastal areas (Taylor and Grundling 2003)
It feeds on seeds and vegetation (De Smidt 2003) as well as insects, spiders, earthworms, small frogs and small fish (Urban et al.
The stomach contents of a deceased chick included coleoptera (Dystiscidae) imagines, Diptera larvae (Tipulidae and Tabanidae), and the remains of small crustaceans. Breeding site
Nests found in Ethiopia are described as a ball of woven live sedge, Eleocharis
, and other plant stems and vegetation, with clutches of 4-6 eggs (Allan et al.
2006, Taylor et al.
2004). Observations at a nest found in August 1999 resulted in an estimated incubation period of 15-16 days. Threats
Seasonal marshes are threatened by drainage (for cultivation and forestry), flooding by dams, catchment erosion, water abstraction, human disturbance, too-frequent burning, and excessive trampling and grazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation for fodder (Atkinson et al.
1996a, Taylor and van Perlo 1998, P. B. Taylor in litt.
. Observations in Ethiopia suggest that it moves its chicks very soon after hatching to areas of denser vegetation and deeper flooding before the vegetation at nest sites has grown enough for cutting by local people (Taylor et al.
2004). Grasses and sedges are cut for the culturally important Ethiopian coffee ceremony (De Smidt 2003). In Ethiopia, a serious problem is the rapid growth in the numbers of livestock at around 2.4% per annum, and the resultant grazing of breeding habitat to a very short sward length (M. Drummond in litt.
Bilacha wetland has already been largely converted into agriculture, settlement and grazing land. Suitable habitat at Weserbi wetland has been reduced to almost zero and housing is spreading close to the remaining small patch of wet grassland (M. Ewnetu in litt.
2013). Even the remaining site at Berga is highly threatened as habitat degradation and destruction continue unchecked despite attempts to improve the conservation status of the area. In addition to the existing overgrazing, trampling and grass cutting, local people are encroaching further down to the wetland, converting grassland for susbsistence agriculture and dividing up small plots of land for grazing. Suitable habitat here has already been reduced from c. 400 ha to only 200 ha (M. Ewnetu in litt.
The peatlands of South Africa are threatened by cultivation, afforestation, grazing, water abstraction, horticulture, peat fires, draining, headcut and donga erosion, siltation, fences and developments such as roads and dams (Taylor and Grundling 2003)
. The construction of the Braamhoek pumped storage scheme at Bedford Chatsworth marsh in eastern Free State, South Africa, may have caused disturbance and damage to habitat (De Smidt 2003). The primary current threat in South Africa is development pressure from the mining industry (H. Smit-Robinson in litt.
2013); important wetland habitat for the species in Mpumalanga province is threatened by mining activities (Uys 2012).Conservation Actions Underway
CMS Appendix I and II. Some South African sites have some legal protection, and at least four sites are protected by the landowners (Barnes 2000)
. At the largest Ethiopian breeding population, the vegetation is not cut for fodder until October-November (M. Wondafrash in litt.
, thus giving the birds time to breed without disturbance (Anon. 1997c). In South Africa, the Middelpunt Wetland Association was formed in 1994 with the main objective of conserving the species (De Smidt 2003, M Drummond in litt.
2005). One of the Ethiopian sites, Berga, is on a state-run dairy farm, and formerly so was Weserbi. The farm at Weserbi has been privatised, but the marsh still remains under the control of the central Dairy Farm Enterprise based in Addis Ababa (M. Wondafrash in litt.
. There is a Site Support Group at Berga, formed by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (De Smidt 2003).
Support from organisations including the Middelpunt Wetland Trust helped to build a primary school (which is now named after the species) for the Berga community and the villagers acknowledge the value of the species (Drummond 2013). In 2003, a partnership was formed to mitigate the effects of the Braamhoek pumped storage scheme. In June 2003, a national Species Action Planning stakeholder workshop was held in Wakkerstrom, South Africa, to assess the threats facing the species in this country, and concluded with the agreement that a South African White-winged Flufftail Action Group be established (De Smidt 2003).
An International Species Action Plan was published in 2008 (Sande et al.
2008). A proposal was put forward in 2006 to initiate a captive breeding programme in August that year, based in Pretoria Zoo, and using eggs taken from Berga marsh, Ethiopia (Tarboton and Wondafrash in prep.)
. The aim would be to study the species's life history and behaviour (Tarboton and Wondafrash in prep.)
. However, there were concerns that the programme should be carried out in Ethiopia, where it is known to breed, and that releasing birds into its non-breeding range could result in hybridisation with similar species (P.K. Ndang'ang'a in litt.
. The captive breeding programme is not currently going ahead (M. Wondafrash in litt.
. An AEWA Small Grants Fund supported project in Ethiopia ran from July 2012 to September 2014 (Drerup 2015). The project held four awareness-raising workshops, distributed 1,000 copies of a brochure about the species to schools, local government and the local community and produced a billboard poster to increase awareness. The project enabled protection of the species at its breeding site in the Berga wetlands: 3 ha were fenced off and members of the Site Support Group patrolled the area (these activities were to continue post-completion of the project); soil conservation measures were also implemented to reduce erosion (Drerup 2015). In 2013, DNA samples and feathers for isotope analysis were taken from seven White-winged Flufftails at the Berga wetland in Ethiopia. Genetic and isotopic analyses will establish whether these birds are resident or migratory (Drummond 2013). Samples from three birds in South Africa were collected in 2014. The analyses are currently underway (Smit-Robinson 2014).Conservation Actions Proposed
Maintain and restore suitable habitat at breeding areas in Ethiopia through sustainable use under community-based conservation programmes (Atkinson et al.
Taylor and van Perlo 1998). Protect additional sites in South Africa (Barnes 2000)
. Continue surveys in Ethiopia and southern Africa to better define its range, population, seasonal movements and habitat requirements (Atkinson et al.
1996a, A. Shimelis in litt.
1998, Barnes 2000). Locate new breeding sites (Taylor et al.
2004, M Drummond in litt.
2005). Rehabilitate degraded wetlands (Taylor et al.
2004). Conduct research to determine the extent of the species's dependency on mire habitat in South Africa (Taylor and Grundling 2003)
. Ensure integrity of known and suspected sites in South Africa by 2008 (De Smidt 2003). Reduce disturbance at eight sites in South Africa by 2008 (De Smidt 2003). Confirm that the species migrates between Ethiopia and South Africa (De Smidt 2003). Determine and record its principal calls for field studies (De Smidt 2003).
Related state of the world's birds case studies
Allan, D. G.; McInnes, A. M.; Wondafrash, M. 2006. White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi in Ethiopia: notes on habitat, densities, morphometrics, nests and eggs, and associated waterbirds. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 13: 28-36.
Anon. 1997. White-winged Flufftail sightings. World Birdwatch 19(4): 2.
Anon. 1999. White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi).
Anon. 2006. Local group discovers new flufftail site. Africa - Birds & Birding 11: 10.
Anon. 2006. New flufftail site discovered. World Birdwatch 28(1): 10.
Atkinson, P.; Robertson, P.; Dellelegn, Y.; Wondafrash, M.; Atkins, J. 1996. The recent rediscovery of White-winged Flufftails in Ethiopia. Bulletin of the African Bird Club 3(1): 34-36.
Barnes, K. N. 2000. The Eskom Red Data Book of birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
Collar, N. J.; Stuart, S. N. 1985. Threatened birds of Africa and related islands: the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book. International Council for Bird Preservation, and International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, Cambridge, U.K.
De Smidt, A. 2003. Ethiopian White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) action plan.
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., and Sargatal, J. 1996. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Drerup, B. 2015. White-winged Flufftail Project in Ethiopia Completed with AEWA SGF Support. Available at: http://www.unep-aewa.org/en/news/white-winged-flufftail-project-ethiopia-completed-aewa-sgf-support. (Accessed: 03/06/2015).
Drummond, M. 2013. White-winged Flufftail; The Ethiopian Connection. African Birdlife 2(1): 24-26.
Hustler, K.; Irwin, M. P. S. 1995. Fifth Report of the OAZ Rarities Committee. Honeyguide 41: 103-106.
IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. (Accessed: 19 November 2015).
Sande, E.; Ndang'ang'a, P. K.; Wakelin, J.; Wondafrash, M;, Drummond, M;, Dereliev, S. (compilers). 2008. International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi). CMS; AEWA, Bonn, Germany.
Smit-Robinson, H. 2014. Saving the world's rarest flufftail. BirdLife Africa Newsletter 14(1): 16.
Tarboton, W.; Wondafrash, M. in prep. Project proposal to establish a captive-breeding population of the White-winged Flufftail.
Taylor, B. 1998. Rails: a guide to the rails, crakes, gallinules and coots of the world. Pica Press, Robertsbridge, UK.
Taylor, B. 1999. First White-winged Flufftail nest found. World Birdwatch 21(4): 3.
Taylor, B.; Wondafrash, M.; Demek, Y. 2004. The nest, eggs and chicks of the White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club 124: 233-238.
Taylor, P. B. 1996. Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots). In: del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (ed.), Handbook of the birds of the world, pp. 108-209. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Taylor, P. B. 1998. The ecology and conservation of the White-winged Flufftail, and the sustainable utilisation of Ethiopian high-altitude palustrine wetland habitats: report on fieldwork in Ethiopia from 27 November to 12 December 1998.
Taylor, P. B.; Grundling, P. L. 2003. The importance of South African mires as habitat for the endangered Whitewinged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi). International Mire Conservation Group Newsletter: 8-12.
Uys, C. 2012. Impact of mining on waterbirds and other IBA trigger species. IBA Newsletter 2: 7.
Wetlands International. 2002. Waterbird population estimates. Wetlands International, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Further web sources of information
African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) International Action Plan 2007
Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species
Search for photos and videos, and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection
South African White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) Action Plan
Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Ekstrom, J., Evans, M., Pilgrim, J., Shutes, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J. & Ashpole, J
Ash, J., Dowsett, R., Dowsett-Lemaire, F., Drummond, M., Kariuki Ndang'ang'a, P., Leonard, P., Robertson, P., Shimelis, A., Taylor, P.B., Wondafrash, M., Tarboton, W., Madden, S., Gebreselassie, G., Gerrans, C., Pretorius, R., Lawlor, R. J., Nel, O., Abebe, Y., Ewnetu, M., Anderson, T. & Ewbank, D.
IUCN Red List evaluators
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Sarothrura ayresi. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 30/06/2016.
Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 30/06/2016.
This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000)
Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004)
Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.
To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife
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