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Bird in the Spotlight: Helmet Vanga

Updated: Apr 22

18 April, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Helmet Vanga (Euryceros prevostii) is a distinctive species found only in Madagascar’s humid evergreen forests. Photo by Francesco Veronesi, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Madagascar is home to a bewildering assemblage of endemic birdlife with around 115 species found nowhere else on Earth. As with other islands, birds that arrived in Madagascar millions of years ago diversified to fill vacant niches, and this phenomenon can be observed in the vangas (Vangidae). This family currently includes the closely related helmetshrikes of Africa and a few small shrike-like birds in Africa and Asia, but the greatest diversity in morphology and behavior can be observed in the monophyletic clade of core vangas on the island of Madagascar. This group includes 22 species so varied in their bill and body morphology that many were formerly grouped with other families including nuthatches (Sittidae), shrikes (Laniidae), tits (Paridae), and babblers (Tamaliidae). The smallest species in this family is the tiny Red-tailed Vanga (Calicalicus madagascariensis) which resembles a tit or chickadee both in morphology and feeding behavior, and the largest is the Sickle-billed Vanga (Falculea palliata) which is reminiscent of a giant black-and-white sunbird with a long, curved bill use to probe cavities for prey. 

Helmet Vanga (Euryceros prevostii) on a nest. Photo by Eric Mathieu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Helmet Vanga (Euryceros prevostii) stands out among a family of dazzling oddities. This is a relatively large vanga resembling a miniature hornbill, and the bird’s huge, bright blue bill and piercing yellow eye contrast sharply against its black and chestnut plumage. They are restricted to the humid evergreen forests in the lowlands of northeastern Madagascar. This species forages for insects and other invertebrates by sallying out from a perch or gleaning them from leaves and branches in the middle levels of the forest. They also forage on the forest floor where they capture, dismember, and consume frogs, lizards, geckos, and chameleons. Helmet Vangas often sit motionless and are difficult to locate in the dense subcanopy. This species is endangered and range-restricted, and they require primary lowland forest which is being cleared rapidly for agriculture and timber. This species occurs in several protected areas including Masoala National Park on the Masoala Peninsula which holds Madagascar’s largest remaining tract of lowland forest.

Lowland evergreen forest in Masoala National Park in eastern Madagascar. This is one of Madagascar’s most imperiled ecosystems, and it is being cleared rapidly for agriculture and timber. Photo by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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