When I was a teenager and my mother, Phyllis E. MacKay, was a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in insectivorous songbirds. An aviculturist we knew – this back in the day when there were virtually no limits in the exotic pet trade – had a collection of exotic birds, many from southeast Asia, including this species, which was then thought to be a thrush. Anyway, he tired of his collection and gave it over to us, and thus did I first meet this bird, which in those days was better known as the Dhyal Thrush. It’s now thought to be neither robin nor thrush but a member of the Old World Flycatcher family, Muscicapidae. It’s found through most of the Indian subcontinent and various parts of southeast Asia, west as far as Pakistan, and east into southern China, Malaysia and Singapore, with a closely related species found in the Philippines. It is the National Bird of Bangladesh.
It is still frequently kept as a cage bird in Asia, often illegally, valued not just for its bold colour pattern, but for its singing ability. I’ve recently seen them caged here in Canada, too. Wild ones are found in forests with clearings and second growth, but also will occur in parks and gardens. I have shown a male. The female has the same general pattern but with the black mostly replaced by dark grey. They are lively birds who often flick their tails. There are several subspecies varying a little in patterning and proportions, especially in the females, but all easily identifiable.
Males do a lot of tail fanning and strutting about when displaying to females. Nests are in cavities and niches, including abandoned woodpecker holes, gaps in masonry and in nest boxes. The female does most of the work and all of the incubation, with clutch sizes usually consisting of four or five speckled eggs. Males are noted for aggressive territorial defence and the variety of their tuneful vocalizations, with different regions having birds singing in “dialects” common to that region.
The painting, approximately life-size, is 12 by 9 inches, and is in oils on acid-free Masonite. It is what I sometimes call a “tea-card” painting. As a child I was fascinated by small cards that came in packages of tea (and some other products) featuring various things such as vintage cars or airplanes, of which my favorite were of birds, featuring artists whose work I greatly admired. Many were featured in a book called Wildlife in Color, a Christmas gift in 1955, personally autographed by the author, Roger Tory Peterson, who also did many of the illustrations, along with such luminaries as Walter A. Weber, Leslie Ragan, Lynn Bogue Hunt, Frances Lee Jaques and others I so admired then, and now.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada