What on Earth is a vanga exactly?
For the unfamiliar, the ‘schnoz’ on this critter certainly seems otherworldly indeed. And for the earthlings among us who dream of visiting Madagascar, the question might seem passé. But, for ornithologists who make their living teasing such things apart, the query has posed a genuine challenge.
A quick perusal of a field guide to this bucket list destination shows plainly that the vangas are a group of small to medium-sized birds. Here, on the world’s 4th largest island, where a staggering 90% of its wildlife is endemic, the vangas feature among the most prominent and celebrated characters of the unique avifauna. But a closer look begins to bewilder. The group includes the diminutive and drab newtonias, once considered old world flycatchers or even old world warblers, but today known as the smallest of the vangas. (And I doubt any would argue they rank among the most visually thrilling). Then, consider the electric Blue Vanga, the ostentatious Helmet Vanga or the odd Nuthatch Vanga, and one can scarcely imagine they are related to the newtonia, much less each other. Yet all are kin. Not only have molecular studies told us so, but all members in the family also share a similar structure to the skull and a similar bony palate. Perhaps more surprising still is that the family actually extends well beyond the island and includes several groups of befuddling African birds, such as the helmetshrikes and the shrike-flycatchers, but also even Asian groups such as philentomas. Thanks to the tireless work of ornithologists, our understanding of the world of the vanga has evolved rather dramatically over recent years.
Yet, for those who pine to see these magnificent modern-day dinosaurs alive, when we hear the word ‘vanga’ we associate it with those birds in Madagascar, and perhaps none is so striking as this month’s feature. The myriad of strange bill shapes within the Malagasy vangas is evidence they are another fine example of adaptive radiation, much like “Darwin’s finches” or the Hawaiian honeycreepers. And surely the Sickle-billed Vanga has the craziest bill of the bunch. Using it, they probe into cracks, crevices, and holes in trees to pick out spiders, crickets, and even small lizards, much like the wood hoopoes of Africa. This is the largest vanga; and is so large, in fact, that it was once thought a member of the crow and jay family (Corvidae). Like those birds it can be quite social, sometimes traveling in large groups, and mixed species flocks.
On all of our Madagascan tours, you have every opportunity of seeing all of the islands unique bird families; while within the vanga family you could possibly find up to 21 different species! Consider experiencing what some refer to as the “8th Continent”. Among our most popular destinations for years, if you sign up now, you’ll discover a remarkable and unique world amid the wonders of Madagascar.
A selection of our upcoming tours to Madagascar:
14 – 28 Jul 2019 (15 days)
Price: USD6,150 *GBP4,626 *EUR5,398
MADAGASCAR – COMPREHENSIVE III
31 Oct – 20 Nov 2019 (21 days)
Price: USD8,975 *GBP6,751 *EUR7,877