In 1999, taxonomists had placed pied honeyeater (Certhionyx variegatus), banded honeyeater (Cissomela pectoralis) and black honeyeater (Sugomel nigrum) in the genus Certhionyx, however revised DNA analysis indicates that these species are not closely related (Driskell & Christidis (2004). Christidis and Boles placed the pied honeyeater in the clade Acanthagenys in its own monotypic genus.
The pied honeyeater has a long curved bill and a small pale-blue patch of bare skin below the eye which is semicircular in males and arc-shaped in females and juveniles. Males are black and white, having a black head, neck and upper parts, a white lower rump and upper tail, black wings with a white stripe, and white underparts with a black tipped tail. Females are brown above, with a grey-white chin, a whitish breast streaked and spotted dark-brown, white underparts and white stripe along the edges of the secondary wing feathers.
Adult weight is approximately 27 grams making it a mid-sized honeyeater, body length is generally between 15 and 20 cm. and wingspan is between 25 and 29 cm. (eds Higgins et al. 2001). The long pointed wing characterizing Certhionyx variegatus reflects movements which extend the length of the continent (Keast 1968).
The call of the pied honeyeater has been described as a “mournful whistle, resembling that of Megalurus gramineus” (little grassbird) (North 1909, p. 89). During breeding season it utters a “melancholy piping note” (Carter 1902b p. 127).
A superficially similar honeyeater is the black honeyeater, (Sugomel nigrum). It has a different call, is smaller, with a finer bill, shorter tail and lacks the bare eye patch. Males of this species also have a distinctive stripe down the center of the chest and abdomen, while females have plainer wings and less streaking on the breast (eds Higgins et al. 2001).
In the early 1900s this species was “widely distributed, principally over the southern half of the continent” (North, 1909 p. 88). Data mapping by Gannon (1962), shows occurrences primarily across central and western NSW, the arid interior and the eastern parts of South Australia.
Birdlife Australia Atlas project data between 1998 and 2014 indicates that the pied honeyeater is found principally in a band below approximately 18 ° S which extends roughly from central Queensland, central NSW and central Victoria in the east and across to the Western Australian coastline (Birdlife Australia 2014).
Widely considered as nomadic and categorized by Keast (1968) as a ‘desert nomad’, the pied honeyeater has more recently been found to be both sedentary–resident and irruptive (eds Higgins et al. 2001), turning up occasionally in numbers far outside its “normal” range in tandem with heavy rains following drought periods (Burbridge & Fuller 2007).
Movements are poorly understood with no apparent pattern to occurrence or numbers in an area and limited knowledge of actual movements. Occurrences may coincide with the flowering of the emu-bush Eremophila (Gannon 1962; Keast 1968; Read 2008; Shelly et al. 2008) and perhaps the need to secure minimal breeding requirements via an abundance of insects (Keast 1968). Migration and seasonal movements occur (Birds Australia 2005a; eds Higgens et al. 2001; Keast 1968), particularly in coastal north-western Australia (North 1909). "The pied honeyeater is one of the commonest winter visitors, occurring in great numbers immediately after the first heavy rain” (Carter 1902). There are some instances of residency (Birds Australia, 2005b; eds Higgins et al. 2001), while occurrence has been seen to be irregular at the periphery of its range (Keast 1968; North 1909).
It appears to be largely independent in the use of free surface water; its distribution within the landscape, less consistent along gradients in relation to distance from water (Schneider & Griesser 2009).
The pied honeyeater is found in the arid and semi-arid zones, on the sand hills of inland plains, inland ranges, granite outcrops (eds Higgins et al. 2001) and also on the coastal sand hills of Western Australia (Carter 1902b; North 1909). It frequents shrublands and woodlands with the former dominated by emu bush Eremophila spp. and grevilleas, (predominantly mulga) (eds Higgins et al. 2001). Habitat may include a scattering of river red gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis along watercourses and Casuarina Myoporum along dry watercourses and dry salt lakes (Keast 1968).
Pied honeyeaters also habituate spinifex-dominated grasslands within scattered areas of mulga, Casuarina and bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis (Mr G Chapman 2014, pers.comm., 17 October)) (eds Higgins et al. 2001; Keast 1969).
There is little known about the social organization and behavior of this species, in part due to its erratic movements and also because individuals are widely characterized as very nervous, always on the move (Shelly et al. 2008), very shy, ‘quick on the wing’ (MacGillivray 1910) and very timid (Burgess 1946; eds Higgins et al. 2001). Birds are often seen singly and in pairs however early Australian records note movements of pied honeyeaters in “constant” flocks, “flying against the wind ……in flocks at times of fifty or more” (Carter 1902, p. 84) and in larger flocks of several hundred (Higgins et al. 2001).
Seasonal flocks have been observed flying in the company of black honeyeaters (Sugomel nigrum), crimson chats (Epthianura tricolor), black-faced woodswallows (Artamus cinereus) and masked woodswallows (Artamus cinereus, A. personatus). It has been observed feeding in the company of black honeyeaters (S. nigrum), “greenies” (Ptilotis penicillata) and yellow-throated miners (Myzantha flavigula) (MacGillivray 1910, p. 32)
During breeding displays pairs sometimes fly into the air together and “literally loop and loop” (Burgess 1946, p. 392) and a male may soar “singing, into the air from the top of a tree, and suddenly drop(s), always turning over backward in its descent” (MacGillivray 1910). Males advertising territorial display will similarly, fly singing vertically into the air (Chapman, pers comm. 2014). Actions in the air appear similar to the black honeyeater (Burgess 1946) and flight is said to resemble that of the critically endangered regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) (North 1909).
There is little information on feeding behavior however Shelly et al. (2008) note that the pied honeyeater is rarely noted feeding in mixed flocks. Information on agonistic behavior is also limited however territorial calling and aerial displays have been noted and feigning of lameness or a broken wing if disturbed off a nest containing young has been recorded (Carter 1902b; North, 1909).
The pied honeyeater feeds primarily on nectar, but also eats insects, fruit and seeds. It utilizes its long bill to explore flowers and foliage of trees and shrubs, especially Emu bush (e.g.Eremophila longifolia, E. sturtii) and a variety of eucalypts (e.g. Eucalyptus largiflorens, E. ochrophloia) and grevilleas (eds Higgins et al. 2001; MacGillivray 1910; Shelly et al. 2008). It has been observed feeding in lignum (Muehlenbeckia cunninghamii), flowering turpentine and tobacco-bush (Nicotiana glauca) (MacGillivray, 1910). It also feeds on the seeds of harlequin fuchsia- bush (Eremophila duttonii) and turpentine (Eremophila sturtii) (Shelly et al. 2008). Stomach content analysis has revealed "grape-like" seeds, berries, grit and insects and larvae (e.g. Coleoptera, Lepidoptera) Lea & Gray 1936, p. 264).
In the Australian desert the Meliphagidae are highly dependent on free water, with the pied honeyeater being classified as a ‘summer drinker’, recorded drinking on more than half of the days on which temperature exceeds 25 degrees C. (Fisher et al. 1972).
June and the five following months constitute the usual breeding season of this species, nests with eggs being more frequently found in August and September (North 1909). However, there have been examples of breeding in March in central and northern Australia, usually following heavy rains (Keast 1968).
Both sexes contribute with nest construction, incubation of eggs and caring for the young. Nests can be built and eggs laid within 3 days (Burgess 1946) and may be built in low shrubs or trees including (e.g. mulga, cork bark (Hakea lorea), sandlewood (genus Santalum)) or on top of thick creepers, about 122 cm to 155 cm above the ground (Carter 1902b; North 1909). The nest is generally an open, deep, saucer-shaped, well-made structure constructed from twigs or short grass stems (e.g. Spinifex) bound with spider-web, which may be placed on thin twigs at the end of a branch or at the junction of several thin horizontal leafy stems and suspended by the rim (Carter 1902b).
Egg sizes are approximately 1.65 cm to 2.36 cm in length. Shape varies from oval to rounded and elongate oval. The shell is close grained, smooth and usually lustreless with a dull white base colour, over which is evenly distributed freckles and spots of blackish-brown, with underlying markings of dull bluish-grey (North 1909).
There is limited information on competition and predation however the pied honeyeater is sometimes harassed in tree canopies by white-plumed honeyeaters (Lichenostomus penicillatus) and yellow-throated miners (Manorina flauigula) (Shelly et al. 2008). Diurnal avian predation would seem to be one of the primary selective pressures tending to restrict all but essential drinking in desert birds, primarily by the brown goshawk (Accipiter fasciatus), collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus) and Australian hobby (Falco longipennis) (Fisher et al. 1972). Predation and competition aspects may be a useful area for further research on the pied honeyeater.
The pied honeyeater is listed as least concern by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its extremely large range and apparent stability of population size, however population size has not been quantified. It has been seen to be subject to threatening processes that generally act at the landscape scale (e.g. habitat loss or degradation) rather than at distinct, definable locations. The Office of Environment & Heritage is currently developing a targeted approach for managing such landscape species. Identified management actions include encouragement of the protection of rich nectar producing patches of woodland and shrubs from stock and goats, development of educational and promotional information to generate conservation interest and status assessments (Environment & Heritage 2013). Targeted management strategies are also being implemented via the NSW Murray Biodiversity Management Plan (Murray Catchment Management Authority 2012).
The mobility of nomadic birds makes it difficult to gain a qualitative impression of population changes and while migrants and nomads may give the illusion of abundance as large flocks aggregate at rich patches of food, they are not spread evenly across the landscape and their total numbers are often fewer than appears.