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7 Fascinating Facts About the Subdesert Mesite: Madagascar’s Unique Ground-Dwelling Bird

The Subdesert Mesite (Monias benschi) is a small, ground-dwelling bird species that inhabits the forests and open woodlands of Madagascar. This bird species is an ideal example of how the unique characteristics of a bird can be exclusively adapted to suit their environment, making them a fascinating topic of study for bird enthusiasts, nature lovers and ornithologists.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumage and molts of the Subdesert Mesite.




The Subdesert Mesite is a stocky bird that measures around 22cm in length, with a short tail and wings, giving it a unique, almost out of proportion, appearance. These birds are brownish-grey on their upperparts, while their underparts are buff-coloured.

The birds have a distinct white line over their red eyes, which highlights their attractive appearance. They have a short, curved beak, which is adapted to facilitate their ground-dwelling foraging behaviour.

The legs of Subdesert Mesites are pinkish-grey, and their feet are characterized by long toes, with the middle toe being the longest. Similar Species:

The Subdesert Mesite is part of a distinct family of birds which are unique to Madagascar.

Their unique characteristics make it relatively easy to distinguish them from other bird species. However, the Subdesert Mesite can be confused with other species such as the Eurasian Wren at first glance.

The common distinction is that the Eurasian Wren has a longer tail and beak than the Subdesert Mesite.


The Subdesert Mesite’s plumage provides a unique insight into the bird’s life story. It is characterized by multiple distinctive patterns, coloration, and feather arrangements.


The Subdesert Mesite undergoes a complete molt each year, which occurs between January and February. These birds replace all of their feathers, so they appear for a brief period with a drab coloured plumage, laying low in the vegetation since they aren’t able to fly.

The adult feathers are attained gradually, with the molting process complete by early summer, in time for the breeding season.

The first pre-basic molt – Essential for growing

The first pre-basic molt occurs when the Subdesert Mesite reaches juvenile status, where they replace their juvenile plumage with distinctive adult plumage. This molt typically happens within the first several months of their lifespan and is significant for ensuring adequate growth.

The young mesites attain their adult plumage, much more distinctive than the juvenile feathers.

Second and Final Prebasic Molt – For Reproduction

The Subdesert Mesite undergoes their second and ultimate pre-basic molt when they reach reproductive status, which is when they develop distinct male or female characteristics. Males have a brighter plumage than females’ since it’s significant in attracting partners.

These birds are monogamous, which means that once they form a pair, they stay together during the breeding season while raising a single set of offspring.

The Final Word

Madagascar’s unique forest ecology, especially the woodlands, is where the Subdesert Mesite prefers to nest. It has unique plumage characteristics and an adaptive beak to facilitate ground-dwelling behaviours, making it a fascinating bird species for ornithologists and bird enthusiasts.

Understanding the Subdesert Mesite’s identification, molts, and plumages is critical in studying the bird’s behaviour, life cycle and how it adapts to its environment.

Systematics History

The Subdesert Mesite (Monias benschi) belongs to the family Mesitornithidae, endemic to Madagascar. The species was first identified by the French naturalist Alphonse Milne-Edwards in 1893, in the southwestern part of Madagascar.

This species was formerly identified as Mesitornis variegata, before being classified under the genus Monias in the year 1955. It has been largely unknown to science until the recent decades, and much still remains to be understood about its systematics.

Geographic Variation

The Subdesert Mesite is a ground-dwelling bird species that inhabits the forests, savannas, and mangroves in Madagascar’s western and southwestern regions. Within its range, the Subdesert Mesite’s is further divided into two distinctive areas; the northern population and the southern population.

The northern population spans from the regions of Bemaraha to the southern part of the Bongolava Massif. Meanwhile, the southern population stretches from the southern end of the Bongolava Massif to the southwestern coastal region of Madagascar.


The Subdesert Mesite is classified into two subspecies; the Monias benschi benschi in the northern population and Monias benschi meridionalis in the southern population. – Monias benschi benschi

This subspecies has a greyer crown, an oval-shaped light tan spot behind the eye, and dark grey wings in comparison to the southern subspecies.

They are more common in the northern regions of the Subdesert Mesite’s range between the Bemaraha region and the southern part of the Bongolava Massif. – Monias benschi meridionalis

The southern subspecies has a brownish-grey crown, a light-yellow spot behind the eye.

It’s wings are dark brownish-grey. These characteristics are different from the northern subspecies.

They range in the southern part of the Bongolava Massif through to the southwestern coastal region.

Related Species

The Mesitornithidae family of birds, which the Subdesert Mesite is part of, contains two other genera and three species that are endemic to Madagascar; these are:

1. Mesitornis unicolor – Madagascar Wood Rail


Mesitornis variegata – Brown Mesite

3. Monias benschi – Subdesert Mesite

The Subdesert Mesite’s closest relatives are the Brown Mesite (Mesitornis variegata) and the Madagascar Wood Rail (Mesitornis unicolor).

The Brown Mesite shares the same geographical range as the Subdesert Mesite, while the Madagascar Wood Rail is primarily found in rainforests of eastern Madagascar.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The range of the Subdesert Mesite has seen significant changes throughout time due to habitat destruction and human encroachment. Madagascar has lost over 90% of its natural forest coverage.

This process of deforestation combined with agricultural, slash-and-burn practices in the last century has led to a significant decline in the Subdesert Mesite’s population. The most pervasive loss of habitat happened in the central regions of the Subdesert Mesite’s range, the regions of Bemaraha, which has lost an estimated 90% of its natural forest coverage since the 1970s.

In the southern part of the Subdesert Mesite’s range, the southern population has withstood more severe habitat destruction, reducing the bird’s population to less than 500 in number within the span of nine years between 1997 and 2006. This decline is believed to have risen from an increase in forest fires ignited by human activity, which has been a significant contributory factor.

Anthropogenic activities ranging from timber exploitation and slash-and-burn farming, which have led to severe habitat destruction, are significant threats to the Subdesert Mesite’s continued survival. While there are ongoing conservation measures aimed at mitigating these threats, it remains uncertain whether the range of the Subdesert Mesite will remain intact in the future.


The Subdesert Mesite is a specialised terrestrial bird that is primarily found in the dry deciduous forests, spiny thicket, and savannas of western and south-western Madagascar. They occupy a range of habitats varying in elevation from sea level to at least 500 meters.

These habitats have a combination of vegetation types, but the Subdesert Mesite’s preferred habitat is the dry deciduous forests.

Movements and Migration

The Subdesert Mesite is not a migratory bird species. The bird inhabits territories rich with ideal habitats year-round and moves within a range of up to around 85 hectares.

The Subdesert Mesite is known for its ground-dwelling behaviors. This bird stays hidden among the vegetation for the majority of its life and moves about by walking and hopping across the forest floors.

They have a distinctive hopping motion that is alternated by a few walking steps before hopping again. The birds forage within their territories, occasionally venturing out into nearby territories for mating opportunities, which play a vital role in the species’ survival.

Breeding behaviors

The Subdesert Mesite’s mating behavior is monogamous, with pairs forming during the breeding season, which takes place between September and December. The species does not engage in elaborate courtship rituals and instead forms territorial groups before moving on to mating.

Once the mating ritual is complete and the female has laid a single egg, the male takes over the majority of the incubation duties. The incubation period lasts for around 25 days, after which the chick hatches.

The chick is born fully feathered with open eyes and is capable of walking and foraging within a few hours following hatching.

Nesting Habits

The Subdesert Mesite is known to construct nests that are shallow bowls made of twigs, grasses, leaves, and other materials, often hidden amid the ground vegetation. They usually lay a single egg in a clutch, although there have been situations where they have laid a second egg.

There have been no documented instances of the species hatching two chicks from the same clutch.


Due to its unique ground-dwelling habits, the Subdesert Mesites primary predators include the fossa, a carnivorous species of mammal found in Madagascar’s forests, and predatory birds such as the Madagascar Buzzard. However, it also faces human threats, such as habitat destruction, hunting, and land-use changes associated with agriculture.

Conservation Concerns

The Subdesert Mesite, like many of Madagascar’s endemic bird species, has been classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to numerous factors, most notably habitat loss and hunting. The bird is endemic to a specific habitat type, which is being rapidly degraded by human activity.

It is estimated that the remaining Subdesert Mesite population size is fewer than 10,000 individuals. Because of that, conservation strategies have been designed to help protect this unique bird species and its critical habitat.

Conservation measures include:

– Protecting the Subdesert Mesite’s habitat

– Limiting human encroachment

– Implementing sustainable land-use practices

– Designating protected areas for conservation

– Raising awareness about the importance of Madagascar’s unique birdlife.

The Subdesert Mesite’s continued survival is dependent on a collaborative effort by conservationists, researchers, local communities, and the government to help mitigate the threats facing these bird species.

Diet and Foraging


The Subdesert Mesite is a specialized, ground-dwelling bird species that forages primarily on the ground, spending the majority of their time in vegetation and on the forest floor. They use their short, powerful beaks to probe and scratch through litter on the ground, and use their long toes to scratch up potential prey.

These birds are adapted to their life on the ground, and their unique beaks and feet allow them to tear up the forest floor and reveal the invertebrates hiding there.


The diet of the Subdesert Mesite is primarily composed of invertebrates such as insects, small arthropods, and snails. They also consume berries and fallen fruits, but these are a less significant part of their diet.

Due to the Subdesert Mesite’s primarily ground-dwelling lifestyle, the bird must forage a significant amount of food to maintain their energy requirements.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Subdesert Mesite has evolved a specific metabolic and temperature regulation mechanism adapted to meet its specific needs. They maintain a lower metabolic rate during the day to conserve energy, then increase their metabolic rate during the night to actively forage for the invertebrates they consume.

The bird has a lower basal metabolic rate than birds that fly, which reflects its ground-dwelling lifestyle. They also have a unique system of temperature regulation, with specialized feathers that reduce heat loss at night, which is vital in their native dry and semi-arid environment.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


The Subdesert Mesite’s vocalizations are essential in communication between individual adults and the family group. Their vocalizations consist of modified clucking or growling sounds, with some variations that span between growls and drumming sounds.

These vocalizations tend to be used in the interactions between partners, and with other individuals that infringe on their territories like the Madagascar Buzzard and the gray baza. The Subdesert Mesite’s vocalizations have been heavily studied, and they have a large repertoire of calls, which vary in pitch and rhythm.

They utter their calls from a concealed position in the ground vegetation, making their vocalizations hard to locate. Their calls can vary in tone, volume, and pitch, all of which allow for the birds to communicate complex messages with each other.

Their vocalizations can also vary depending on the time of day, where calls during the day tend to be lower in volume than their nighttime calls. Their vocalizations are an important adaptation to their ground-dwelling lifestyle, where they may have difficulty visually communicating with one another due to the dense vegetation.

In Summary, the Subdesert Mesites foraging is primarily geared towards the ground, where they use their specialized beaks and feet to find invertebrates in the dense understory. They maintain a lower metabolic rate during the day and increase their metabolic rate at night to forage actively.

The Subdesert Mesite’s vocalizations are important for communicating with other adults and their family group in their dense understory habitat. These unique adaptations allow the bird to survive in their unique habitat and play an essential role in the bird’s ongoing survival.



The Subdesert Mesite is a primarily ground-dwelling bird that moves about using a hopping motion with short, quick steps. They are also capable of moving about using a walking motion, particularly when moving up steep inclines.

They use their long toes to help with balance, and their specialized beak and feet play important roles in foraging behaviour, allowing the bird to dig through the forest floor and uncover prey.


The Subdesert Mesite is known for its meticulous self-maintenance habits, particularly in feather maintenance. They ruffle their feathers to maintain their plumage’s appearance, and they also use their beaks and long toes to preen their feathers, using the specialized jointed feathers on their tails to clean their beaks.

Agonistic Behaviour

As a ground-dwelling bird species, the Subdesert Mesite must be able to protect its territory and defend itself from potential predators. They engage in agonistic behaviours such as hopping towards potential threats, fluffing their feathers to appear larger and using growls and drumming sounds to intimidate possible predators.

They also use their powerful, straight beak to drive off predators.

Sexual Behavior

The Subdesert Mesite’s reproductive behaviour is monogamous, with pairs forming during the breeding season (between September and December). After mating, the female lays a single egg, the male takes over the majority of the incubation duties.

The incubation period is around 25 days. Once the chick hatches, it is capable of walking and foraging within a few hours following hatching.

Both parents provide care to their offspring, which involves bringing food and protecting them from potential predators.


The breeding period of the Subdesert Mesite typically occurs between September and December. During this time, males will engage in courtship behaviours, such as a series of clucks and growling sounds while displaying their distinctive plumage, to attract a potential mate.

Once a pair has formed, they will bond and begin to prepare a nest. Their nests are shallow bowls made of twigs, grasses, leaves, and other materials, usually hidden amid the ground vegetation.

Demography and Populations

The Subdesert Mesite has a relatively small population size, with fewer than 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild, making it a vulnerable species. The primary drivers of population decline are habitat loss, deforestation, hunting, and the introduction of exotic species on their natural habitat.

The Madagascar government has implemented various conservation efforts to help protect the remaining population and their habitat. These include the creation of protected areas, regulation of timber exploitation, and engagement with the local communities to promote sustainable land use practices.

Ongoing research is vital in monitoring population trends, identifying threats, and implementing targeted conservation measures. The Subdesert Mesite is a fascinating bird species endemic to Madagascar that is known for its distinctive ground-dwelling behaviour, plumage, and vocalizations.

It has been classified as vulnerable, primarily due to habitat destruction and hunting. Science has shed light on its unique adaptations, such as its specialized beak and feet suited for ground-dwelling, metabolic and temperature regulation, and vocalizations adapted to communicate effectively with other individuals despite the dense vegetation in its habitat.

These adaptations are critical for the bird’s survival and provide

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