Golden-headed Cisticola Cisticola exilis 金頭扇尾鶯

Category I. Uncommon winter visitor to grassy areas of the New Territories and offshore islands, in particular the north and northeast New Territories.


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Nov. 2018, Martin Hale.

9-11.5 cm. Similar to Zitting Cisticola in shape but slightly smaller with a shorter bill. Tail longer in non-breeding season but shorter in breeding season. In comparison in winter plumage and females in breeding season have greyer ear coverts, plainer upperparts that lack white edges to mantle and scapular feathers, buff tips to the darker tail feathers and lack an obvious short dark line between the gape and the eye (and therefore appear slightly more ‘open-faced’).

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Mar. 2020, Michelle and Peter Wong. Male, breeding plumage.

In the breeding season males have a warm brown panel covering the secondaries and bases of inner primaries in the closed wing and a pale golden-brown crown and neck contrasting with cream throat and sides to face.


Typical call is a short, buzzing, nasal ‘zerrp.’

Song is a loose jumble of notes that includes an inflected ‘chreep,’ buzzing and chattering notes and occasionally the call.


Recorded in grassy areas of the New Territories and on Lantau, Lamma, Po Toi, Tung Lung Chau and Sha Chau islands from sea level to 600m. Favoured areas are the north and northeast New Territories where grassy habitat is present in areas of abandoned agriculture or in the hills. Although recorded in fish pond areas it is rare in this habitat.


Although only recorded for the first time at Ping Yeung on 23 November 1991 (Viney and Chalmers 1992), Golden-headed Cisticola is now known to be a regular, though uncommon winter visitor. It is mainly recorded from October to March, with the highest numbers in the middle two weeks of November when presumed passage migrants are at their most numerous (Figure 1). Numbers appear to decline at the end of January and early February, with the subsequent irregular pattern possibly relating to the fact vocalising birds are easier to detect. On Po Toi typically appears at the end of August or early September and remains well into March.

Extreme dates are 19 August 2008 (when four birds were seen, possibly relating to local breeding) and 28 April 2010. The highest count is of 23 at Ping Yeung on 2 October 2011.


Breeding has not been confirmed in HK, but it is suspected. A juvenile on Po Toi on 2 September 2010 was considered indicative of breeding on the island, while a count of four on 19 August 2008 at Tsung Yuen Ha may also indicate breeding locally. Males in song have been noted from 27 February to 9 April, and on 26 August, when ten adults and juveniles seen on a grassy hillside at Ma Tso Lung in 2009.


When vocalising not particularly shy and easy to locate as it sits out in the open more than Zitting Cisticola. Insectivorous, but no details.


Widespread in the Oriental and Australasian regions, extending from southwest and north India east through Indochina to south China, and from the Philippines and Sumatra southeast through the Lesser Sundas to New Guinea and north, east and southeast Australia (Ryan 2020). In China it occurs in much of the area south of the Yangtze floodplain to the coast, including Taiwan (Liu and Chen 2020). Polytypic, over ten subspecies, of which C. e. courtoisi occurs in south and east China, including HK.


IUCN: Least Concern. Population trend increasing.

Figure 1.

Liu, Y. and Y. H. Chen (eds) (2020). The CNG Field Guide to the Birds of China (in Chinese). Hunan Science and Technology Publication House, Changsha.

Ryan, P. (2020). Golden-headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Viney, C. A. and M. L. Chalmers (1992). Bright-capped Cisticola: the first records for Hong Kong. Hong Kong Bird Report 1991: 116-119.

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