One of the more distinctive of the bird calls heard when visiting northern Namibia or the wetter parts of the southern African region is a two-syllable “chick-weeu, chick-weeu“, where the first syllable carries a distinct click, almost metallic. This call is uttered by the Black-backed puffback, usually be the male.
Black-backed puffbacks are fairly common within their range and are usually found singly or in pairs as they move through the evergreen forests or woodlands that make up their preferred habitat. They are fairly large shrikes, with a length of about 18 cm and although the sexes are similar in plumage, the males are a little larger than the females.
They have largely black upper parts, the females a little duller than the males, and white under parts. Eyes are red; bills, legs and feet are black. When displaying, the males erect the feathers on their backs to create the magnificent “powder-puff” that gives them their name. In Afrikaans this bird is called a “Sneeubal” or Snowdall, which is perhaps even more descriptive than “puffback”.
They feed mainly on insects, but also on fruit, and do most of their feeding in the upper canopy where they glean insects from leaves and branches.
The Black-backed puffback is monogamous and builds a tidy cup-shaped nest from roots, bark and other plant material that is bound together with spider webs. It is usually located in a forked branch, and may be camouflaged by having bits of lichen stuck onto it. The female lays a clutch of two or three creamy-white eggs that are heavily speckled with mauve, and that hatch after an incubation period of about 12 days.
The scientific binomial for the Black-backed puffback is Dryoscopus cubla; Dryoscopus from the Greek for “a watcher from the trees” and cubla which derives from a Hottentot word of obscure meaning, but the word is pronounced with an initial click that is said to imitate the bird’s distinctive call.