The Afrikaans name for the Familiar chat is “Gewone spekvreter” which means “Common fat-eater“, a strange name that it apparently earned during the 1800’s when the Voortrekkers were migrating northwards from the Cape of Good Hope with their ox wagons and these little birds made a habit of feeding on the lard that was used to grease the moving parts of the wagons.
A fairly small, dumpy bird with a length of about 15 cm, the females and males are similar in plumage colouration and the females are slightly bigger than the males. They are rather drab birds, with brown to dark brown upper parts and under parts that are off-white to grey-brown. The rump and outer tail feathers are orange while the central tail feathers and the tip of the tail are dark brown. Bill, legs and feet are black; eyes are brown.
The Familiar chat is usually fairly tame and often approaches campsites and other habitation. They are most often found on rocky hillsides, rocky outcrops and sparsely vegetated areas. It often sits out in the open, perching on any raised stone, tree or fence post and has a habit of flicking its wings every time it moves. It may be seen singly or in small groups.
The song of the Familiar chat is a soft garbled collection of peeps and chirps, while the alarm call is a much louder and harsher “chak-chak-chak”.
The Familiar chat hunts by flying down from its perch and taking its prey on the ground or may hawk flying insects from the air. It also gleans insects from leaves and picks spiders from their webs. It feeds mainly on insects, spiders, centipedes, and, when close to human habitation, food scraps and even pet food.
The Familiar chat is monogamous and builds a cup-shaped nest of soft plant material, feathers, wool or other soft material. The nest may be placed in a variety of sites such as on the ground, in a tree, in old bird’s nests or in nesting boxes provided by obliging humans. The female lays a clutch of two to four bright greenish-blue eggs that hatch after an incubation period of approximately 15 days.
The scientific binomial for the Familiar chat is Cercomela familiaris; Cercomela from the Greek for “black tail” and familiaris from the Latin for “familiar”. Thus a familiar bird with a black tail, which describes any number of birds, including this one.