The mousebirds (family Coliidae, order Coliiformes) are a family of birds. They are the sister group to the clade Eucavitaves, which includes the cuckoo roller (Leptosomiformes), trogons (Trogoniformes), Bucerotiformes, Coraciformes and Piciformes.[1] The mousebirds are therefore given order status as Coliiformes. This group is confined to sub-Saharan Africa, and is the only bird order confined entirely to that continent. They had a wider range in prehistoric times, with a widespread distribution in Europe and North America during the Paleocene.[2]

Temporal range: Early Paleocene to present
Blue-naped mousebird (Urocolius macrourus)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Coraciimorphae
Order: Coliiformes
Murie, 1872
Family: Coliidae
Swainson, 1837

For fossil taxa, see text.


They are slender greyish or brown birds with soft, hairlike body feathers. They are typically about 10 cm in body length, with a long, thin tail a further 20–24 cm in length, and weigh 45–55 grams.[3] They are arboreal and scurry through the leaves like rodents, in search of berries, fruit and buds. This habit, and their legs, gives rise to the group's English name. They are acrobatic, and can feed upside down. All species have strong claws and reversible outer toes (pamprodactyl feet). They also have crests and stubby bills.

Behaviour and ecology

Mousebirds are gregarious, again reinforcing the analogy with mice, and are found in bands of about 20 in lightly wooded country. These birds build cup-shaped twig nests in trees, which are lined with grasses. Two to four eggs are typically laid, hatching to give altricial young which develop quickly and soon leave the nest and acquire flight.

Systematics and evolution

The mousebirds could be considered "living fossils" as the 6 species extant today are merely the survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene. There are comparatively abundant fossils of Coliiformes, but it has not been easy to assemble a robust phylogeny. The family is documented to exist from the Early Paleocene onwards; by at least the Late Eocene, two families are known to have existed, the extant Coliidae and the longer-billed prehistorically extinct Sandcoleidae.[2]

The latter were previously a separate order,[4] but eventually it was realized that they had come to group ancestral Coraciiformes, the actual sandcoleids and forms like Neanis together in a paraphyletic assemblage. Even though the sandcoleids are now assumed to be monophyletic following the removal of these taxa, many forms cannot be conclusively assigned to one family or the other.[5] The genus Selmes, for example, is probably a coliid, but only distantly related to the modern genera.[6]



  • Genus †Botauroides parvus Shufeldt 1915 (Eocene of Wyoming, US)
  • Genus †Eobucco brodkorbi Feduccia & Martin 1976 - sandcoleid?
  • Genus †Eocolius walkeri Dyke & Waterhouse 2001 (London Clay Early Eocene of Walton-on-the-Naze, England) - sandcoleid or coliid
  • Genus †Limnatornis Milne-Edwards 1871 (Early Miocene of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, France) - coliid? (Urocolius?)
    • L. consobrinus Milne-Edwards 1871 [Picus consobrinus; Urocolius consobrinus]
    • L. paludicola Milne-Edwards 1871 [Urocolius paludicola]
    • L. archiaci [Picus archiaci; Urocolius archiaci] (Early Miocene of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, France)
  • Coliiformes gen. et sp. indet. (Late Miocene of Kohfidisch, Austria)[9]
  • Genus †Uintornis Marsh 1872 - sandcoleid?
    • U. lucaris Brodkorb 1971
    • U. marionae Feduccia & Martin 1976
  • Family †Chascacocoliidae Zelenkov & Dyke 2008
    • Genus †Chascacocolius Houde & Olson 1992 (Late Paleocene ?- Early Eocene) - basal? sandcoleid?
      • C. oscitans Houde & Olson 1992
      • C. cacicirostris Mayr 2005
  • Family †Selmeidae Zelenkov & Dyke 2008
    • Genus †Selmes absurdipes Peters 1999 (Middle Eocene ?-Late Oligocene of C Europe) - coliid? (synonym of Primocolius?)
  • Family †Sandcoleidae Houde & Olson 1992 sensu Mayr & Mourer-Chauviré 2004
    • Genus †Sandcoleus copiosus Houde & Olson 1992 (Paleocene)
    • Genus †Anneavis anneae Houde & Olson 1992
    • Genus †Eoglaucidium pallas Fischer 1987
    • Genus †Tsidiiyazhi abini Ksepka et al., 2017
  • Family Coliidae Swainson 1837 sensu Mayr & Mourer-Chauviré 2004
    • Genus †Primocolius Mourer-Chauviré 1988 (Late Eocene/Oligocene of Quercy, France)
      • P. sigei Mourer-Chauviré 1988
      • P. minor Mourer-Chauviré 1988
    • Genus †Oligocolius Mayr 2000 (Early Oligocene of Frauenweiler, Germany)
    • Genus †Masillacolius brevidactylus Mayr & Peters 1998 (middle Eocene of Messel, Germany)
    • Subfamily Coliinae
      • Genus Urocolius (2 species)
      • Genus Colius [Necrornis Milne-Edwards 1871] (4 species)
        • C. hendeyi Vickers-Rich & Haarhoff 1985
        • C. palustris (Milne-Edwards 1871) Ballmann 1969 [Necrornis palustris Milne-Edwards 1871]
        • C. castanotus Verreaux & Verreaux 1855 (Red-backed mousebird)
        • C. colius (Linnaeus 1766) (White-backed mousebird)
        • C. leucocephalus Reichenow 1879 (White-headed mousebird)
        • C. striatus Gmelin 1789 (Speckled mousebird)
      • The only known species of Necrornis (Milne-Edwards, 1871) (Middle Miocene of Sansan, La Grive-Saint-Alban, France) was redescribed by Peter Ballmann as Colius palustris in 1969.[10] This treatment was approved by Olson in 1985.[11]


  1. Jarvis, E. D.; Mirarab, S.; Aberer, A. J.; et al. (2014). "Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds". Science. 346 (6215): 1320–1331. doi:10.1126/science.1253451. PMC 4405904. PMID 25504713.
  2. Ksepka, D.T.; Stidham, T.A.; Williamson, T.E. (2017). "Early Paleocene landbird supports rapid phylogenetic and morphological diversification of crown birds after the K–Pg mass extinction". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114 (30): 8047–8052. doi:10.1073/pnas.1700188114. PMC 5544281. PMID 28696285.
  3. Cunningham-Van Someren, G.R. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. pp. 138–139. ISBN 978-1-85391-186-6.
  4. Houde & Olson (1992)
  5. Mayr & Mourer-Chauviré (1999)
  6. It has a peculiar foot morphology not found in any other bird, with very stubby toes. The specific name absurdipes ("absurd foot") refers to this. The genus name is an anagram of "Messel", where it was first found.
  7. Mikko's Phylogeny Archive Haaramo, Mikko (2007). "Aves [Avialae]– basal birds". Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  8. (net, info) . "Aves". Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  9. Similar to Urocolius and Limnatornis (if distinct): Mlíkovský (2002)
  10. Peter Ballmann (1969): Les oiseaux miocènes de La Grive-Saint-Alban (Isère). – Géobios 2: p 157-204.
  11. Storrs Olson (1985): The Fossil Record of Birds In: Avian Biology, No. 8: p. 79–238


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