The African Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) is a member of the Old World flycatcher family Muscicapidae. In the past it was usually included in the "Common Stonechat" (Saxicola torquatus sensu lato), but all available evidence strongly supports full species status for the European and the Siberian Stonechats, as well as the Fuerteventura Chat and Réunion Stonechat.
It has a scattered distribution across much of southern Africa, and more locally north to Senegal and Ethiopia, with outlying populations in the mountains of southwest Arabia and on Madagascar and Grand Comoro Island. It is non-migratory, moving only locally if at all; as a result, it has developed much regional variation, being divided into 17 subspecies, one of which is very distinctive and may deserve recognition as a separate species.
The males have a black head, a white half-collar, a black back, a white rump, and a black tail; the wings are black with a large white patch on the top side of the inner wing. The upper breast is mostly (but see subspecies, below) dark orange-red, with a sharp or gradual transition to white or pale orange on the lower breast and belly. Females have brown rather than black above and on the head with an indistinct paler eyebrow line, chestnut-buff rather than orange below, and less white on the wings. Both sexes' plumage is somewhat duller and streakier outside the breeding season.
The subspecies differ slightly in size, and more in the extent of the orange-red on the upper breast of the males, and whether the lower breast is white with a distinct boundary from the upper breast, or pale orange with an indistinct boundary from the darker upper breast. The extent of the orange-red also varies with time of year, often extending on to the belly outside the breeding season.
- Saxicola torquatus torquatus Linnaeus, 1766. Eastern South Africa.
- Saxicola torquatus clanceyi Latimer, 1961. Western South Africa.
- Saxicola torquatus stonei Bowen, 1932. Central southern Africa, from northernmost South Africa north to Zaire and southwestern Tanzania.
- Saxicola torquatus oreobates Clancey, 1956. High altitudes in the Drakensberg and other mountains of Lesotho and immediately adjacent South Africa.
- Saxicola torquatus promiscuus Hartert, 1922. Western Mozambique, eastern Zambia, central Tanzania. Very limited orange-red on uppermost part of breast only.
- Saxicola torquatus altivagus Clancey, 1988. Eastern Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi. Previously included within S. t. promiscua, and very similar to it.
- Saxicola torquatus axillaris (Shelley, 1884). Kenya, Uganda, northwestern Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Zaire.
- Saxicola torquatus salax (J. & E. Verreaux, 1851). Northern Angola, western Zaire, Congo, Gabon.
- Saxicola torquatus adamauae Grote, 1922. Cameroon.
- Saxicola torquatus pallidigula Reichenow, 1892. High altitudes on Mount Cameroon, Cameroon. The largest subspecies.
- Saxicola torquatus moptanus Bates, 1932. Scattered in the western Sahel region from northern Senegal east to Niger. The smallest subspecies.
- Saxicola torquatus nebularum Bates, 1930. Tropical west Africa from Sierra Leone east to Côte d'Ivoire. Extensive orange-red on breast and also flanks.
- Saxicola torquatus jebelmarrae Lynes, 1920. Darfur, Sudan.
- Saxicola torquatus felix Bates, 1936. Southwestern Saudi Arabia and western Yemen.
- Saxicola torquatus sibilla (Linnaeus, 1766). Madagascar.
- Saxicola torquatus voeltzkowi Grote, 1926. Grand Comoro Island.
- Saxicola torquatus albofasciatus (Rüppell, 1845). Ethiopian highlands. Very distinct, likely a separate species; upper breast black, not orange-red as in the others.
The closest living relative of this species is the Réunion Stonechat. These two form a sub-Saharan African lineage that diverged from the Eurasian one in the Late Pliocene, roughly 2.5 mya; Réunion was colonized immediately thereafter.
The recent separation as species was proposed after mtDNA cytochrome b sequence and nDNA microsatellite fingerprinting analysis of specimens of the subspecies Saxicola torquatus axillaris but not S. t. torquatus, and hence this species was briefly known as S. axillaris.