AOU 50th supplement: taxonomic and nomenclatural changes

2009 July 11
by David J. Ringer

The Fiftieth Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds (Chesser et al.) was published in the July 2009 issue of The Auk. It is available online to subscribers at the link above and will presumably be posted on the AOU’s checklist page sometime in the next few weeks. (Update: It’s here.)

Here, I summarize the taxonomic and nomenclatural changes that affect the main list (i.e., not the appendix or additions to the list). The proposals and commentary leading up to the publication of the supplement are available on the 2008 proposals page. I’ve referenced the proposal numbers below.

Numididae given family rank; galliform families resequenced. The committee follows the latest research in recognizing Numididae (guineafowl, an African family) as a full family, rather than a subfamily of Phasianidae. Families in the order Galliformes are rearranged as follows: Cracidae, Numididae, Odontophoridae, Phasianidae. (Proposal 2008-B-6)

Elegant Trogon

by ehoyer

Linear sequence of Trogon species rearranged. The new sequence of species in the genus Trogon is as follows: clathratus, massena, melanurus, melanocephalus, citreolus, viridis, bairdii, violaceus, rufus, elegans, mexicanus, collaris, aurantiiventris. (Proposal 2008-A-10)

Guianan Puffbird split from White-necked Puffbird. Notharchus macrorhynchos is split into two species. N. macrorhynchos is now Guianan Puffbird of the Guianas and northern Brazil, and N. hyperrhynchus, White-necked Puffbird, is widely distributed in Latin America. (Proposal 2008-B-14)

Montane Woodcreeper split from Spot-crowned Woodcreeper. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes affinis) is now confined to Middle America as South American populations are elevated to species status as Montane Woodcreeper, L. lacrymiger. The committee notes that there is no strong published evidence for this split but that there hadn’t been any rationale for the decades-old lump that united them in the first place. The SACC list already treated them as separate species. (Proposal 2008-A-5)

English name of Vireo caribaeus changed from St. Andrew Vireo to San Andres Vireo. (Proposal 2008-C-1)

Boreal Chickadee

by North60

Poecile hudsonica becomes P. hudsonicus; P. cincta becomes P. cinctus. The chickadee genus Poecile is determined to be masculine, so the species name of Boreal Chickadee must change from hudsonica to hudsonicus to agree in gender with the genus. Likewise, the species name of Gray-headed Chickadee changes from cincta to cinctus. Hopefully this is the end of a series of flip-flops that ensued after the split of Poecile from Parus! (Proposal 2008-A-7)

Cichlherminia merged into Turdus. The distinctive Forest Thrush (photo), endemic to four Caribbean islands, was formerly placed in the monotypic genus Cichlherminia. It is embedded in Turdus, however, and so becomes Turdus lherminieri. Despite the merger, the committee points out that the species does represent a distinctive lineage. If Turdus is ever split into multiple genera, the Forest Thrush may be placed in a monotypic genus once again. (Proposal 2008-A-3)

Extinct Hawaiian genera Moho and Chaetoptila moved into new family Mohoidae. Extinct Hawaiian genera Moho and Chaetoptila had been placed in Meliphagidae (honeyeaters), but surprising new genetic work places them near the Bombycillidae (waxwings) in their own family, Mohoidae. Sadly, this newly recognized family has no living members. (2008-C-4)

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow becomes Nelson’s Sparrow. The committee cites widespread dislike of “clunky” English names for this and the following species. Accordingly, the English name of Ammodramus nelsoni is shortened to Nelson’s Sparrow. (Proposal 2008-A-4)

Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow becomes Saltmarsh Sparrow. The committee cites widespread dislike of “clunky” English names for this and the preceding species. Accordingly, the English name of Ammodramus caudacutus is shortened to Saltmarsh Sparrow, despite minor concerns that certain other sparrows are saltmarsh specialists too. (Proposal 2008-A-4)

Scarlet Tanager

by fveronesi1

“Tanager” genera Piranga, Habia, and Chlorothraupis moved to Cardinalidae. These three genera belong not to the tanager family (Thraupidae) but to the cardinal and grosbeak family (Cardinalidae). For US and Canadian birders, this change affects the familiar Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Western Tanager (all members of Piranga). This change has been expected for several years. (Proposal 2008-B-1)

Granatellus moved from Parulidae to Cardinalidae. Red-breasted Chat (Granatellus venustus) and Gray-throated Chat (G. sallaei) are moved from Parulidae (New World warblers) to Cardinalidae (cardinals and grosbeaks) based on genetic data. Granatellus may be near Pheucticus. (Proposal 2008-B-2)

Amaurospiza moved from Emberizidae to Cardinalidae. Amaurospiza is a small genus of Neotropical seedeaters. Genetic data place them in Cardinalidae. (Proposal 2008-B-3)

Saltator moved out of Cardinalidae. The relationships of this Neotropical genus to other birds is not yet entirely clear, but it does not belong in Cardinalidae. (Proposal 2008-B-4)

Redpolls moved into genus Acanthis. Redpolls were in subgenus Acanthis within genus Carduelis, but now Acanthis is (re)elevated to genus level. Thus, Common Redpoll becomes Acanthis flammea, and Hoary Redpoll becomes A. hornemanni. (Proposal 2008-A-9A)

American Goldfinch

by ibm4381

Siskins and New World goldfinches moved into genus Spinus. Siskins and New World goldfinches were in subgenus Spinus within genus Carduelis, but now Spinus is (re)elevated to genus level (Proposal 2008-A-9B). Note that Spinus is masculine, so the endings of some species names must be changed to agree in gender. This effects the following changes to scientific names on the AOU North American checklist:

  • Eurasian Siskin: Spinus spinus
  • Pine Siskin: Spinus pinus
  • Black-capped Siskin: Spinus atriceps
  • Black-headed Siskin: Spinus notatus
  • Yellow-bellied Siskin: Spinus xanthogastrus
  • Red Siskin: Spinus cucullatus
  • Antillean Siskin: Spinus dominicensis
  • Lesser Goldfinch: Spinus psaltria
  • Lawrence’s Goldfinch: Spinus lawrencei
  • American Goldfinch: Spinus tristis

Oriental Greenfinch moved into genus Chloris. As part of the breakup of genus Carduelis, Oriental Greenfinch is moved into genus Chloris. Thus, its scientific name becomes Chloris sinica. Oriental Greenfinch is accidental in the AOU area. (Proposal 2008-A-9C)

Proposals to split Savannah Sparrow and Ferruginous Pygmy Owl were defeated.

I thought the most exciting thing here was the creation of the Mohoidae, though this was not unexpected in the wake of the evidence published last year. Also interesting is the re-splitting of Carduelis, though I have a feeling it’s not fully settled yet. None of the changes seemed terribly unexpected; in fact, many are already widely accepted elsewhere.

What are your thoughts?

Related posts:

  1. Taxonomic and nomenclatural changes in the AOU 48th supplement
39 Responses leave one →
  1. July 11, 2009

    Also should be noted, Spinus pinus is a lot of fun to say…

  2. Jay Keller permalink
    July 12, 2009

    Was it the “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow that was considered for splitting and defeated? If so, where could I read the justification notes, etc?

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 12, 2009

      Proposal 2008-A-08 says “To split Passerculus sandwichensis into up to four species: Passerculus sandwichensis (the Savannah Sparrow), P. beldingi (Belding’s Sparrow), P. sanctorum (San Benito Sparrow), and P. rostratus (Large-billed Sparrow).”

      You can read the proposal here and the results of the voting here. Basically, the committee is awaiting more data.

  3. Rob Parsons permalink
    July 12, 2009

    Not a fan of Nelson’s Sparrow. Prefer to have it as Sharp-tailed Sparrow, especially since (prior to the split) it was THE sharp-tailed sparrow to most birders, being the more widespread of the two. However, since *acutis* is the specific epithet of Saltmarsh Sparrow, I guess that would have been a trifle confusing!

    As far as the taxonomic changes go, no huge surprises, and as per usual with the AOU, most are way overdue. Oops, gotta sheath my claws ;)

    I guess any of us who are interested will need to learn another new sequence. So will Piranga lead the “Cardinal Grosbeaks” or be at the end of them, I wonder? Seems unlikely they’ll be inserted somewhere in the midst of the existing Cardinalids, but I could be wrong.

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 12, 2009

      Hi Rob,

      The proposal to rename the sparrows (here) includes a discussion on the use of “Sharp-tailed Sparrow.” That English name, if retained, would have belonged to the coastal birds because they were described first. A. nelsoni was described as a subspecies of A. caudacutus, and apparently it was referred to as “Nelson’s Sparrow” and “Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow” while it was a still subspecies (much as we talk about “Yellow-shafted Flicker” now).

      Piranga tanagers are moved to the beginning of the Cardinalidae.

      Rawr, I see those claws. :)

  4. Steve Summers permalink
    July 12, 2009

    Proposal 2008-A-10 (rearranging the trogons) was a SACC proposal. Did the NACC also do that?

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 12, 2009

      Similar proposals based on the same research but including only the species relevant to each area were submitted to the SACC and the NACC.

  5. Steve Summers permalink
    July 13, 2009

    With the moving of Piranga and Chlorothraupis to Fringillidae these are no longer “tanagers”. If anyone has been to the tropics and seen “real” tanagers I think they’d understand this move. When Stripe-headed Tanager was moved out of Thraupidae the English name was changed to Spindalis (that of the genus). It seems most folks didn’t have problems with that. I wouldn’t have any problems with Western Piranga, Summer Piranga, etc. or Olive Chlorothraupis either for that matter. In fact several of the committee members expressed that idea also. There will be lots more of this resuffling and if we don’t change the English names then names such as Finch, Tanager, Cardinal will really lose their meanings. How do others feel about changing English names to match or make them more neutral when moved to another group?

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 13, 2009

      They are moved to Cardinalidae.

      Personally, I’m opposed to “Scarlet Piranga,” etc. I’m not convinced that English names need to reflect phylogenetic relationships (isn’t that why we have scientific names?) — and in fact, for the most part, they already don’t. Finch, flycatcher, chat, sparrow, robin, oriole, grosbeak, and lots of other names are completely meaningless phylogenetically and instead refer to some sort of general body plan, anatomical feature, or lifestyle. Why should this particular genus (or two) be singled out for such a gory fate?

      I don’t think “spindalis” is a comparable example because so few people ever encounter them, whereas Piranga species are familiar garden birds for millions of North Americans.

      Shouldn’t English names be just that — English names? We’ve been calling these birds ‘tanagers’ in English for a very long time.

      It might make some academics and keen birders feel good to utter “Summer Piranga,” but it surely can’t do much good for the rest of the world. Follow this to an extreme, and North American bird books and park interpretive signs could turn into a alphabet soup that’s unrecognizable, unpronounceable, and off-putting to a generation or two of the general public — and for what?

      Of course, many other arguments could also be made … anyone else care to comment?

      • July 13, 2009

        I strongly disagree with you here, David. AOU had a real opportunity to make tanager MEAN something. What can we learn from the name “Summer Tanager” now? It used to tell us what family it was in…now it’s as meaningless as Veery.

        Most birdwatchers don’t follow scientific names, so there is a real benefit to having common names follow taxonomy. In most cases it’s the only way they’ll have any idea how birds are related to one another. Knowing that Piranga and Pheucticus are related, for instance, will helps make sense of their similar-sounding songs. It’s challenging sometimes when one is fully engrossed in one of the particular disciplines, but I think we should strive to see things through the prisms of both birdwatching and ornithology.

        Your Spindalis argument smacks of xenocentrism; English is the language of Jamaica and the Bahamas, which together have two of the four species.

        As for robin, chat, flycatcher, etc…while it’s true these terms refer to various divergent groups WORLDWIDE, I feel the argument that this is confusing is mostly moot, especially from a birdwatching standpoint. Why? Generally, each of these groups is allopatric. There’s going to be no confusion in Australia or the U.S., for instance, as to what genus a chat or a robin belong to. Shoudl there be any confusion within a particular area, I’d advocate a name change for one of the groups. By that same token, I think last’ years decision to call some of the North American Turdus thrushes rather than robins was another colossal mistake. There is no question when in the New World what a robin is. Robin says much more than thrush, and now we have to remember which Turdus are robins and which are not. What a cluster….

        While I’m at it, they should have changed the names of the Granatellus chats since they’re not in Parulidae (with Yellow-breasted Chat); now we have chats is two different American families. Besides, Red-breasted Granatellus sounds pretty exotic…a fittingly exotic name for an awesome bird.

      • David J. Ringer permalink*
        July 13, 2009

        Thanks for your thoughts Michael — interesting points.

        I should clarify my comment about ‘spindalis.’ I wasn’t making an argument for or against the change itself; rather, I was saying that the perceived acceptance of the change (sometimes used in an argument for making the change to ‘piranga,’ including commentary by AOU committee members — e.g., “We’ve gotten used to Spindalis, we’ll get used to Piranga….”) may be because US and Canadian birders and ornithologists are listening only to each other on the issue. Who exactly has gotten used to ‘spindalis’? Serious birders and ornithologists in the US and Canada, I’d guess. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting any Caribbean ornithologists or birders, though, so I confess that this is pure speculation.

        (You’re right that English is the official language of Jamaica and the Bahamas of course; however, the mother tongues of thousands of citizens of those countries are derivatives of ‘standard’ English (a myth?) that are sometimes called Jamaican and Bahamian … though this strays pretty quickly into murky sociolinguistic and political issues. I wonder what local names are used for the Spindalis species by those people?)

        Interesting point about English names referring to meaningful groups within a given geographical area. You’re right that that’s mostly true of groups in English-speaking North America, with a few exceptions (e.g., grosbeak). But couldn’t the same argument now be made for tanager? ‘Tanager’ in the Nearctic realm would refer to a certain closely related group of birds (Piranga). But it depends how you slice and dice the geographical regions I guess.

        Incidentally, this doesn’t hold true everywhere. Here in Kenya, for instance, where English is also an official language, “flycatcher” is used for representatives from several different families, including such widely divergent groups as Monarchidae, Muscicapidae, and Stenostiridae. Not an AOU issue at all of course, but because this is where I’m living and birding at the moment, my perspective may be skewed.

        I guess we’ll just have to disagree on this one. Thanks for your thoughts, though, they are much appreciated.

  6. Rob Parsons permalink
    July 13, 2009

    Where names are not well established in the vernacular, I have no problems. Steve’s example of Spindalis is a good case in point–its range is largely out of the area where English-speaking birders reside so doesn’t present any notable problem.

    However, in many other cases, this would be a problem. For most English speakers Piranga “tanagers” are *the* tanagers. I’m not a huge fan of making a name change along that line. After all, we seem to manage with grosbeaks, buntings & sparrows in different families without difficulty.

    Bottom line, if it doesn’t lead to conflict with the vernacular, these sort of name changes are a good idea. Where it does, however, I’m opposed.

  7. Barry Ulman permalink
    July 13, 2009

    Pretty soon they’re going to say that Ostriches are related to Elephants!

  8. July 13, 2009

    I guess the Flame-colored Tanager is now a Cardinal as well.

    I just saw this bird for the first time 2 weeks ago in Madera canyon.

    http://www.pbase.com/davidmcd/image/114548749

    David McDonald
    Friendswood TX

  9. Steve Sosensky permalink
    July 13, 2009

    It’s interesting that we worry more about Latin grammar than we do about English grammar. Since the comparative case applies to exactly two items and superior is to be used with three or more, Spinus psaltria should be Least Goldfinch, not Lesser Goldfinch.

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 13, 2009

      That’s what I learned in school! :)

  10. Mike Denny permalink
    July 13, 2009

    With the pirangaization (not an AOU word) of the North American tanagers and the creation of new slots for Nelson’s Sharp-tailed and Seaside Sparrows along with the change to Pine Siskins taxanomic names it is interesting to consider what the next field guides will look like? I hope none of those that voted these changes in have “shovel ready” field guide manuscrips ready to go this coming Monday morning.

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 13, 2009

      Most of these changes reflect or are indirectly related to our advancing knowledge of birds. That is exciting, surely! It’s hardly an economic issue….

  11. Jack Holley permalink
    July 13, 2009

    Do you think that they will ever split the Western Scrub-Jay

    • Steve Sosensky permalink
      July 13, 2009

      I don’t have the reference handy, but I’ve seen the paper on the research behind the proposal. It is very likely that we will soon see Western Scrub-Jay split into California, Woodhouse, and Sumicrest (sp?) Scrub-Jays. mtDNA analysis shows Island Scrub-Jay between California and Woodhouse, with Sumicrest being the farthest from California. Plumages and vocalizations are also distinct.

  12. Jim Zimmer permalink
    July 13, 2009

    Why wasn’t Mirriam’s Meadowlark split off of Eastern Meadowlark? Did this fail or was it not considered by the committee?

    Jim Zimmer

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 13, 2009

      Do you mean Lilian’s Meadowlark? The committee did not consider that split this time around, but perhaps there will be a proposal after the publication of Barker et al.’s paper in The Auk last fall?

  13. H. Douglas Pratt permalink
    July 13, 2009

    It might be useful in the discussion of tanager vs. piranga to note that in South America, members of the tanager genus Paroaria, which used to be in Cardinalidae, are still called cardinals (Rec-crested, Yellow-billed, etc.). What’s good for the goose… English names, which are based on what we see, are never going to keep up with all the recent changes based on DNA, which are based on what we supposedly know. I think there is some utility in naming birds based on what they look like, rather than what we know them to be. “Finch” just refers to a bird with a heavy, seed-cracking bill, and to me, that’s just as useful as renaming all of them to the “fit” the dozen or so families that include “finches”. We have a long tradition of keeping misnomers alive, as in New World “blackbirds” and “orioles”, not to mention all those flycatchers (birds that feed by aerial sallies, not necessarily related), chats, grosbeaks, robins, catbirds, etc.

  14. July 14, 2009

    National Geographic, 5th ed., (copyright 2006) already gives the masculine forms (husonicus and cinctus) for those two Poecile chickadees. How is that Nat Geo was three years ahead of their time? I would expect them to adhere strictly to AOU.

  15. July 14, 2009

    Responding to “Michael,” I’d like to say a word on behalf of established usage for “Tanager.”

    If we strip the matter down to its linguistic bare bones, “meaning” in a name is a matter of association with whatever other words have entered into the consciousness of the people who seek to describe something new. Just for the sake of (purely speculative) illustration: When one Cro-Magnon kid, after being burnt, called fire “argh” due to the pain of being burnt, her brother may have used the expression “argha” to describe “heat,” and her son may have called the sunrise “argh-uk.”

    Down through the ages, these elemental words have been transmuted and expanded in countless ways, to the point where an extraordinary combination of sounds like “xenocentrism” holds meaning, at least for English speakers.

    For a good number of us denizens of North America, the word “tanager” now has an immediate meaning, right up there with “blackbird,” “warbler,” “sparrow,” and “oriole.” Whether this meaning is edifying, with regard to the taxonomic relationships of the birds in question, is a pedantic issue. In the end, those who would be pedantic about nomenclature are themselves subservient to the natural evolution of human discourse. Try to explain why “Piranga” is a more rational name than “Tanager,” without recourse to any irrational words, and you’ll see the problem.

    “Veery” is far from a meaningless name. It’s onomatopoeic, close to the very roots of human expression. I expect it would make more immediate sense to a Cro-Magnon (hypothetically transplanted to North America) than anything else on this blog.

    As for the North American Turdus thrushes: As someone who travels frequently to Sweden and speaks the native language of Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus), I would personally prefer that the American Robin be referred to by the literal translation of its Swedish name, “Wandering Thrush.” Following the same logic, the (European) Blackbird could then more sensibly be referred to as “Coal Thrush,” freeing up the name “Blackbird” for Icterids so that the true pedants among us could call Baltimore Orioles, “Chesapeake Pendant-Nest-Blackbirds” (please note I am *not* submitting this as a proposal to the AOU). But although I also feel that “Birch Thrush” is a much more rational name than “Fieldfare,” I also understand why Swedes in the vernacular call this species “Snow Magpie” (Snöskata), because of the raucous calls that they make in winter, despite the lack of phylogenetic association.

    The reality is that common bird names, as a subset of human language, will never meet all standards of logical sensibility. Common bird names are part of the natural development of human language. “Tanager,” “oriole,” “blackbird” and “sparrow” are now names with sensible human meanings on the North American continent. The AOU would be foolhardy to challenge these meanings on pedantic grounds.

  16. Mike Denny permalink
    July 14, 2009

    It is always interesting to watch as the AOU decides to change a species name or delete a dash or erase or add an apostrophe to one of its earlier creations. The loss of long accepted and comfortable names is uncomfortable and will cause many birders to just ignor the changes based on long time use of a common name, like tanager. The science of Ornithology and Avian Taxonomy storms ahead, those dedicated few that see how things must change to fit the current knowledge leave in their wake millions of birders and biologists trying to still make sense of the splits and name changes from the 48th supplement of the AOU never mind the 50th supplement.

  17. Jan Hein van Steenis permalink
    July 14, 2009

    The split of Carduelis is interesting… None of the European taxonomic committees seem to have revived Chloris, Acanthis and Spinus yet, although all the affected genera occur here. Is Carduelis now reserved for the Goldfinch only?

    Jan Hein, UK

    • David J. Ringer permalink*
      July 15, 2009

      Here are some interesting thoughts on the Carduelini: http://jboyd.net/Taxo/List29.html#fringillidae (scroll down to the Carduelini section). Recent genetic studies indicate that either Carduelis needs to be broken up or several genera (Crithagra, Loxia, Serinus, etc.) need to be submerged into it. This tree leaves only Citril Finch and Corsican Finch in Carduelis with C. carduelis.

  18. Mymm Ackley permalink
    November 29, 2009

    I’m just an ordinary birder who probably shouldn’t be intruding on here. But I’m curious to know if the Western Scrub Jay ever got split into the California Jay and the Woodhouse Jay? I doubt very much that the Sumicrest one, which is probably in Mexico somewhere, concerns someone from Colorado! I’ve heard the Jays would be split and then heard they wouldn’t. So I’d just like to know the latest. Thank you very much! Today is November 28, 2009 and my e-mail is chukar99@hotmail.com as noted above. Thanks! Mymm Ackley

  19. November 29, 2009

    My understanding from recently talking to a member of the AOU committee is that the motion to split the species 3 ways, while currently up for consideration, will not pass.

  20. Rob Parsons permalink
    November 29, 2009

    I recall when the original split of Scrub Jay was proposed (creating new species for the two definitely isolated populations–Florida Scrub-Jay & Island Scrub-Jay), there was criticism. One person’s opinion was that if a split was justified at all–and I wasn’t sure what his opinion was on that–they shouldn’t leave the widespread (now Western Scrub-Jay) population as a single species. His recommendation was to either leave them all one species or consider them at least 4. (I don’t think I recall him advocating a fifth, but it’s quite a long time ago now and I easily could have forgotten!) He made some good arguments in favour of his position and certainly convinced me. Sorry to hear the AOU is still likely to leave this “unfinished”, based on what Michael has heard.

  21. Ross Geredien permalink
    February 22, 2010

    I know this thread is somewhat out-dated, but I just now read about all of these changes. As both a birder and someone who has formal training in ornithology, I’m very disappointed in some of these changes. My biggest concern is that form, function, ecology, and field marks are being completely supplanted by a scientific discipline that is still very new and untested. The field of phylo-genetics has reduced everything to basic genetic coding. But does this make any sense? Look at our members of the genus Piranga: they are tanagers. They act similarly to other Thraupids, they have similar morphology, and ecology. They do not look anything like a grosbeak except for very superficial characteristics such as bright plumage, similar size, and some superficial song resemblance.
    The biggest problem I have with phylo-genetics “rewriting” our taxonomic order is that the genetic coding has not been correlated with morphological data: it is still currently looking only at shared genes and looking for patterns therein. Hence my assertion that this science is still “untested”, or at least it has not yet been fully integrated into the complete body of existing knowledge about species, including natural history.
    Behaviorally, our northern tanagers move and act very similarly to tropical members of the Thraupidae. For example, our tanagers eat primarily fruit and insects. Grosbeaks and other Cardinalids eat primarily seeds, hence the entirely different bill and head shape. They also have similar movements and habits as other tropical tanagers.

    I’m sure this view is very unpopular among evolutionary biologists, but I feel this is just an egregious case of laboratory science dictating a taxonomy that is in conflict with the more traditional ornithological study of biological traits.

  22. February 22, 2010

    As a tour leader (and biologist) who spends months with tropical tanagers and “our” tanagers every year, I must take issue with Ross’s comments. Pirangas are very dissimilar from true tanagers in almost every respect EXCEPT bill shape. Plumage patterns, voice, and behavior are very similar to Pheucticus grosbeaks (which also eat a large amount of fruit and insects) and very divergent from true tanagers. Anyone asserting the contrary would be best served by providing some actual data.

  23. Rob Parsons permalink
    February 22, 2010

    I have to agree partially with Michael on this. There are quite a few similarities between the food habits of Piranga tanagers & Pheucticus grosbeaks. I live in an area where Summer & Western Tanagers are vagrants and when they turn up, it’s usually at a feeding station and they take seeds quite readily, in spite of not being generally considered seed-eaters. Michael has already pointed out the fruit & insect portion of the diet of Pheucticus grosbeaks, in spite of them being generally regarded as seed-eaters. Their songs are similar, too. In short, I’m willing to accept classifying them as being fairly closely related is correct.

    Where I do have problems is with the whole family of Cardinalidae. The Northern Cardinal & Pyrrhuloxia are sedentary, seed-eating birds. Pheucticus grosbeaks are highly migratory, with a much greater variety in their diet. The tropical buntings (including Blue Grosbeak & Blue Bunting) aren’t really similar to either group. Throw the Dickcissel into the mix and I would argue this is probably the most awkward family of North American birds. There isn’t much similarity in the songs between the groups. It’s as though ornithologists simply threw a few leftovers together. About the only underlying feature is all have fairly heavy bills. I would like to see some more studies done on this group. I’m betting it could eventually result in this “family” being reclassifed.

  24. February 22, 2010

    PS–Rob, I like your Psychopsis!

  25. John permalink
    April 28, 2010

    “The biggest problem I have with phylo-genetics “rewriting” our taxonomic order is that the genetic coding has not been correlated with morphological data”

    I think you’re misinterpreting the word “phylogenetics.”

    Don’t be confused by the “genetics” in the name. It does not itself refer to the science that most people think of when they hear the word, but is instead built on the same Greek root word “geneia,” meaning “origin.”

    A phylogenetic analysis and subsequent tree could be built on any number of non “genetic” characters, such as morphology, song, behaviour, etc.

    Phylogenetic analysis is not new, relatively speaking, and is certainly not an example of “laboratory science dictating a taxonomy that is in conflict with the more traditional ornithological study of biological traits.”

    It IS the study of biological traits. Genetic variation just happens to be one of the traits that is included in analysis.

    Hope that clears things up.

  26. John permalink
    April 28, 2010

    “For example, our tanagers eat primarily fruit and insects. Grosbeaks and other Cardinalids eat primarily seeds, hence the entirely different bill and head shape.”

    Another nitpick about this post. Have a look at the finches of the Galapagos islands that were studied by Darwin. They are most certainly related, and are probably the most famous example of evolutionary radiation. But, as we all know, they have very different feeding niches, and thus very different bill morphology.

    They are a perfect illustration as to why you really can’t just cite differences in bill morphology and feeding behaviour without an actual phylogenetic analysis of these characters to support the fact that you think these groups are unrelated.

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