Birder's Guide

NOV 2013

Birder's Guide is the American Birding Association's newest publication. Each issue focuses on a key subject, providing tips from experienced birders on a wide variety of topics like Travel, Listing & Taxonomy, Gear, and Conservation & Community.

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Page 22 of 67

the huge Muscicapidae? It was the junk drawer of the Old World passerines and included basically anything with warbler, babbler, thrush, monarch, and/ or fycatcher in its name. (In fact, taxonomists call such haphazard groupings "wastebin taxa".) This super-large family rivaled the expanded (1983) Emberizidae in its size and scope. It, too, has since been splintered into many families, and what Muscicapidae once was is now what Thraupidae has sort of become: Anything that isn't a woodwarbler, icterid, New World sparrow, cardinal-grosbeak, or fnch ends up here. This group is largely Neotropical, but that still leaves us with a question: What is a tanager, and which, if any, species of tanager occur in the ABA Area? There are a few species which occur infrequently that could be tanagers: Bananaquit (Coereba faveola), Western Spindalis (Spindalis zena), White-collared Seedeater (Sporophila torqueola), Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus), and Black-faced Grassquit (T. bicolor). That makes fve out of a family that probably contains well over 350 species! The two grassquits, which are currently classifed as New World sparrows by the AOU, are part of a CaribbeanGalápagos radiation of so-called "domenest builders" that also likely includes the Bananaquit, a widespread species which has bounced around among the various emberizid families more than any other species. It is currently treated by the AOU as Incertae Sedis, which means "of uncertain place"! The domenest builders also contain the famous Darwin's fnches, which are the subject of a fascinating evolutionary and biogeographic story but beyond the scope of this article. The genus Spindalis is currently classifed as a tanager by the AOU but probably does not belong in that group. Its position among the various nine-primaried oscines is a little unclear. It appears The genus Piranga includes what many of us know as, and still call, tanagers. But this Summer Tanager is related to the cardinals and grosbeaks (and the "bunting" on the facing page), not the real tanagers. Photo © Tara Tanaka. to be related to the warbler-like and tanager-like species of Hispaniola, plus the Puerto Rican Tanager (Nesospingus peculiferus), all of which, as a group, may be sister to the wood-warblers and icterids. White-collared Seedeater is currently classifed by the AOU with the American sparrows in Emberizidae, but of the fve ABA Area "could-be-tanagers" listed above, it is likely the only species that is a true member of the tanager family. The genus Sporophila is nested quite nicely within the evolutionary branch that contains many brightly colored Neotropical birds with "tanager" in their names (Barker et al. 2013), including the genus Thraupis, which includes Blue-gray Tanager and is in- disputably the original tanager genus. The times, they are a-changin'! Who would have bet money, 20 years ago, that falcons and parrots would appear in taxonomic sequence right before the passerines, or that grebes and famingos are each other's nearest relatives? The techniques employed in the molecular studies referred to in this account have only scratched the surface of the information contained in birds' DNA. We're far from the last word on who is related to whom. The question, "Just what the heck is a tanager?" may be a long way from being answered with full confdence. November 2013 | Birder's Guide to Listing & Taxonomy 21

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