The Parulidae: not-warblers, not-ovenbirds and not-redstarts
Published 4 March 2013
There is no denying the current status of English as the de facto lingua franca of the world*. And yet, I feel that a complaint must be laid at the feet of the Brits: they’re a bit unimaginative when it comes to animal names. Many a British explorer, upon being presented with some hitherto unfamiliar product of the natural world, proceeded to label it with the name of whatever inhabitant of his native Europe he felt bore some vague resemblance. And hence, even today, there are significant groups of animals such as the Parulidae that are almost without a vernacular name to genuinely call their own.
*The potential irony of this sentence is not lost on me.
The Parulidae are a family of birds found throughout the Americas, though in the northern United States and Canada they are represented by migratory species that retreat further south in the cold months. Many of the migratory species have males with brightly coloured breeding plumage and are consequently idolised by North American bird watchers; non-migratory species, on the other hand, tend to have similarly subdued males and females (Update: see comments below). Members of the Parulidae are generally referred to as ‘warblers’ or ‘wood warblers’, despite not being at all closely related to the European warblers. Instead, parulids are members of the ‘nine-primaried oscines’, the passerine clade that also includes such birds as finches, buntings, sparrows, cardinals and tanagers. Within the nine-primaried oscines, parulids are closely related to the Icteridae, another American clade containing its fair share of representatives doomed to masquerade under stolen names (Barker et al. 2013).
Though the nine-primaried oscines as a whole are fairly stable in their membership, recent years have seen a fair bit of shuffling back and forth between the clade’s constituent families. As a result of this shuffling, the name ‘Parulidae’ has come to be associated with a core clade that excludes a number of more uncertainly placed taxa previously included in the family, such as the Central American wrenthrush Zeledonia coronata. A recent comprehensive study of the molecular phylogeny of the core parulids by Lovette et al. (2010) also resulted in a proposed shifting of many generic boundaries within the clade. According to Lovette et al., the basalmost member of the Parulidae is the ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla, a migratory but monomorphic, relatively large parulid of North and Central America. Just to confuse matters, the name ‘ovenbird’ has also been used for an unrelated group of South American birds of the genus Furnarius. To be charitable, this is not a case of inappropriate name-saking, but refers to the construction by both groups of domed nests resembling an old earthernware oven. The next member of the parulids to split off was the worm-eating warbler Helmitheros vermivorus, a relatively long-billed species that migrates between the eastern United States and Central America.
Next comes a clade of eight species classified in the genera Parkesia, Vermivora, Mniotilta, Limnothlypis and Protonotaria. The black-and-white warbler Mniotilta varia is noted for its distinctive feeding behaviour: it crawls along branches like a nuthatch or creeper, gleaning insects from the bark. The prothonotary warbler Protonotaria citrea is a bright yellow species that Kurt Vonnegut devoted some time to in Jailbird: “The song of a prothonotary warbler is notoriously monotonous, as I am the first to admit…Still—they are capable of expressing heartbreak—within strict limits, of course” (I personally feel the same about skylarks). The waterthrushes of the genus Parkesia are larger, terrestrially-feeding species.
Other North American species are placed by Lovette et al. in the larger genera Geothlypis, Oreothlypis and Setophaga. The last genus contains the species previously included in Dendroica, but the recognition that the American redstart Setophaga ruticilla (again, no relation to the European redstart) is nested within Dendroica leads to the use of the older name. These genera include some of the most colorful parulids. The remaining genera Myiothlypis, Basileuterus, Cardellina and Myioborus form a mostly Neotropical clade. Myioborus species are also known as redstarts, presumably by comparison with the European birds as not one of them actually possesses a red tail. The name ‘whitestart’ has supposedly been proposed instead, but the only time that name appears to see use is when it is referred to by someone explaining why they are not using it…
Products of kinky inter-species sex
Published 18 June 2007
Um, maybe I don’t want to know what sort of Google search will hit that post title, or who’s doing the searching. I can assure you, the following post is both PG and work-safe.
I came across this post today on identifying a hybrid passerine bird. The bird in question is an entirely different individual from the one discussed here, which was also revealed not too long ago. (Offhand, the site linked to via the latter, Don Roberson’s Creagrus, is well worth a look for anybody interested in birds.)
Both of these birds belong to the family Parulidae, the so-called American ‘warblers’—an entirely distinct and unrelated family from the various ‘warblers’ of the Old World (previously Sylviidae, but see here—Don Roberson again—for a good summary of the collapse of that family) and from the Australasian ‘warblers’ of the family Acanthizidae. Interestingly, Parulidae seems to have produced a large number of recorded hybrids over the years (enough that many have been awarded their own common names), and attention has been drawn to the fact that a greater number of recorded hybrids have been between members of different genera than members of the same genus (those that are members of the same genus have invariably been very closely-related species). The same pattern has been recorded in South American manakins (Pipridae) (Stotz 1993). Even if we admit the point that a ‘genus’ is simply a grouping defined by the author and has no objective reality, it still remains arguable that hybrids are always between very closely or distantly related species, never between fairly closely related species.*
*My apologies for the revoltingly turgid sentence.
Parkes (1978) commented on this phenomenon, and suggested that barriers to hybridisation may be more heavily selected for between closely-related and sympatric species for which hybridisation may be more of a risk. This theory has also been supported by work on courtship songs in insects where sympatric species of lacewing have very different songs, while different species from Asia and North America have very similar songs, and members of one species will actually respond if they hear songs from the other ‘wrong’ species (Henry et al. 1999).
Perhaps the best comment on all this, though, comes from my partner—when I told him that I was posting on an interspecific hybrid, he seemed rather incredulous that a bird had mated with a member of a different species, and when considering why commented, “that must be one ugly bird”.
Barker, K. F., K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon & I. J. Lovette. 2013. Going to extremes: contrasting rates of diversification in a recent radiation of New World passerine birds. Systematic Biology 62 (2): 298–320.
Henry, C. S., M. L. Martínez Wells & C. M. Simon. 1999. Convergent evolution of courtship songs among cryptic species of the carnea group of green lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae: Chrysoperla). Evolution 53 (4): 1165–1179.
Lovette, I. J., J. L. Pérez-Emán, J. P. Sullivan, R. C. Banks, I. Fiorentino, S. Córdoba-Córdoba, M. Echeverry-Galvis, F. K. Barker, K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon & E. Bermingham. 2010. A comprehensive multilocus phylogeny for the wood-warblers and a revised classification of the Parulidae (Aves). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 57: 753–770.
Parkes, K. C. 1978. Still another parulid intergeneric hybrid (Mniotilta × Dendroica) and its taxonomic and evolutionary implications. The Auk 95: 682–690.
Stotz, D. F. 1993. A hybrid manakin (Pipra) from Roraima, Brazil, and a phylogenetic perspective on hybridization in the Pipridae. Wilson Bulletin 105 (2): 348–351.