a web page by Don Roberson
CUPWINGS Pnoepygidae
  • 4 species in tropical Asia
  • DR personal total: 2 species (50%), 0 photo

Gelang et al (2009) undertook to determine the evolutionary relationships of many babblers by sequencing mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of 59 babbler species in 46 genera; their work did sort out the major lineages. But there was a big surprise. Genetic analysis of the "wren-babblers" in genus Pnoepyga showed that these did not belong within the babbler assemblage. The researchers did not know exactly where to place this "long-branch" lineage, but it is clearly not within the two main babbler families, Timaliidae and Sylviidae. So Gelang et al. (2009) proposed these were a new family, the Pnoepygidae. One of those is Pygmy Cupwing of the mountains of south Asia (left, in a fine shot by Suppalak Klabdee).

Gelang et al. (2009) did not propose an English name of the birds within this new family. I had initially used the name "Pygmy Wren-babblers" because it is the name of the most widespread species, and because these are very tiny "wren-babblers," but that was clearly inadequate. The 2011 update of the Clements world checklist calls them "cupwings," and I follow (see below).

The Pnoepyga cupwings are very small, short-tailed, semi-terrestrial birds with slender bills and diminutive front claws. Their tails consist of six extremely short rectrices, often concealed by long rump feathers. Three of the four species come in two color morphs; the one shown above is the pale, or "white-scaled" morph of Pygmy Cupwing. This species ranges from the Himalayas of Nepal and India through montane southeast Asia to the Indonesian islands of Java and Timor (Collar & Robson 2007). There are three other species of Pnoepyga in this new family:

  • Scaly-breasted Cupwing P. albiventer in the Himalayas from northern India and Nepal to southern China, northern Burma, and northern Vietnam;
  • Taiwan Cupwing P. formosana in montane Taiwan — this species does not appear to have two morphs; and
  • Nepal Cupwing P. immaculata in the central Himalayas of northern India and Nepal.

All these tiny birds live in tangled undergrowth, singing distinctive warbler-like songs, and move by hopping. It has been quite some time since I saw one, but reading of them now suggests to me that they may compared to the small, semi-terrestrial tapaculos of the Andes.

There are about a half-dozen other genera that are called wren-babblers (e.g., Rimator, Ptiolcichla, Kenopia, Napothera, Spelaeornis), and the DNA evidence does suggest that most of them are, indeed, babblers with the family Timaliidae, but even there they divide again into two sub-families (see Timaliidae). It is obviously best to call this new family something other than "wren-babbler." Inskipp et al. (2010) noted the conundrum and had several suggestions, the best of the which was "cupwing," in part because the Latin name Pnoepyga means "cupped wing." The name is short and punchy, and the birds do have very short 'cup-shaped' wings in addition to very short tails.

Photos: Suppalak Klabdee photographed the Pygmy Cupwing Pnoepyga pusilla in Doi Inthanon NP, Thailand, in Feb 2002.
© Suppalak Klabdee, used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" on this new family, but a good introduction to the genus, with photos, is in Collar & Robson (2007).

Literature cited:

Collar, N.J., and C. Robson. 2007. Family Timaliidae (Babblers), pp. 70–291 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 12. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Gelang, M., A. Cibois, E. Pasquet, U. Olsson, P. Alström, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2009. Phylogeny of babblers (Aves, Passeriformes): major lineages, family limits and classification. Zoologica Scripta 38: 225-236.

Inskipp, Collar & Pilgram. 2010. Species-level and other changes suggested for Asian birds, 2009. Birding Asia 14: 59-67.




  page created 9 May 2009, updated 23 Aug 2011 and 2 Dec 2015  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved