CRESTED BELLBIRD & ALLIES Oreoicidae
- 3 species in Australasia
- DR personal total: 2 species (67%), 1 photo'd
molecular evidence has discovered several lineages of birds, apparently
not closely related to other groups, that were entirely unexpected. One
of them is this set of three species in Australasia: Crested Bellbird
(left, in a fine digiscope © Paul Hackett) of the arid interior
scrublands of Australia, Rufous-naped Whistler in the mountains of New
Guinea, and Crested Pitohui "Pitohui" [now proposed as Ornorectes] cristatus
of the foothills and lowlands of New Guinea. Although one would not
have guessed a close relationship, analysis of their DNA has found that
they consistently group together as closely related species, and quite
unrelated to anything else yet analyzed (Norman et al. 2009, Dumbacher
et al. 2008, Barker et al. 2004).
As there is no
family in which to place these three birds, they are tentatively
assigned to a new family, the Oreoicidae. Although I use the English
name "Crested Bellbird and allies" for this tentative family, it is not
a good name for the group. We can't use "bellbirds' because there is
already a group of impressive bellbirds among the New World cotingas
(genus Procnias in family Cotingidae), and the name "bellbirds" is well established for them. There is also a totally different "bellbird" in New Zealand (Anthornis melanura),
which is a honeyeater. Perhaps these three odd Australasian species in
the newly discovered clade might be called "oreoicids." ["Oreo" is well
known cream-filled chocolate cookie in the U.S., so it is an easy name
for me to remember.]
Crested Bellbird of Australia is by far the best known species among
this new group. It is traditionally been considered a whistler (Pachycephalidae).
Its call, a series of two slow notes and three quick notes, is a
characteristic sound in arid mulga and mallee within its range. Its
aboriginal name "panpanalala" is alliterative for that call.
The vocalization has a ventriloquil quality, and the bird itself can be
hard to spot. I recall being led on a grand chase after it through the
mallee of Wyperfeld National Park — and getting myself lost in the
Apparently Crested Bellbird feeds
primarily on the ground, and this behavior recalls wedgebills, with
whom they have been associated in the past. The bird is said to have
the "curious habit or ornamenting its nest with hairy caterpillars. It
squeezes the caterpillars. around the middle, making them
semi-immobile, and then attaches them to the rim of the nest. .... The
young apparently do not eat the ornamental caterpillars." (Frith 1979).
Another member of this new family is Rufous-naped Whistler (right; in a fine shot © Nik Borrow) of the New Guinea mountains. It has been traditionally considered a whistler (Pachycephalidae).
by Dumbacher et al. (2008) and Jønsson et al. (2008) found that
the New Guinea birds called pitohuis were not closely related at all.
Indeed, the evidence is that they belong to four separate families! The
"true" Pitohuis — Variable Pitohui Pitohui kirhocephalus and Hooded Pitohui P. dichrous — are the only ones that belong in the genus Pitohui. They are the now-famed "poisonous birds," and they are closely related to Old World orioles (Oriolidae). One of the remained "pitohuis" is Crested Pitohui. It is now considered part of this new clade.
is possible that both the "whistler" and the "pitohui" will retain
their English names, just as "robins" or "flycatchers" are names that
are scattered throughout many families. The names just will no longer
have taxonomic meaning.
et al. (2009) suggest some parallels in the distribution of
Australasian birds to the odd distribution of the three oreoicids. They
point out that the family Cinclosomatidae
there are several species of quail-thrushes in the dry interior of
Australia, and several species of jewel-babblers that replace each
other elevationally in the foothills and mountains of New Guinea. Thus,
like that family, the Oreoicidae contains birds of the dry country of
Australia with close relatives in the damp and steamy jungles of
montane New Guinea.
This is all brand-new stuff,
and time will tell if this group lasts long as a family. It may prove
to have additional members, or further research may place it within
some traditional family. We'll just have to wait and see. In the
meantime . . . go see one.
Photos: Paul Hackett photographed the Crested Bellbird Oreoica gutturalis near Waikerie, South Australia in 2002, presumably in the austral spring. Nik Borrow photographed the Rufous-naped Whistler Aleadryas rufinucha at Kumul Lodge, Papua New Guinea, on 22 Sep 2005.
Photos © Paul Hackett (Bellbird) and © Nik Borrow (Whistler) and used with permission; all rights reserved.
There is no "family book" covering the Oreoicidae, but good photographs
and information about Australian and New Guinea species are found in
Frith (1979) and Coates (1990), respectively.
F.K., A. Cibois, P. Schikler, J. Feinstein, and J. Cracraft. 2004.
Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proc.
Nat. Acad. Sci. 101: 11040-11045.
Coates, B.J. 1990. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Part II. Dove Publ., Ltd., Alderley, Australia.
Dumbacher, J.P., K. Deiner, L. Thompson, and R.C. Fleisher. 2008. Phylogeny of the avian genus Pitohui and the evolution of toxicity in birds. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 49: 774–781.
Frith, H.J., ed. 1979. Complete Book of Australian Birds, rev. Reader's Digest Serv., Surry Hills, Australia.
K.A., R.C.K. Bowie, J.A. Norman, L. Christidis, and J. Fjeldså.
2008. Polyphyletic origin of toxic Pitohui birds suggests widespread
occurrence of toxicity in corvoid birds. Biol. Lett. 4: 71–74.
H. J., consulting ed. 1979. The Reader's Digest Complete Book of
Australian Birds. 2d revised ed. Reader's Digest Services, Ltd., Sydney.
J.A., P.G.P. Ericson, K.A. Jønsson, J. Fjeldså, and L.
Christidis. 2009. A multi-gene phylogeny reveals novel relationships
for aberrant genera of Australo-Papuan core Corvoidea and polyphyly of
the Pachycephalidae and Psophodidae (Aves: Passeriformes). Molec.
Phylog. Evol. 52: 488-497.