PARROTBILLS & ALLIES Paradoxornithidae
- 37 species in eastern Asia, 1 in w. North America
- DR personal total: 9 species (24%), 5 photo'd
Parrotbills have long been one of the traditional bird families [Robson
2007, Sibley & Monroe 1990]. They range from tiny birds that travel
in flitty packs through bamboo thickets to large big-billed species,
and as a group are rather little-known. Two of the small ones are Vinous-throated Parrotbill (above) and Spectacled Parrotbill
(left). Vinous-throated is widespread in eastern Asia, moving quickly
in flocks, often in riverine scrub. Spectacled is restricted to montane
bamboo patches in central China. Note how the bill of each species is
compressed to deal with bamboo.
In more recent years molecular studies using DNA
evidence, beginning with Cibois (2003) and continuing through
Jønsson & Fjeldså (2006), Gelang et al. (2009), and
Cibois et al. (2010), have merged the parrotbills into one or another
element of the broader "babbler" assemblage. The closest relatives to
the parrotbills are the sylvid "warblers" (what is left of the family
Sylviidae after the break-up of the Old World warblers
in the early 2000s). Many of the recent papers, including Fregin et al.
(2012) and Moyle et al. (2012,) consider the parrotbills to be part of
the "new" Sylviidae.
Yet, the evidence presented by
these publication — including the newest evidence in Fregin et al.
(2012) and Moyle et al. (2012) — show rather conclusively that there
are two distinct lineages (clades) within this "new" Sylviidae. One
clade is the genus Sylvia (33 small "warblers" and closely
related African genera), and in the other clade are parrotbills and
their allies. Both clades are distinctive, recognizable, and of ancient
origin. Moyle et al. (2012) recognizes the white-eyes as a family
[Zosteropidae], and they diverged from the core babblers in the early
Miocene about 16-21 million years ago (mya). Moyle et al. (2012)
propose that younger divergences — such as three clades in the core
babblers that diverged about 11-18 mya — are better classified as
subfamilies. Neither Moyle et al. (2012) nor early papers have given a
time estimate for the divergence of the parrotbill clade from the Sylvia
warbler clade, but the published cladograms appear to mark that
evolutionary point at no earlier than the white-eye clade's divergence.
Confirming this estimate, Voelker & Light (2011) explicitly found
that the two sylvid clades diverged about 20 mya [19.4 mya was
estimated for the age of extant lineages]. Thus, using similar
standards, it would be equally appropriate to maintain that the "new
Sylviidae" is actually two families: the sylvid warblers [Sylviidae]
and the parrotbills and allies [Paradoxornithidae]. Thus the
"traditional" and distinctive Parrotbill family is conserved.
[At one time the Bearded Reedling Panurus biamicus
was thought to be a parrotbill. As the oldest named taxa among the
traditional group, Parrotbills were traditionally called the
'Panuridae.' As it turns out, it is not related to parrotbills at all;
Cibois (2003). It is a very early offshoot of the sylvoid assemblage
and is provisionally placed in its own family].
molecular evidence has added new elements to the traditional
Parrotbills. While the family has lost Bearded Reedling, it has added
five babblers — Yellow-eyed and Jerdon's Babblers, Wrentit (more
below), Rufous-tailed Babbler (genus Moupinia), and Fire-tailed Myzornis (Myzornis) — plus Chinese Hill Warbler (Rhopophilus), plus 8 species of Fulvetta fulvettas (formerly a part of genus Alcippe), and one other fulvetta (now Lioparus); Cibois (2003), Gelang et al. (2009), Moyle et al. (2012).
The latter fulvetta is the distinctive Golden-breasted Fulvetta
(right). This gorgeous little bird travels in small flocks that very
nervously work through bamboo, constantly moving, and thus hard to
photograph. They range from the Himalayas to central China.
center of parrotbill distribution is in China, Tibet, and the northern
parts of southeast Asia (n. Burma and Laos especially). The largest
one, and the biggest bill, is on the monotypic Great Parrotbill Conostoma oernodium, which lives in bamboo forests of Nepal, Tibet and China.
are 22 parrotbills in 8 genera in the most recent compilation. One of
the larger and most impressive — and also one of the rarest — is the Black-breasted Parrotbill
(both photos, below). Given its rarity and elusiveness, I felt
fortunate to photograph this species in Kaziranga National Park, India.
This species specializes on Phragmites reeds in the
floodplain of the Brahmaputra River; these are late succession reeds in
seasonally flooded grasslands that exist only in ungrazed area. There
are not very good photos but perhaps you can see the huge parrot-like
bill as this towhee-sized bird faces the camera. More information is on
a separate Black-breasted Parrotbill page.
Finally, there is the Wrentit
(right) of the New World. It is a shy but vocal little bird. Like many
Asian parrotbills, pairs apparently mate for life and are entirely
resident, spending their entire lives within a few acres of scrub.
Their characteristic "bouncing-ball" territorial song is easily
imitated and is the soundtrack of California chaparral, but they also
give a cat-like purrr and a variety of scolding notes.
various times Wrentit has been considered most closely related to
bushtits, to titmice, to babblers, to Old World warblers, or to wrens;
it has at various times been elevated to its own family [Chamaeidae].
Sibley & Ahlquist (1982) used DNA-DNA hybridization technique to
compare it with various babblers and Old World warblers plus a
titmouse, a gnatcatcher, a kinglet, and more distantly related birds.
The results showed that the Wrentit was closest to certain babblers and
to "warblers" in the genus Sylvia.
work (Burns & Barhoum 2006) showed that Wrentit became isolated in
the dense California chaparral during the Pleistocene. Its ancestors
presumably arrived in North America across the Bering Straits
land-bridge. It diverged from its ancestors between 6.5 and 8.1 million
years ago. During the cooler centuries of the Pleistocene, over 200,000
years ago, its range was probably restricted to southern California and
Baja. With the retreat of the ice age, its range expanded north through
the foothill chaparral on both sides of California's Central Valley,
eventually reaching southern Oregon. Initially genetic studies of the
Wrentit (Cibois 2003, Burns & Barhoum 2006) suggested that its
closest relatives were parrotbills in the genera Alcippe, Chrysomma, and/or Paradoxornis, but Moyle et al. (2012) found it closer to the parrotbills in Conostoma.
is difficult to anticipate whether the Parrotbill family will be a
permanent Family. Certainly the recent trend is to lump it in the "new"
Sylviidae. But I see a number of good reasons to conserve its status as
a Family, and so tentatively do so here.
|Photos: The Spectacled Parrotbill Sinosuthora conspicillatus and Golden-breasted Fulvetta Lioparus chrsotis were in Foping Nature Reserve, Shaanxii, China, in Nov 2010. The Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbianus was at Huayang Village, Shaanxii, China, on 8 Nov 2010. The Black-breasted Parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris was in Kaziranga Nat'l Park, Assam, India, on 1 Apr 2001. The Wrentit Chamaea fasciata was at Garrapata SP, Monterey Co., California, in April 2010. All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.
is no "family book" on the parrotbills but an excellent introduction to
the family, with excellent photos, is in Robson (2007).
P., P.G.P. Ericson, U. Olsson, and P. Sundberg. 2006. Phylogeny and
classification of the avian superfamily Sylvioidea. Molec.
Phylog. Evol. 38: 381-397.
Burns, K.J., and D.N. Barhoum. 2006. Population-level history of the wrentit (Chamaea fasciata): implications for comparative phylogeography in the California Floristic Province. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 38: 117-129.
Cibois, A. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny
of babblers (Timaliidae). Auk 120: 35-54.
A., M. Gelang, and E. Pasquet. 2010. An overview of the babblers and
associated groups. Systematic Notes on Asian Birds 68: 1-5.
Cibois, A. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of babblers (Timaliidae) Auk 120: 35-54.
S., M. Haase, P. Alström, and U. Olsson. 2012. New insights into
family relationships within the avian superfamily Sylvioidea
(Passeriformes) based on seven molecular markers, BMC Evol. Biol. 12:
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:
K.A., and J. Fjeldså. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine
passerine birds. Zoologica Scripta 35: 149-186.
R.G., M.J. Andersen, C.H. Oliveros, F.D. Steinheimer, and S. Reddy.
2012. Phylogeny and biogeography of the core Babblers (Aves:
Timaliidae). Syst. Biol. 61: 631-651.
Robson, C. 2007. "Parrotbills (Paradoxornithidae)," pp. 292–321 in
Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & D.A.
Christie, eds). Vol. 12. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1982. The relationships of the Wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) as indicated by DNA-DNA hybridization. Condor 84: 40-44.
Sibley, C. G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
G., and J.E. Light. 2011. Palaeoclimatic events, dispersal and
migratory losses along the Afro-European axis as drivers of
biogeographic distribution in Sylvia warblers. BMC Evol. Biol. 11:163.