a web page by Don Roberson
PARROTBILLS & ALLIES Paradoxornithidae
  • 37 species in eastern Asia, 1 in w. North America
  • DR personal total: 9 species (24%), 5 photo'd
The 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].

The 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.

The 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.

There 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.

At 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.

Genetic 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.

It 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.

Bibliographic notes

There is no "family book" on the parrotbills but an excellent introduction to the family, with excellent photos, is in Robson (2007).

Literature cited:

Alström 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.

Cibois, 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.

Fregin, 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: 157.

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.

Jønsson, K.A., and J. Fjeldså. 2006. A phylogenetic supertree of oscine passerine birds. Zoologica Scripta 35: 149-186.

Moyle, 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.

Voelker, 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.




  Page created 12 Sep 2004, heavily revised 27 May-3 June 2006, and revised again 15 Nov 2012  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved