a web page by Don Roberson
  • 5 species on Caribbean islands
  • DR personal total: 5 species (100%), 4 photo'd

This (left) is the colorful male Jamaican Spindalis. It is one of four species of genus Spindalis — once called "Stripe-headed Tanagers" — that comprise the heart of this newly proposed family Spindalidae.

An extensive analysis of the relationships of nine-primaried passerines (tanagers, New World warblers, sparrows, buntings, etc.) by Barker et al. (2013) found firm evidence of evolutionary sets of "tanagers" that arose on islands in the Caribbean. Indeed, those authors even went so far as to propose four new families from this radiation [Spindalidae, Nesospingidae, Phaenicophilidae, Calyptophilidae]. Initially cautious, I placed these together in 2014 in just one family. Now, following Winkler et al. (2016), I've elevated three groups as Families, leaving only Puerto Rican Tanager (the proposed Nesospingidae) behind with the Spindalises (in Spindalidae).

Despite the English names we use, these are not tanager. Yet most of them have been called "tanagers" in the past, and so we can continue to do so. We just need to recognize that there are many birds called "tanagers" that are now classified in other families — to use just one example, Scarlet, Summer, and Western Tanagers, familiar to North American birders, are actually in the cardinal/grosbeak family Cardinalidae.


The four species of Spindalis in genus Spindalis are Jamaican S. nigricephala, Hispaniolan S. dominicensis, Puerto Rican S. portoricensis, and Western S. zena. More many decades they were lumped together as one widespread Caribbean species, and was known as "Stripe-headed Tanager," until split on morphological and vocal grounds by Garrildo et al. (1997).

Most Spindalises are resident within their namesake islands, generally preferring open forests, gardens, and scrub habitats. Western Spindalis (right, male above, female below) is more widespread, occurring in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, on Cozumel Island off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, on the Cayman Islands, and in Cuba. It is a rare visitor of extreme southern Florida, but a pair of the Bahamian subspecies S. z. zena successfully nested in 2009.

All the four members of genus Spindalis are sexually dimorphic, with colorful males — with much orange and black — and duller females that wear shades of brown or gray. Western Spindalis is a dramatic example. Yet, despite the male's bright colors, they can be hard to spot within foliage, and in my experience the pairs or small groups seem constantly on the move.

Spindalises are somewhat omnivorous with reasonably heavy bill, but feed heavily on fruit or (seasonally) insects. They build cup-like nests.

The final member of this new Family is the Puerto Rican Tanager (right), a reasonably common species in mixed-species flocks in the humid Puerto Rican highlands. It rather looks and acts like a female spindalis but is assigned to its monotypic genus Nesospingus. Barker et al. (2013) proposing elevating it to its own family [Nesospingidae], and this was followed by Winkler et al. (2016). However, I am not convinced. Nesospingus is sister to Spindalis within a single clade at the end of an evolutionary branch, per cladograms in Barker et al. (2013). It is equally "right" to consider them in the same family as to split them.

The Spindalis set and the Puerto Rican Tanager diverged about 10-12 million years ago and have been on independent paths since then; Barker et al. (2013). Given this quite young age of diverenge — which applies to all the evolutionary lines among the Caribbean "tanagers" — I am reluctant to "over-split" them. The AOU will eventually decide this issue.



Photos: The male Jamaican Spindalis Spindalis nigricephala was in Blue Mountains NP, Jamaica, in Feb 2017. The male and female Western Spindalis Spindalis zena were both at Faro Paredón Grande, Cuba, on 11 Feb 2017. The Puerto Rican Tanager Nesospingus speculiferus was at Bosque Nacional El Yunque, Puerto Rico, in Mar 2000.
All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se. The species in this set have been previously covered in books on tanagers, such as Isler & Isler (1987), or the applicable chapter on "tanagers" in the Handbook of the Birds of the World series.

Literature cited:

Barker, F.K., K.J. Burns, J. Klicka, S.M. Lanyon, and I.J. Lovette. 2013. Going to extremes: contrasting rates of diversification in a recent radiation of New World passerine birds. Syst. Biol. 62: 298-320.

Isler, M. L., and P. R. Isler. 1987. The Tanagers: Natural History, Distribution, and Identification. Smithsonian Instit. Press, Washington, D.C.

Garrildo. O.H., K.C. Parkes, G.B. Reynard, A. Kirkcornell, and R. Sutton. 1997. Taxonomy of the Stripe-Headed Tanager, genus Spindalis (Aves:Thraupidae) of the West Indies. Wilson Bull. 109: 561–594.

Winkler, D.W., S.W. Billerman, and I.J. Lovette. 2015. Birds Families of the World: A Guide to the Spectacular Diversity of Birds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.




  page created 16-22 Mar 2014, revised 17-18 May 2017  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved