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TANAGERS Thraupidae
402 species in the Neotropics
DR personal total: 196 species (48%), 30 photo'd
There aren't your father's Tanagers any more.

The Thraupidae page that was here in 2000 began: "No one is quite sure what makes a 'tanager' right now, but as a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography: 'I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.' Tanagers may be hard to define, but usually you know one when you see one. They are just drop-dead gorgeous birds of the Neotropics."

Well . . . wrong. Sort-of. Some of the "drop-dead gorgeous birds" in the Neotropics are Tanagers, including those in the speciose genus Tangara, like Silver-throated Tanager (above). And a good many are traditional tanagers, such as White-lined Tanager (female, left). But a whole lot of the birds that appear genetically to be tanagers go by different names. The full story may surprise you. It is based on genetic evidence published within the decade.

What about the Western Tanager, which I featured on my previous version of this family? Not a tanager — it belongs, to the Cardinalidae [Cardinals, Grosbeaks & allies]. Same goes for Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Hepatic Tanager. Not tanagers. The sought-after ant-tanagers of the tropical undergrowth? Not tanagers. The bright and colorful chlorophonias and euphonias? Not tanagers.

So what is a tanager? It's still hard to define, but the genetic evidence is in, and a lot of plain-colored birds are tanagers. Darwin's finches on the Galapagos — such as Small Ground-Finch (right) — that's a tanager. A seedeater on a tropic fenceline — like the male Variable Seedeater (below) — that's a tanager. The grassquits, Bananaquit, and probably the saltators — they are all tanagers.

Like I said: these aren't your father's Tanagers any more.

The genetic evidence is impressive; e.g., Burns et al. (2002, 2003), Burns & Naoki (2004), Yuri & Mindell (2002), Klicka et al. (2000, 2007). Workers in the past had paid too much attention to bill shape, and not enough to biology, and convergent evolution masked many relationships (Isler & Isler 1987). Thraupidae is now an entirely Neotropical family whose members are essentially non-migratory. Although little has yet been made official in new checklists, tomorrow's Thraupidae should be a huge family of very diverse Neotropical birds. With ~400 species, it should end up being among the largest bird families on earth. The "old" Thraupidae had ~ 242 species (Isler & Isler 1987). Included now are many birds bearing the name "tanager," but also many called finch, conebill, seedeater, dacnis, or honeycreeper. Purple Honeyeater (left) is a widespread example of the latter.

The genetic evidence divides the true tanagers into two groups. One group includes the original genus Thraupis, and its 9 species, including the very widespread and abundant Blue-gray Tanager (right).

This is also the group that includes the honeycreepers, dacnises, grassquits, seedeaters, Caribbean bullfinches, and Galapagos finches. Among the surprises is that the various "cardinals" of South America, in the genus Paroaria, fit into this set of tanagers. One of those is the widespread Red-capped Cardinal.

Among this set of tanagers is the genus Tangara (~50 species) are generally bright, gaudy, and travel in mixed-species flocks. Combining great loveliness and rarity is Azure-rumped Tanager (large photo above left in a fantastic shot by Lou Jost). It is limited to a narrow elevational range in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, and adjacent western Guatemala

It is the Andes where the Tangara tanagers really shine. One encounters mixed-species flocks which include a dozen or more species, some with such alliterative names as Beryl-spangled Tanager T. nigroviridis, Spangle-cheeked Tanager T. dowii, or Flame-faced Tanager T. parzudakii. The foothills have birds like Bay-headed Tanager (below left). The Amazonian lowlands have fewer species, but the widespread Paradise Tanager T. chilensis is as gaudy as they come.

The eye-popping Tangara tanagers are not the only glittering group in the family. I rather like the mountain-tanagers (genus Anisognathus) which include such stunners as the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager (above right). This is a reasonably common bird in cloud forest of the Andes, and even if its range does stretch from Venezuela to Bolivia, how can one tire of seeing another? The Bangsia tanagers of dense mossy Andean forests, the Iridosornis tanagers of the temperate zone, and the unbelievable Glistening-green Tanager Chorochrysa phoenicotis and Multicolored Tanager C. nitidissima, both endemic to the west slope of the subtropical Andes in sw. Colombia and nw. Ecuador, are among the most spectacular birds in the world (wonderful photos of briefly-captured birds are in Dunning 1970).

Genetic data indicate that the Galapagos finches — represented here by Woodpecker Finch (right) — are embedded within the Thraupidae as part of a group that includes Yellow-faced Grassquit (above left), Bananaquit (above right), and several Caribbean genera (Burns et al. 2002, 2003, Yuri and Mindell 2002, Klicka et al. 2000, 2007).

The relationships of all these species have long been controversial. The grassquit is in genus Tiaris, but Tiaris itself is paraphyletic, with Yellow-faced Grassquit, the type species of the genus, not being not particularly close to other "Tiaris." Grassquits had once been placed with the cardinalines, and then with the emberizines based on skeletal morphology (e.g., AOU 1957). Now they are tanagers.

The Galapagos finches were once placed in a separate subfamily [Geospizinae] from other sparrows and finches in the family Emberizidae. Their origins have been a point of contention back to the days of Darwin. They are often called "Darwin's Finches" because of their influence on his theory of evolution. They have themselves been the subject of extensive study, including the amazing work of Peter & Rosemary Grant (Weiner 1994).

Until recently, the relationships of Bananaquit remained unresolved; some thought it a parulid warbler but many have considered it a monotypic family (e.g., AOU 1998) or subfamily (Ridgely & Tudor 1989). Bledsoe (1988) included it within the Thraupidae; Sibley & Monroe (1990) also thought it was a tanager (which they considered to be just a tribe Thraupini of a huge Fringillidae family). [It is possible that someday scientists will lump all the families near the end of the passerines — tanagers, emberizids, finches, New World warblers, icterids, cardinals & grosbeaks — into a single humongous family on the grounds that they all evolved comparatively recently, in contrast to longer-evolved families, but let's hope it doesn't go that far!] The SACC even considered Bananaquit a family until 2007. It is now established — at long last! — that it is a tanager.

There is a second major group in the "new" Thraupidae. A basal set in this other group are 9 species of brightly-patterned Ramphocelus tanagers. I've heard that, spectrographically, the intense red on male Ramphocelus is the brightest red in the bird world.

Passerini's Tanager (left) is one of them, and there is strong sexual dimorphism (male above, female below). This used to be called 'Scarlet-rumped Tanager.' While males look alike throughout its range, the females in western Costa Rica are decidedly different. 'Scarlet-rumped' has recently been split into Passerini's (the widespread bird of Atlantic lowlands from Mexico to Panama) and Cherrie's (on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica).

Another Ramphocelus is the gorgeous burgundy-velvet Silver-beaked Tanager.

A number of undergrowth skulkers are in this set of tanagers, including the "crested" tanagers in genus Tachyphonus. These are birds like Flame-crested Tanager T. cristatus and Fulvous-crested Tanager T. surinamus, and non-crested species such as White-lined Tanager (male, above right; the female was shown at the top of this family page). The "white line" is actually a bit of the underwing coverts visible in normal views.

Gray-headed Tanager (right) is in its own genus; it joins flocks of other species in the lowland undergrowth. Shrike-tanagers, genus Lanio, are placed here. So are the honeycreepers — represented here by Shining Honeycreeper (below left) — plus conebills (genus Conirostrum), Giant Conebill (Oreomanes), and Tit-like Dacnis (Xenodacnis).

This second set of tanagers includes numerous anomalous species. Slender-billed Finch (above center) is has a thin, bright yellow, finch-like bill; it is restricted to arid scrub in coastal south Peru and north Chile. The Plushcap (above right) is restricted to bamboo thickets high in the Andes. It is so atypical that for many years it was considered to be in its own family ["Catamblyrhynchidae"]. The Pardusco Nephelornis onelli is an oddity found only in isolated elfin forests in central Peru. Tanager-Finch Oreothraupis arremonops likes lush Pacific slope cloud forests. Hemispingus is a genus of tanagers [but Chlorospingus bush-tanagers are emberizids].

Also here are some 14 species of Diglossa flowerpiercers, represented here by Slaty Flowerpiercer (female right; males are black). The strange upturned, hook-tipped bill is used to pierce the base of flowers to get at the nectar there.

Thraupidae is such a huge family that we can barely skim the surface here. I've gotten this far without mentioning the enigmatic Swallow-Tanager Tersina viridis, once thought to be in its own monotypic family ["Tersinidae"]. There are also many special tanagers that are exceptionally rare and elusive. Cherry-throated Tanager Nemosia rourei had previously been known only from a specimen in southeast Brazil from 1870 and one report 47 years ago, but was just recently rediscovered (you can read about this find, and see photos, in Pacheco 1998). Orange-throated Tanager Wetmorethraupis sterrhopteron was only discovered to science in 1964 (Lowery & O'Neill 1964); the fascinating story of this "bird without a name" is told by Stap (1991). Wetmorethraupis is a monotypic genus and remains rare and hard to find, being known only a narrow altitudinal range (600-800m) in mature forest in northern Peru, just south of Ecuador and the Rio Maraρσn. The list of local and endemic species among the tanagers is quite long.

Despite all the phylogenetic discussion on this particular web page, the entire outlines of the this and other related families is not known. The Spindalis "tanagers" of the Caribbean seem not to be tanagers, but the the palm-tanagers (Phaenicophilus) of Hispaniola? Uncertain.

Whether the Puerto Rican Tanager (left) — reasonably common in mixed-species flocks in the humid Puerto Rican highlands — is actually a tanager is not yet known. Yet three chats in the genus Granatellus — an example of which is Red-breasted Chat (female; below) — are apparently tanagers, and not warblers, where they have been placed for years.

And a real mystery at the current time is the placement of saltators. There are 14 species of Saltator, including the very widespread Buff-throated Saltator (below). They have long been considered with cardinals and grosbeaks, but genetic evidence suggests this is wrong. They may be tanagers. Further research will sort this out.

It is my hope that the ornithologists don't tinker too much with the name "tanager." We have birds in many different families that are called "chat," or "finch," or "redstart." Just because Slender-billed Finch is now a tanager does not mean it is wise to revise the English name and cause literary confusion of years. I can live with some small changes here or there — "Stripe-headed Tanager" became Stripe-headed Spindalis without much problem — but my plea would be to avoid wholesale English name changes in the quest for the "perfect" name. Yet, in the end, no matter how a "tanager" eventually comes to be defined or named, these are fascinating and often colorful birds of the Neotropics. They, with hummingbirds, parrots, and toucans, are a core component of any Neotropical adventure.

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