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Your turn: What the Heck is a Tanager?

That’s a question a lot of birders are asking these days. And here’s a hint: “Scarlet”, “Summer”, “Western”, and “Hepatic”, are not the answers.

In the lead article in the 2013 issue of Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy, author Alan Knue walks us through the vast assemblage of “nine-primaries oscines”, with the goal of explaining what a tanager is (and what it’s not).

It’s a colorful journey that–in the ABA Area, at least–ends at a not-so-colorful destination. But you’ll have to read the article to find out where that is! To read the article, and the entire issue online, just click here.

Alan and I both invite you to share your comments, questions, and elucidations below.

What the Heck is a Tanager?

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Michael Retter
Michael L. P. Retter is the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide. He also wears his ABA cap while working as a Technical Reviewer for Birding magazine. When not at home, Michael is often leading tours in Middle America (Mexico through Panama). He currently lives with his fiancé, Matt, in Fort Worth, Texas. In his fleeting free time there, he pursues interests in horticulture (especially orchids), music, cooking, and numismatics. Michael also runs GBNA, the continent's informal club and email list for LGBT birders.
  • AJ Knue

    I received a nice email from Kevin Burns (whose work can be
    found at He
    is one of the authors of the Barker et al. paper cited and has been working on
    tanagers and the question “what is a tanager?” for over 20 years. He

    “It’s exciting to finally be at a point where we can figure
    this out….Even though we can finally say what belongs with the tanagers, there
    still isn’t any single morphological character that defines the group well. However,
    I argue that it’s precisely that reason that the group is so interesting to
    study from an evolutionary perspective. It allows us to look at the evolution
    of diverse bill types, coloration, ecological niche, etc and we are now looking
    at all these characters on the phylogeny.

    From the work in my lab, we now have 371 species in
    tanagers, making it the second largest avian family (after the Tyrannidae) and
    roughly 10% of all songbirds. I’m hoping now that the group is better defined,
    it might become as well known and as well studied as some smaller families of
    birds. I suppose I’m more optimistic than the way your article ends, I do think
    we have answered the question “what is a tanager” with confidence.
    Having worked on this group for a long time and seeing all the different types
    of genetic analyses that have been used over the years and those that are now
    available and on the horizon, I don’t think there will be any major changes
    beyond what the Barker et al. study show. I should also say that I have another
    paper, currently in review, that samples molecular data from 95% of those 371
    species. Our results are congruent with Barker et al. and we have more detail
    on the tanager phylogeny itself. Regarding which tanagers are in the ABA area.
    You’re right White-collared Seedeater is definitely a tanager. Spindalis is
    not, as you say. Regarding the dome-nesters (Bananaquit, Tiaris olivaceus, and
    T. bicolor) those are definitely tanagers. We pretty clearly showed this in a
    paper in 2012 in Evolution. But really, it was work done in the 1990’s using
    DNA hybridization by Bledsoe as well as Sibley that were the first to show
    this. The South American Classification committee finally switched them over to
    tanagers, I have no idea why the AOU still has Coereba in insertae cedis. There
    is nothing uncertain about its placement.”

    I agree with his statement that we in fact do have a good
    idea of what a tanager is- with the movement of several groups from the
    Emberizidae (like the seedeaters, grassquits, bananaquit) and Cardinalidae
    (including the Neotropical saltators) to the Thraupidae, as well as the
    movement of several others out (like the Chlorospingus/ Bush Tanagers to the
    Emberizidae), the Thraupidae are much better defined that it has been in years.

    Regarding the dome nest builders that Kevin mentions above,
    the South American Checklist Committee (SACC) moved this group into the
    Thraupidae in February 2012 (see Proposal #512
    The AOU North American Checklist Committee will likely also adopt this change
    at some point in the future, but even without the official sanction of the
    NACC, it appears the Bananaquit and Grassquits clearly belong in the Tanagers.

  • Pingback: Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy: November 2013 « ABA Publications()

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