Proposal (512) to South American Classification Committee


Transfer genera from Emberizidae to Thraupidae


Proposal:  If passed, this proposal would transfer a number of genera from Emberizidae to Thraupidae.

Background:  For a decade or more, we’ve known from genetic data that many primarily South American genera placed traditionally in the Emberizidae are actually tanagers.  Some we have already transferred.  This proposal seeks to move the remaining genera, as follows (with supporting references in parentheses).

Porphyrospiza (1; also morphology – Tordoff 1954a)

Phrygilus (2, 3, 1, 4, 14)

Melanodera (4, 14)

Haplospiza (3, 1, 4, 14)

Idiopsar (4, 14)

Diuca (5, 1, 6, 4, 10)

Lophospingus (1, 6)

Poospiza (7, 2, 3, 1, 4, 11, 14)

Compsospiza (1, 7, 4)

Sicalis (5, 2, 3, 1, 10, 11, 14, 4)

Emberizoides (1, 4)

Embernagra (2, 3, 1, 4, 14)

Volatinia (2, 3, 1, 10, 11)

Sporophila (2, 3, 1; also morphology – Clark 1986, 11)

Oryzoborus (9 as related to/embedded within Sporophila, 10, 11, 14, 1, 2, 3)

Dolospingus (13)

Catamenia (2, 3, 1, 4, 11, 14)

Coryphospingus (2, 3, 1, 8, 12, 4)

Rhodospingus (8)

Gubernatrix (4)

Camarhynchus (2, 3)

Certhidea (11, 2)

Coereba (11, 1, 2, 3, 5)

Euneornis (2, 3)

Geospiza (11, 12, 1, 2, 3)

Loxigilla (11, 14, 1, 2, 3)

Loxipasser (2, 3)

Melanospiza (2, 11, 3)

Melopyrrha (2, 3)

Pinaroloxias (11, 2)

Platyspiza (11, 2)

Tiaris (11, 12, 14, 1, 2, 3)

Parkerthraustes (1)


References (See SACC Bibliography for full citations):

(1) Klicka et al. 2007

(2) Burns et al. 2002

(3) Burns et al. 2003

(4) Campagna et al. 2011

(5) Bledsoe 1988

(6) Sedano & Burns 2009

(7) Lougheed et al. 2000

(8) Burns & Racicot 2009

(9) Lijtmaer et al. 2004

(10) Sibley & Ahlquist 1990

(11) Sato et al. 2001

(12) Yuri & Mindell 2002

(13) Robbins et al. 2005

(14) Mauck & Burns 2009


Part A.  In our opinion, the evidence is now overwhelming for their transfer from Emberizidae to Thraupidae.  A YES vote endorses the transfer.  If the proposal passes, we’ll then work on a linear sequence.


Part B.  There are also a few genera for which there are as yet no unpublished data.  Given their South American distribution and their supposed relationships to the genera above, we recommend that they also be removed from Emberizidae and placed Incertae Sedis until it can be confirmed to which family they belong.









Van Remsen & Kevin Burns, November 2011






Comments from Stiles: “YES; the evidence is clearly overwhelming, and my only fear is that the Thraupidae might displace Trochilidae as the second-largest strictly New World family! Actually, this makes the radiation of the Thraupidae (which presumably reached South America relatively late in the game) one of the most explosive on record – a diversity only exceeded by the Tyrannidae, which have been around considerably (?) longer!  Interesting implications for the evolution of frugivory (and coevolution with the many kinds of fruits taken and dispersed) in South America.  And going back to a question raised by Bob Storer a while back, how do we now define a “tanager”?  A further query: what about Saltator?”


Comments from Pacheco: “A – YES. The evidence together is clearly satisfactory. B – YES.  I also agree. At least, one reinforcing point: the nest of Charitospiza, only recently described, shown to be similar to that of Coryphospingus. See:


Comments from Pérez: “A- YES. There is a large amount of published information that needs to be incorporated into our classification. B- YES, hoping more information will provide with relevant phylogenetic information to place these birds within the oscine radiation. I am also intrigued by the absence of Saltator in the list, but I think it will have to go into the Incertae Sedis category.”


Comments from Jaramillo: “YES – For various reasons, and datasets summarized in the proposal.


“Part B – I am not a fan of Incertae Sedis, I must admit. I actually think we should bite the bullet, and assess that there are various reasons to move most if not all of these to Thraupidae now. I think these have not been treated in the molecular works, but morphology, voice in some cases, and other aspects of their natural history allies most if not all of these with the group we are moving to Thraupidae. I would rather go ahead and do that now, and fix any errors that may be found in this arrangement at a later date rather than have them hang about as Incertae Sedis for years. At least Donacospiza is similar enough to Poospiza visually and vocally to some extent, that I would have little hesitation in moving that one over. Similarly, Coryphaspiza is almost surely in with Embernagra and Emberizoides. I think that Piezorhina, Xenospingus and Incaspiza are a group, and perhaps they are allied with one of the branches formerly in Phrygilus but admit that these are not as clear to me? Charitospiza I know nearly nothing about, and that is the only one that seems like a real oddball to me, although the potential link there to Coryphospingus mentioned makes some sense.”


Comments from Robbins: “A – YES, published data indicate that these should be moved to Thraupidae.  B. YES - given presumed relationships to other taxa being moved to this family, I support transferring these taxa to Thraupidae.”


Comments from Zimmer: “YES” with respect to the mass transfer of the named genera from Emberizidae to Thraupidae, on the basis of the overwhelming body of evidence cited in the proposal.  As Gary points out, this has all kinds of implications concerning the radiation of the Thraupidae and the evolution of frugivory.  It also raises the question of whether we can continue to sustain our retention of long established English group names for these birds in light of the fact that we now have so many birds with names that are downright misleading.  The occasional English name anomaly is tolerable (e.g. meadowlarks are not larks, nighthawks are not hawks, etc.), but we are now approaching a situation where there are as many Thraupidae with an English name suggesting some kind of finch as there are with the English name of “tanager”.  Conversely, we now have all kinds of birds that are not tanagers whose English names are directly contradictory.  It nearly kills me to even contemplate a change from the familiar Western, Scarlet, Summer and Hepatic tanagers to Western, Scarlet, Summer and Hepatic finches, but, at some point, I have to wonder if we aren’t really mucking things up in the name of stability.  Nowhere is it written that names have to be descriptive; they should just be unique.  However, a big reason for wanting names to be unique is to aid in communication and convey information when discussing the species involved.  By having so many “finches” named tanagers, and having so many “tanagers” named finches, I fear that we are not only not facilitating communication, but, are instead, having the opposite effect.  It’s hard enough explaining to birders and non-birders that a kittiwake is still a gull, and that an araçari is still a toucan, but when you have to explain why there are bunches of finches that are tanagers, and bunches of tanagers that are finches, and why most saltators are called saltators but some are called grosbeaks, while other grosbeaks aren’t grosbeaks at all, the whole purpose of having group names starts falling apart.  We already addressed this with Turdus, by calling everything a “thrush” (with one exception) and not a “robin”.  Should we not consider some similar major changes in light of our better understanding of relationships within these groups?  Would a switch to “Grass-Tanager” as a group name for Emberizoides, or incorporation of the genus name “Piranga” as a group name to replace “tanager” for Piranga be that bitter of a pill to swallow?  I’m all for stability with regard to English names, but there comes a point when sticking with the status quo is actually destabilizing to the entire process.  I would also suggest that some of the groups that we have moved wouldn’t require a name change.  Having a group of birds called “seedeaters” or “grassquits” nested within Thraupidae is not inherently contradictive.  I would liken these cases to the “araçari-toucan” example raised earlier.  But I do think we should consider getting our English group names as much in alignment with our phylogeny as we can.  As regards Part B of this proposal, I would go along with Alvaro’s suggestion that we be bold and place the 6 genera proposed for Incertae Sedis into Thraupidae on the basis of what we can infer from morphological, vocal and behavioral similarity to genera that we have already transferred to Thraupidae.  Further analysis may reveal that one or more of these have to be moved again, but I think that is a reasonable risk to take.  I’m not quite as certain as Alvaro that Coryphaspiza belongs with Embernagra and Emberizoides, at least not when you consider how divergent it is vocally, but that’s a discussion for another time.”


Additional comment from Remsen on “tanager”:  With regard to Kevin’s comment on changing the English names of non-tanager “tanagers”, in my view the name tanager no longer has any phylogenetic meaning but rather an ecomorph connotation, just as in “grosbeak”, “finch”, “sparrow,” “warbler,” “flycatcher,” “bunting,” etc., namely a bill morphology intermediate between specialized seed-crushing and specialized insectivory.  The problem is that the English name of the Thraupidae is “Tanagers”, and maybe that’s what has to change?  “True Tanagers”?”