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Overview

Brief Summary

Introduction

The Passeriformes is the largest and most diverse commonly recognized clade of birds. The Passeriformes (or ‘passerine’ birds) are synonymous with what are commonly known as "perching birds"; this group also contains within it a major radiation commonly known as songbirds (oscine Passerines or Passeri). Of the 10,000 or so extant species of birds, over half (~5,300) are perching birds.

Perching birds have a worldwide distribution, with representatives on all continents except Antarctica, and reaching their greatest diversity in the tropics. Body sizes of passerines vary from about 1.4 kg in northern populations of Ravens (Corvus corax) to just a few grams. Perching birds include some of the most colorful and mysterious of all birds, such as birds of paradise from New Guinea and the bright orange Cock of the Rock from tropical South America. Because of their high diversity, generally small body size and relative ease of observation, collection and field study, perching birds have historically attracted the attention of a wide range of descriptive and experimental biologists, including systematists, behavioral ecologists, and evolutionary biologists.

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Ecology

Associations

In Great Britain and/or Ireland:
Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Crataerina pallida ectoparasitises mainly adult of Passeriformes
Other: minor host/prey

Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya avicularia ectoparasitises Passeriformes

Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya fringillina ectoparasitises Passeriformes

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Known predators

Passeriformes (song birds) is prey of:
Asio

Based on studies in:
USA: California (Marine)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • R. F. Johnston, Predation by short-eared owls on a Salicornia salt marsh, Wilson Bull. 68(2):91-102, from p. 99 (1956).
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Known prey organisms

Passeriformes (song birds) preys on:
Plantae
invertebrates
marine invertebrates
Insecta
Prokelisia
Orchelimum
Araneae

Based on studies in:
USA: California (Marine)
USA: Massachusetts, Cape Ann (Marine)
USA: Georgia (Marine)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • R. W. Dexter, The marine communities of a tidal inlet at Cape Ann, Massachusetts: a study in bio-ecology, Ecol. Monogr. 17:263-294, from p. 287 (1947).
  • R. W. Dexter, The marine communities of a tidal inlet at Cape Ann, Massachusetts: a study in bio-ecology, Ecol. Monogr. 17:263-294, from p. 288 (1947).
  • J. M. Teal, Energy flow in the salt marsh ecosystem of Georgia, Ecology 43(4):614-624, from p. 616 (1962).
  • R. F. Johnston, Predation by short-eared owls on a Salicornia salt marsh, Wilson Bull. 68(2):91-102, from p. 99 (1956).
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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Behavioral diversity

It is extremely difficult to generalize about any of the behaviors or nesting habits of passerines, because as a group they are so diverse. Perching birds exhibit a bewildering array of plumages and colors derived from diverse keratin structures as well as ingested pigments, such as carotenoids (Gray, 1996). Many passerines, such as some Old World Flycatchers (Muscicapidae) and African Widowbirds (Viduinae) have extremely long tail feathers or highly modified plumes (Birds of Paradise: Paradisaeidae) used in courtship displays. Several groups such as the Wattlebirds of New Zealand (Callaeidae) and Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) have fleshy, bright blue, red or yellow wattles on the face and neck. Perching birds build their nests generally out of sticks or grass on the ground, in trees, and in the case of Dippers (Cinclidae) in the banks of fast-flowing rivers. Many passerines migrate from their nesting grounds in the Nearctic and Palearctic to more equatorial regions, or from southern temperate regions north to the tropics. Parental care by both sexes is common in passerines, although in some highly dimorphic and predominantly lekking groups, such as manakins (Prum, 1994) and birds of paradise (Diamond, 1986), females alone provide for young and build the nest. Cooperative breeding, in which young birds delay breeding and assist other individuals (often parents) in raising young and defending the territory, is common in several passerine groups, such as Australian fairy wrens (Maluridae) and New World Jays (Corvidae; Brown, 1987; Edwards and Naeem, 1993). Some of the most elaborate singers in the bird world are passerines (Kroodsma and Miller, 1996). Some passerine birds are poisonous to the touch and are avoided as prey by indigenous peoples (Dumbacher et al., 1992).

  • Brown, J. L. (1987). Helping and Communal Breeding in Birds. In Monographs in Behavioral Ecolog. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Diamond, J. (1986). Biology of birds of paradise and bowerbirds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 17, 17-37.
  • Dumbacher, J. P., Beehler, B. M., Spande, T. F., Garraffo, H. M. and Daly, J. W. (1992). Homobatrachotoxin in the genus Pitohui : chemical defence in birds? Science 258, 799-801.
  • Edwards, S. V. and Naeem, S. (1993). The phylogenetic component of cooperative breeding in perching birds. The American Naturalist 141, 754-789.
  • Gray, D. A. (1996). Carotenoids and sexual dichromatism in North American passerine birds. The American Naturalist 148, 453-480.
  • Kroodsma, D. E. and Miller, E. H. (1996). Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Prum, R. O. (1994). Phylogenetic analysis of alternative social behavior in the manakins (Aves: Pipridae). Evolution 48, 1657-1665.
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Evolution and Systematics

Evolution

Species diversity, origin and biogeography

Species diversity: The tradition of recognizing perching birds (Passeriformes) as the most diverse and rapidly radiating clade has been questioned because there are few obvious “key innovations” that should cause systematists to recognize Passeriformes over any other arbitrarily larger or smaller monophyletic group within birds (Raikow, 1986). One point that has been missed in debates on this issue is that the branch leading to the songbirds (oscines), a group comprising 80% of extant perching birds, is the longest internal branch on the DNA hybridization tree produced by Sibley and Ahlquist (1990). This branch has also been one of the few to be well resolved in applications of mtDNA sequences to higher level questions in birds, presumably because it is long. Given the large number of clades that will require names under phylogenetic taxonomy, perhaps the length of branches leading to particular clades should be one criterion whereby systematists decide which of the many clades to name.

Origin and biogeography of passerines: The temporal and geographic origin of passerine birds is obscure. Traditionally the group was thought to have originated in the Tertiary, at about the same time as extant orders of mammals. Some recent workers favor a later, Eocene origin (Feduccia, 1995; Wilson, 1989), but the DNA -DNA hybridization data again favors an earlier origin (Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990). Recently some of the oldest oscine fossils have been uncovered in Queensland, Australia (Boles, 1995); this and other paleobiogeographical data suggest that passerines may have in fact originated in the Southern hemisphere (Olson, 1989).

  • Boles, W. E. (1995). The world's oldest songbird. Nature 374, 21-22.
  • Feduccia, A. (1995). Explosive radiation in Tertiary birds and mammals. Science 267, 637-638.
  • Olson, S. L. (1989). Aspects of global avifaunal dynamics during the Cenozoic. In Proceedings of the XIX International Ornithological Congress, vol. 29, pp. 2023-2029. Christchurch, New Zealand.
  • Raikow, R. J. (1986). Why are there so many kinds of passerine birds? Systematic Zoology 35, 255-259.
  • Sibley, C. G. and Ahlquist, J. E. (1990). Phylogeny and Classification of Birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Wilson, A. C. (1989). Time scale for bird evolution. Proceedings of the XIX International Ornithological Congress 19, 1912-1917.
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Monophyly and Sister Group

Historically, it is generally agreed that the Passeriformes constitute a monophyletic group. Raikow (1982) established this monophyly in an explicitly phylogeneticcontext. He noted that Passeriformes possess a suite of distinguishing characteristics, including a unique sperm morphology, a distinctive morphology of the bony palate, a simple yet functionally diverse foot with three toes forward and one (the hallux) oriented backwards, and a distinctive fore- (wing) and hindlimb musculature. There are few if any species which pose problems for avian systematists as to whether they are or are not passerines. Most of the controversy lies in relationships within the clade.

The sister group of the Passeriformes is not so much hotly contested as it is poorly resolved by existing data sets. Traditionally, Passeriformes have been considered closely related to a large group known as the “higher non-Passerines”. These include a number of clades such as cuckoos (Cuculiformes), hornbills, kingfishers and related lineages (Coraciiformes), and woodpeckers and relatives (Piciformes). Many of these groups possess a zygodactyl foot, a condition in which two toes point forward and two point backward. The sister relationship of Passeriformes to woodpeckers, the hornbill group and allies is reflected in Joel Cracraft’s phylogenetic hypothesis for major groups of birds based on cladistic interpretation of morphological and molecular characters (Cracraft, 1988). However, in the other major classification bearing on the relationships of perching birds, that based on DNA-DNA hybridization, Passeriformes appear as the sister group to a large, diverse group containing pigeons and doves (Columbiformes), cranes and rails (Gruiformes) and storks (Ciconiiformes)! These latter three groups share few obvious morphological characteristics with Passeriformes. However, the DNA hybridization tree links Passeriformes with these groups at a very deep level in the tree, rendering this result tenuous. A recent study of nuclear DNA sequences by Hackett et al. (2008) finds Psittaciformes (parrots) to be the sister group of passerines, with Falconidae (falcons) also close. Clearly, more work on the sister-group relationship of Passeriformes is needed, since this relationship will be the basis of any study seeking to identify whether or not Passeriformes are a particularly diverse group (e.g., Nee et al. 1992).

  • Cracraft, J. (1988). The major clades of birds. In The Phylogeny and Classification of the Tetrapods, Volume 1: Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds, vol. 35A (ed. M.J.Benton), pp. 339-361. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Hackett, S. J., Kimball, R. T., Reddy, S., Bowie, R. C. K., Braun, E. L., Braun, M. J., Chojnowski, J. L., Cox, W. A., Han, K.-L., Harshman, J., Huddleston, C. J., Marks, B. D., Miglia, K. J., Moore, W. A., Sheldon, F. H.,
  • Nee, S., Mooers, A., and Harvey, P. H. (1992). Tempo and mode of evolution revealed from molecular phylogenies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 89, 8322-8326.
  • Raikow, R. J. (1982). Monophyly of the Passeriformes: test of a phylogenetic hypothesis. Auk 99, 431-455.
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Discussion of Phylogenetic Relationships

View Oscines Tree

Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) divided the oscines into two clades they called Corvida and Passerida. While Passerida has been confirmed (with some slight changes of membership), Barker et al. (2002) showed that Corvida was not a clade but a grade, as shown in the tree above. Thus Corvida, as a group, does not really exist.

Sibley and Ahlquist’s (1990) Menuroidea included Menuridae (lyrebirds), Atrichornithidae (scrub-birds), Climacteridae (Australasian treecreepers), and Ptilonorhynchidae (bowerbirds). More recent studies show that the latter two are sister taxa and are more closely related to other oscines than to Menuridae (Barker et al. 2002, 2004; Ericson et al. 2002a; Beresford et al. 2005; but see Ericson et al. 2002b). There are so far no sequence data available for Atrichornithidae, and it has been retained here within a reduced Menuroidea (Sibley and Ahlquist 1990). The unnamed group including Climacteridae and Ptilonorhynchidae is sister to all oscines other than Menuroidea (Barker et al. 2002, 2004; Ericson et al. 2002b; Beresford et al. 2005; but see Ericson et al. 2002b).

Meliphagoidea consists of Maluridae (fairy wrens), Meliphagidae (Honeyeaters), Pardalotidae (pardalotes), Acanthizidae (scrub-birds, thornbills), and Dasyornis (bristleheads) (Cracraft and Feinstein 2000; Barker et al. 2002, 2004) and is sister to the remaining oscines (Barker et al. 2002, 2004; Beresford et al. 2005). Relationships within Meliphagidae and Acanthizidae have been investigated by Driskell and Christidis (2004). Two more families, Pomatostomidae (Australian babblers) and Orthonychidae (logrunners) are successively more closely related to Corvoidea and Passerida (Barker et al. 2002, 2004).

Three more clades form a polytomy with Corvoidea and Passerida: Callaeatidae (New Zealand wattlebirds), Cnemophilinae (traditionally supposed to be birds of paradise, belonging to the corvoid Paradiseidae), and Melanocharitidae (most berrypeckers — one genus, Paramythia, is corvoid) (Cracraft and Feinstein 2000; Barker et al. 2002, 2004; Beresford et al. 2005).

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Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Bones maximize stiffness and strength: birds
 

The bones of birds maximize stiffness and strength relative to weight by increasing density.

         
  "The skeletons of birds are universally described as lightweight as a  result of selection for minimizing the energy required  for flight. From a functional perspective, the  weight (mass) of an animal relative to its lift-generating surfaces is a  key  determinant of the metabolic cost of flight. The  evolution of birds has been characterized by many weight-saving  adaptations  that are reflected in bone shape, many of which  strengthen and stiffen the skeleton. Although largely unstudied in  birds,  the material properties of bone tissue can also  contribute to bone strength and stiffness. In this study, I calculated  the  density of the cranium, humerus and femur in  passerine birds, rodents and bats by measuring bone mass and volume  using helium  displacement. I found that, on average, these bones  are densest in birds, followed closely by bats. As bone density  increases,  so do bone stiffness and strength. Both of these  optimization criteria are used in the design of strong and stiff, but  lightweight,  manmade airframes. By analogy, increased bone  density in birds and bats may reflect adaptations for maximizing bone  strength  and stiffness while minimizing bone mass and  volume. These data suggest that both bone shape and the material  properties of  bone tissue have played important roles in the  evolution of flight. They also reconcile the conundrum of how bird  skeletons  can appear to be thin and delicate, yet contribute  just as much to total body mass as do the skeletons of terrestrial  mammals" (Dumont 2010)
  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Dumont ER. 2010. Bone density and the lightweight skeletons of birds. Proc. R. Soc. B.
  • 2010. Bird bones may be hollow, but they are also heavy. Science Daily [Internet],
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Functional adaptation

Feet stay put: perching birds
 

The feet of perching birds can perch even on weak, slippery surfaces due to the rough bumpy skin on their soles.

   
  "The Passeriformes or 'perching birds' have the typical bird foot: three toes forward and one behind, with which a bird can perch crosswise on a branch. A bird's sole is covered with rough bumpy skin, so that it can obtain purchase even on a small, weak, mobile twig which may be wet and slippery after rain." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:183)

  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Foy, Sally; Oxford Scientific Films. 1982. The Grand Design: Form and Colour in Animals. Lingfield, Surrey, U.K.: BLA Publishing Limited for J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd, Aldine House, London. 238 p.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:32321
Specimens with Sequences:24970
Specimens with Barcodes:23910
Species:3407
Species With Barcodes:3053
Public Records:17212
Public Species:2111
Public BINs:2953
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Barcode data

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