An ambition realised: all the world’s bird Families have now been seen.   Leave a comment

On 28th June I was part of a birding group in a small boat, slowly drifting down a tributary of the Kinabatenga River in Sabah, Borneo when our leader Chris Kehoe exclaimed that he could hear Bristleheads, a few minutes later a small flock of five or more bizarrely shaped red, black and yellow birds appeared in the tops of the riverine forest. Our first Bornean Bristleheads of the tour and the end of a thirty five year quest to see all the bird Families of the world!

Well what is a bird Family; well I don’t mean this!


Wood Duck and ducklings – photo from the internet.


A bird Family is a taxonomic unit above that of Genus and below that of Order. For the uninitiated I’d better summarise the essential, but sometimes confusing, subject of the classification of life.

To make sense of the many million types of organisms in existence a classification methodology based on Latin nomenclature was introduced by Linnaeus in 1735, which has been refined into the current system. It is universally applicable to all forms of life and strict rules govern its application, so that particular name is applicable to a single species and to no other.

All life is divided into six Kingdoms, three of microscopic organisms, plus fungi, plants and animals. Each Kingdom is divided into Phyla for example in animals all vertebrates are in the Phylum Chordata. Each Phylum is in turn divided into a number of Classes, in Chordata there are 6 Classes of fish, plus one each of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Each Class is divided into Orders and each Order into Families. In birds the huge group known as the passerines is a single Order Passeriformes and this is composed of 129 Families. For example the tits and chickadees form the Family Paridae and this in turn is divided into 61 Species in 14 Genera. Species can be further subdivided into subspecies where there is variation within a single species.

So the classification of our familiar Marsh Tit from the UK would be

Kingdom – Animalia – animals

Phylum – Chordata – vertebrates and allies

Class – Aves – birds

Order – Passeriformes – passerines or ‘perching birds’

Family – Paridae – tits and chickadees

Genus – Poecile – a collection of 15 mainly black, brown and white tits from the northern hemisphere

Species – Poecile pallustris – Marsh Tit

Subspecies – Poecile pallustris dresseri – the subspecies or race of Marsh Tit occurring in the UK

So what has all this to do with my recent trip to Sabah in Borneo. Of course I have been trying to see as many of the world’s bird species over the past 35 years (and, as sometimes subspecies are ‘upgraded’ to full species when new information about their breeding biology and genetics becomes available, I’ve been taking note of them as well) but many birders have realised is that to see as wide a range of bird groups as possible it is necessary to see the bird Families of the world. In total there are 232 extant Families (plus 5 uncertain groups or Incertae sedis that have still to be decided on).

The trouble is that whilst many Families are obvious to anyone interested in birds, for example all duck, geese and swans (except one) form one Family, grebes another and divers yet another, other groups are more obscure and changes are continually made as DNA evidence reveals relationships that morphology alone cannot; owls fall into two Families, Old World warblers have been placed in about six different Families and a few oddities like Przevalski’s Rosefinch and Spotted Wren-babbler are so unique that they have been placed in Families all of their own (the latter only a few months ago after DNA evidence showed it was only distant related to other Wren-babblers)

It is relatively easy to see the bulk of the Families once you have travelled to the major faunal regions of the world, it these oddball Families that present the challenge, for example Shoebill in Africa, Kagu in New Caledonia, Picathartes in West Africa or Przevalski’s Rosefinch in Tibet, not necessarily because they are hard to see but because it takes a lot of travel to get round to see them all. In recent years I have concentrated on seeing the last few and the Bornean Bristlehead, the sole member of its Family, was the last.



Some Families are obvious, even to the non-birder. All Hummingbirds are clearly related and all 345 species are in a single Family the Trochilidae.  Peacock Coquette – photo from the Internet Bird Collection


Birds of prey or raptors however fall across five Families, New World vultures form one, hawks, eagles, kites and Old World vultures form another, the Osprey and Secretary Bird are in Families of its own, whilst the fifth, the Falcons aren’t even closely related to other raptors and are now count the passerines and parrots as their nearest relatives. Bonelli’s Eagle:  photo from Internet Bird Collection



There are many monospecific Families, birds that have no close living relatives. This Przevalski’s Rosefinch or Pink-tailed Bunting from Tibet, is neither a finch nor a bunting but dates from a time before those two Families diverged. Photo from the Internet Bird Collection.



There have losses as well as gains, the diverse Hawaiian Honeycreepers were once considered to constitute a Family but now they are know to be just aberrant finches, most closely related to the Asian rosefinches.  Iiwi -photo from the Internet Bird Collection.

P1110693 Borneo Bristlehead 2

Its a bit of a rubbish photo but it was taken at some distance, from a moving boat and on a borrowed camera! Borneo Bristlehead, Kinabatenga River, Sabah, Borneo


To get a better idea what this mega looks like, here is a close up shot by James Eaton from the Internet Bird Collection.

But although I am very happy to have fulfilled my ambition to see all the world’s bird Families I cannot be complacent. I follow the species and Family list as produced by the IOC (International Bird Committee) which treats the Sapayoa of the Choco region of northern South America and Panama (below) as a member of the Old World Broadbills. This species has been treated as a Manakin then a  Tyrant Flycatcher, before DNA evidence showed conclusively it was a New World representative of the Broadbills. The Clements/Cornell checklist agrees in principle but places it in its own Family next to the Broadbills. I have heard, but not seen this species in Colombia.



The enigmatic Sapayoa:  Photo from the Internet Bird Collection

The Zeledonia or Wrenthrush was once considered in its own Family but then got moved to the Parulidae, the New World Warblers and then to the limbo of Incertae Sedis. There have been suggestions recently that it may again regain monospecific Family status. A trip to Costa Rica would be needed to see this beauty.


Zeledonia: Photo from the Internet Bird Collection.


And finally and most worryingly of all, the publisher Lynx Editions, in conjunction with Birdlife International are producing an Illustrated Checklist of Birds of the World. This is a wholly new concept for a checklist, the validity of each species being determined by a mathematical ranking. The first volume, due in a month or so, covers the non-passerines and the advertising blurb of the cover shows the non-passerine Families they recognise. This appears to show that they recognise the enigmatic flightless New Zealand parrot, the Kakapo as a monospecific Family. The Kakapo is on the brink of extinction and the few remaining birds have been translocated to an island where no-one but the wardens/researches are allowed to go. All TV film/video of this species appears to be of a captive individual known as Sirocco. The chances of ever seeing a wild individual of this species/Family would appear to be zero.

Of course the Family or species list produced by Birdlife International may not be accepted by the mainstream checklists of Clements/Cornell and the IOC, but even if the Kakapo does eventually get universally accepted as a new Family, I will have at least been able to say that at one stage in my life I had seen all the world’s bird Families!


16-SiroccoKS1 (1)

Sirocco – the tame Kakapo. Photo from the Internet

The 232 Bird Familes plus 5 Icertae sedis as recognised by the IOC. The Hawaiian Oo’s are now extinct and are not included in the total.


Family Tinamidae Tinamous
Family Struthionidae Ostriches
Family Rheidae Rheas
Family Casuariidae Cassowaries
Family Dromaiidae Emu
Family Apterygidae Kiwis
Family Anhimidae Screamers
Family Anseranatidae Magpie Goose
Family Anatidae Wildfowl
Family Megapodiidae Megapodes
Family Cracidae Cracids
Family Numididae Guineafowl
Family Odontophoridae NW Quail
Family Phasianidae Game birds
Family Gaviidae Loons
Family Spheniscidae Penguins
Family Diomedeidae Albatrosses
Family Procellariidae Petrels/Shearwaters
Family Hydrobatidae Storm Petrels
Family Pelecanoididae Diving Petrels
Family Podicipedidae Grebes
Family Phoenicopteridae Flamingos
Family Ciconiidae Storks
Family Threskiornithidae Ibises/Spoonbills
Family Ardeidae Herons
Family Scopidae Hammerkop
Family Balaenicipitidae Shoebill
Family Pelecanidae Pelicans
Family Fregatidae Frigatebirds
Family Sulidae Gannets
Family Phalacrocoracidae Cormorants
Family Anhingidae Darters
Family Cathartidae NW Vultures
Family Sagittariidae Secretarybird
Family Pandionidae Ospreys
Family Accipitridae Hawks, Eagles etc
Family Otididae Bustards
Family Eurypygidae Sunbittern
Family Sarothruridae Flufftails
Family Heliornithidae Finfoots
Family Rallidae Rails
Family Psophiidae Trumpeters
Family Gruidae Cranes
Family Aramidae Limpkin
Family Turnicidae Buttonquails
Family Burhinidae Thick-knees
Family Chionidae Sheathbills
Family Pluvianellidae Magellanic Plover
Family Haematopodidae Oystercatchers
Family Dromadidae Crab-plover
Family Ibidorhynchidae Ibisbill
Family Recurvirostridae Stilts, Avocets
Family Charadriidae Plovers
Family Pluvianidae Egyptian Plover
Family Rostratulidae Painted-snipes
Family Jacanidae Jacanas
Family Pedionomidae Plains Wanderer
Family Thinocoridae Seedsnipes
Family Scolopacidae Sandpipers
Family Glareolidae Coursers, Pratincoles
Family Laridae Terns, Gulls, Skimmers
Family Stercorariidae Skuas
Family Alcidae Auks
Family Pteroclidae Sandgrouse
Family Columbidae Pigeons
Family Phaethontidae Tropicbirds
Family Mesitornithidae Mesites
Family Rhynochetidae Kagu
Family Opisthocomidae Hoatzin
Family Musophagidae Turacos
Family Podargidae Frogmouths
Family Steatornithidae Oilbird
Family Nyctibiidae Potoos
Family Caprimulgidae Nightjars
Family Aegothelidae Owlet-nightjars
Family Hemiprocnidae Treeswifts
Family Apodidae Swifts
Family Trochilidae Hummingbirds
Family Cuculidae Cuckoos
Family Tytonidae Barn Owls
Family Strigidae Owls
Family Coliidae Mousebirds
Family Trogonidae Trogons
Family Leptosomidae Cuckoo Roller
Family Coraciidae Rollers
Family Brachypteraciidae Ground Rollers
Family Alcedinidae Kingfishers
Family Todidae Todies
Family Momotidae Motmots
Family Meropidae Bee-eaters
Family Upupidae Hoopoes
Family Phoeniculidae Woodhoopoes
Family Bucerotidae Hornbills
Family Bucorvidae Ground Hornbills
Family Galbulidae Jacamars
Family Bucconidae Puffbirds
Family Capitonidae New World Barbets
Family Semnornithidae Prong-billed & Toucan Barbet
Family Ramphastidae Toucans
Family Megalaimidae Asian Barbets
Family Lybiidae African Barbets
Family Indicatoridae Honeyguides
Family Picidae Woodpeckers
Family Cariamidae Seriemas
Family Falconidae Falcons/Caracaras
Family Strigopidae NZ Parrots
Family Cacatuidae Cockatoos
Family Psittacidae Parrots
Family Acanthisittidae New Zealand Wrens
Family Eurylaimidae Broadbills, Asities, Sapayoa
Family Pittidae Pittas
Family Furnariidae Ovenbirds and Woodcreepers
Family Thamnophilidae Antbirds
Family Formicariidae Ant-thrushes
Family Grallariidae Antpittas
Family Conopophagidae Gnateaters
Family Rhinocryptidae Tapaculos
Family Melanopareiidae Crescentchests
Family Tyrannidae Tyrant Flycatchers
Family Cotingidae Cotingas, Plantcutters
Family Pipridae Manakins
Family Tityridae Tityras, Sharpbill, Becards
Family Incertae Sedis 1 Uncertain 1 (Swallow-tailed Cotinga)
Family Menuridae Lyrebirds
Family Atrichornithidae Scrubbirds
Family Ptilonorhynchidae Bowerbirds
Family Climacteridae Australasian Treecreepers
Family Maluridae Australasian Wrens
Family Meliphagidae Honeyeaters
Family Dasyornithidae Bristlebirds
Family Pardalotidae Pardalotes
Family Acanthizidae Australian Warblers
Family Pomatostomidae Australian Babblers
Family Orthonychidae Logrunners
Family Cnemophilidae Satinbirds
Family Melanocharitidae Berrypeckers, NG Longbills
Family Paramythiidae Painted Berrypeckers
Family Callaeidae NZ Wattlebirds
Family Notiomystidae Stitchbird
Family Psophodidae Quail-thrushes etc
Family Platysteiridae Wattle-eyes, Batises
Family Tephrodornithidae Woodshrikes and allies
Family Prionopidae Helmetshrikes
Family Malaconotidae Bushshrikes
Family Machaerirhynchidae Boatbills
Family Vangidae Vangas
Family Cracticidae Butcherbirds and Allies
Family Pityriaseidae Bristlehead
Family Artamidae Woodswallows
Family Aegithinidae Ioras
Family Campephagidae Cuckooshrikes
Family Mohouidae Whiteheads
Family Neosittidae Sittellas
Family Incertae Sedis 2 Uncertain 2
Family Pachycephalidae Whistlers
Family Laniidae True Shrikes
Family Vireonidae Vireos, Greenlets
Family Oriolidae Figbirds, OW Orioles
Family Dicruridae Drongos
Family Rhipiduridae Fantails
Family Monarchidae Monarchs
Family Corvidae Crows, Jays
Family Corcoracidae Australian Mudnesters
Family Incertae Sedis 3 Uncertain 3
Family Paradisaeidae Birds-of-paradise
Family Petroicidae Australian Robins
Family Picathartidae Picathartes
Family Chaetopidae Rockjumpers
Family Eupetidae Rail-babbler
Family Bombycillidae Waxwings
Family Ptilogonatidae Silky-flycatchers
Family Hypocoliidae Hypocolius
Family Dulidae Palmchat
Family Mohoidae Oos (recently extinct)
Family Hylocitreidae Hylocitrea
Family Stenostiridae Fairy Flycatchers
Family Paridae Tits
Family Remizidae Penduline Tits
Family Panuridae Bearded Reedling
Family Nicatoridae Nicators
Family Alaudidae Larks
Family Pycnonotidae Bulbuls
Family Hirundinidae Swallows, Martins
Family Pnoepygidae Wren-babblers
Family Macrosphenidae Crombecs, African warblers
Family Cettiidae Cettia bush warblers & allies
Family Scotocercidae Streaked Scrub Warbler
Family Erythrocercidae Yellow Flycatchers
Family Incertae Sedis 4 Uncertain 4
Family Aegithalidae Bushtits
Family Phylloscopidae Leaf warblers and allies
Family Acrocephalidae Reed warblers and allies
Family Locustellidae Grassbirds and allies
Family Donacobiidae Black-capped Donacobius
Family Bernieridae Malagasy warblers
Family Cisticolidae Cisticolas and allies
Family Timaliidae Core Babblers
Family Elachuridae Spotted Wren-babbler
Family Pellorneidae Fulvettas, Ground Babblers
Family Leiothrichidae Laughingthrushes
Family Sylvidae Sylviid Babblers
Family Zosteropidae White-eyes and Yuhinas
Family Arcanatoridae Dapplethroat & allies
Family Promeropidae Sugarbirds and allies
Family Irenidae Fairy-bluebirds
Family Regulidae Goldcrests, kinglets
Family Hyliotidae Hyliotas
Family Troglodytidae Wrens
Family Polioptilidae Gnatcatchers
Family Sittidae Nuthatches
Family Tichodromidae Wallcreeper
Family Certhiidae Treecreepers
Family Mimidae Mockingbirds, Thrashers
Family Sturnidae Starlings
Family Buphagidae Oxpeckers
Family Turdidae Thrushes
Family Muscicapidae Chats, OW Flycatchers
Family Cinclidae Dippers
Family Chloropseidae Leafbirds
Family Dicaeidae Flowerpeckers
Family Nectariniidae Sunbirds
Family Passeridae Old World Sparrows
Family Ploceidae Weavers, Widowbirds
Family Estrildidae Waxbills, Munias & Allies
Family Viduidae Indigobirds, Whydahs
Family Peucedramidae Olive Warbler
Family Prunellidae Accentors
Family Motacillidae Wagtails, Pipits
Family Urocynchramidae Przevalski’s Finch
Family Fringillidae Finches
Family Parulidae New World Warblers
Family Incertae Sedis 5 Family Uncertain 5
Family Icteridae NW Orioles & Blackbirds
Family Coerebidae Bananaquit
Family Emberizidae Buntings, NW Sparrows etc
Family Thraupidae Tanagers
Family Calcariidae Longspurs, snow buntings
Family Cardinalidae Cardinals, Grosbeaks & Allies


Posted July 9, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: