DNA: Falcons Closer To Parrots Than Hawks

Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 27th, 2008

The secret kinship of falcons and parrots is one of many surprises in a landmark genetic study of 169 bird species being published by Chicago Field Museum researchers.

A consequence of the study in the June 27, 2008 edition of the journal Science is a re-ordering of the field guides that many of America’s 80 million bird-watchers use. Most bird guides are based on scientific classifications, which experts said the new work could change in numerous ways.

“This is the most important single paper to date on the higher-level relationships of birds,” said Joel Cracraft, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not part of the study.

The Field Museum launched a five-year effort with seven other institutions to do an unprecedented genetic analysis discovering many cases in which seemingly similar birds were merely distant relatives, or birds long assumed to be unrelated were closely linked.

Grebes, a type of diving bird, are not related to loons, as ornithologists had long believed. Surprisingly, grebes appear closely related to flamingos.

The analysis also showed falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other hunters such as hawks and eagles. If true, the finding would mean that falcons do not even belong in the scientific order originally named for them.

The new lineage helps showcase how evolution works, experts said. Although falcons do not appear closely related to hawks, each species developed similarly shaped beaks and talons to hunt prey—an evolutionary process that biologists call convergence.

Working the new results into the guidebooks that birders use could take years, but many experts said some change is likely. Such books normally take their cue from the American Ornithologists’ Union, which releases an updated checklist of bird species each year.

Carla Cicero, curator of birds at the University of California-Berkeley’s museum of ornithology and a member of the committee that decides on changes to the checklist, said the committee typically waits for many teams to duplicate new findings before changing its bird classifications.

Still, “there are going to be a lot of changes, I can tell you that,” Cicero said.

Although conclusions like the falcon-parrot link may rattle some bird specialists, Joel Greenberg, an expert bird-watcher and editor of an anthology of Chicago nature writing, said such surprises can deepen the delight of studying birds.

“This may be one more of God’s little jokes,” Greenberg said.

For more, see “Field Museum’s genetic study rewrites family tree on birds,” by Jeremy Manier and Tim De Chant, Chicago Tribune, Jnue 27, 2008.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

5 Responses to “DNA: Falcons Closer To Parrots Than Hawks”

  1. Blue Mako responds:

    Fascinating. I guess this must be the bird version of the study done on mammals that showed whales to be cousins to Artiodactyls (or in the group themselves, I’m not sure which)…

  2. dogu4 responds:

    Very interesting study. What to me was at least as surprising was the suggestion that flight among the timamous birds may have been lost and re-gained, which I think might shed some insight onto the process of what we presume is about mutations and reveal an inner mechanism to genetics previously only suspected.

  3. cryptidsrus responds:

    I agree with dogu4. Very interesting study. Who’da thunk…

  4. Munnin responds:

    Wow! This is very exciting stuff to me. I see this is a demonstrative example of the difference between genotype and phenotype, and more importantly as an illustration of convergent evolution.

  5. Amdusias responds:

    This makes perfect sense to me. When you see how much a finch can change in habit and form from one Island to another, you get a real sense of how mutable and adaptable the bird realm really is. So the fact that parrots and falcons to have a closer common ancestor than falcons and hawks, really underscores the how foggy the links between species and origen of species really is, from the vantage point from which we currently can view such matters. I doubt this will be the last, or even biggest suprise as we slowly unravel the collective DNA of the planet. The sad thing is, our studdies will be mostly limited to life that is still living. Imagine the wonders of evolution that are lost to us entirely in the mist of time.

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