Fringillid benefits

Rosefinch no more? Our most familiar Carpodacus species, Common Rosefinch, has been reassigned to its own unique genus. Photo: Piotr Matyga (commons.wikimedia.org).
Rosefinch no more? Our most familiar Carpodacus species, Common Rosefinch, has been reassigned to its own unique genus. Photo: Piotr Matyga (commons.wikimedia.org).

A taxonomic re-ordering of the true finches has taken place, with some surprising outcomes.

Newly-published research has attempted to sort out the similar plumages and ecologies of New and Old World finch forms. The lineages uncovered have revealed new relationships, some suspected, others less so, but the outcome - though mostly unheralded -  is as wide-ranging as the recent reworking of the American wood-warblers, as featured in February's Birdwatch (on sale now).

The study found that the Fringillidae consists of three clear-cut subfamilies: the Fringillinae, consisting of the chaffinches and Brambling Fringilla; the Euphoniinae, a group of brightly coloured yellow and green Neotropical finches, once considered to be tanagers; and the Carduelinae for our familiar finch genera, but also including the Hawaiian honeycreepers, as previously reported in Listcheck.

The rosefinches Carpodacus have become more limited in their scope, with Sinai and Great Rosefinch remaining in the genus, but the familiar Common Rosefinch being given its own genus Erythrina, as it falls outside the core clade of Carpodacus, clumping with the Scarlet Finch Haematospiza of the Himalayas. Pine Grosbeak Pinicola enucleator becomes the sole member its genus. The North American Carpodacus forms are in fact not closely related to the Eurasian forms at all, and are transferred to their own resurrected genus, Haemorhous, originally created for Purple Finch H purpurea in 1837.

The almost cosmopolitan genus Serinus also turns out to be polyphyletic (that is, containing species that do not all share the same common ancestor). Serinus is retained solely for the Eurasian species, including Syrian Serin S syriacus, but the African and other Middle Eastern forms are moved to the resurrected genus Crithagra. Some of the African species were not sampled for the paper, so this may not be the final word on sub-Saharan Serinus. 

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Siskin and all American forms formerly of Carduelis form a distinct clade, and the genus Spinus is re-used for these. The genus Carduelis itself is deeply polyphyletic , and now restricted to Citril Finch C citrinella and Goldfinch C carduelis. The greenfinches are also moved from Carduelis into another disused genus, Chloris, as suspected in previously-published work. Linnet and Twite are also removed from their current home in Carduelis to Linaria, a genus of 1802-vintage, becoming L cannabina and L flavirostris respectively. And lastly, the redpolls clump out into their own distinct lineage, which is given the resurrected name Acanthis, familiar to some older readers from many of the bird books of the early 20th Century.

Other changes are also recommended, and it is thought that the new names better represent the finches' plumage and body forms as influenced by their distribution and different feeding niches.

Zuccon, D, Prys-Jones, R, Rasmussen, P C and Ericson, P G P. 2012. The phylogenetic relationships and generic limits of finches (Fringillidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 62: 581-596.