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‘Mystery’ birds from Brazil

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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While in Rio recently (for the International Symposium on Pterosaurs: see write-up here), I saw an enormous number of birds, virtually all of which were new to me. I photographed many of them (some were too elusive, or too fleetingly seen, to be captured on film, alas) and, when time allows, I’ve been going through them with the aim of sharing what I saw here on Tet Zoo. A few of the passerines are giving me problems though and I’m interested in second opinions. On the advice of fellow birder Simon Woolley, I’ve decided to share a few of those images here. I think I know the species concerned, but have fun trying to identify them yourself. I want to say one more thing before we get on with it: I didn’t (and, indeed, couldn’t) go on any special birding trips while in Brazil – the many, many species I saw were all hanging around in town, especially in the parks and on the beaches. For most places in the world, animals are (still) everywhere if only you go and look for them. Anyway…

What is this small green passerine? It was part of a group of five or six and only stoped briefly on the ground. Like many of my bird photos, it was taken at maximum zoom, hence the crappy focus. Here’s another (arguably easier) small greenish passerine (of course, it might be the same species as the first! What do you think?)…

Finally, two more passerines, both seen at distance while on wires and in a treetop, respectively. Again, both images are taken at maximum zoom and I deliberately haven’t tinkered with the colour or contrast or anything like that.

Ok, I look forward to seeing some answers. I’ll post the remainder of my photos in the next article: I managed to get good images of 20 species and will be talking about all of them.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. HJMMeijer 4:54 am 06/7/2013

    Is that last one on the left a swallow perhaps?

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  2. 2. darkgabi 5:16 am 06/7/2013

    finally i could log in! hahaha.

    so, as i wrote on twitter, the first one seems like a canary, canário da terra, sicalis flaveola. the second one looks like a swallow, andorinha, alopochelidon fucata [popular saying: uma andorinha só não faz verão - only one swallow does not make a summer]

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  3. 3. naishd 8:40 am 06/7/2013

    Thanks for comments so far (hey, early days I’m sure). Thanks, darkgabi… Sicalis flaveola – the Saffron finch (I’m using the English names given in Ber van Perlo’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Brazil) – is indeed in the right ballpark for the passerine at the very top; the problem is that the Saffron finch has a lot of yellow on its cheeks and underside, plus the forehead (and elsewhere on the face and chest, depending on the subspecies) is orange. This describes the male: females are brown with obvious streaking on the underside. The bird shown here is mostly green, and is without any of the yellow or orange. Image-searching on google shows that Saffron finches are indeed (typically) way yellower than the bird I saw… the shape and bill form are about right, though. So – is it just that Saffron finches from Rio are especially green? Or what?


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  4. 4. naishd 8:47 am 06/7/2013

    HJMMeijer (comment # 1): the bird is definitely a hirundine, and I confess that I didn’t notice what looks like a reddish or tawny throat when photographing it. If that feature isn’t a trick of the light, the bird would have to be a Barn swallow Hirundo rustica, Cliff swallow Pterochelidon pyrrhonota or Tawny-headed swallow Alopochelidon fucata, and the absence of long tail streamers rules against the first. It was also small and – while it’s difficult to say from the photo – there’s the impression of tawny or buff coloration at the top of the breast. This all makes Tawny-headed swallow most likely, and this is the identification that darkgabi went for too :)


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  5. 5. darkgabi 9:22 am 06/7/2013

    i also image-googled the finch and saw many yellow ones, but i had one of those some years ago [before my mom accidently killed it... nevermind] and it was mostly brownish – unless it wasn’t a canary after all. they are [or were] common for having at home, which means they’re bred quite often. so i wouldn’t be surprised to see one darker. and i think the first two images belong to the same species. i sent your blog to a [ornithology student] friend, let’s see what he thinks =]

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  6. 6. dgrahamqc 10:09 am 06/7/2013

    Images 1 and 2 definitely look like Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola) to me. Immature birds have much less yellow and are quite streaky (like the second image). Image 3 is clearly a hirundine, and I would have said Barn Swallow; I have not seen Tawny-headed Swallow, though. Image 4 looks like Chalk-browed Mockingbird (Mimus saturninus). No guarantees on any of this, though! A good site to check for comparison photos with reliable ID is the Internet Bird Collection:

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  7. 7. John Harshman 10:44 am 06/7/2013

    Now you’re talking. I have no special expertise on Brazilian birds, though. Nor do I have a Brazilian field guide, and it’s really hard to find random Brazilian species in HBBW. But #4 sure looks like a mockingbird to me.

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  8. 8. naishd 10:50 am 06/7/2013

    Yeah, I was thinking mockingbird for that species as well. There are three in Brazil: the mostly grey and white, brown-eyed Tropical mockingbird Mimus gilvus, the plain and somewhat streaky Chalk-browed mockingbird M. saturninus and the orange-rumped, buff-bellied White-banded mockingbird M. triurus. The Chalk-browed is the most widespread, and the one that tends to frequent towns. All three have prominent, white superciliary stripes. I don’t think my photo is good enough for a definitive identification, but I agree that Chalk-browed mockingbird is most likely.


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  9. 9. josimo70 11:11 am 06/7/2013

    Is the first one a verdelhao (Carduelis chloris)?

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  10. 10. naishd 11:19 am 06/7/2013

    The European greenfinch Carduelis chloris does indeed occur in Brazil (though apparently not in the Rio area) and does look about right for the birds shown here. Greenfinches normally have striking yellow wing markings though.


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  11. 11. Jerzy v. 3.0. 1:25 pm 06/7/2013

    There are lots of people more knowledgeable about Brazilian birds than me, but I (also) think Saffron Finch, Tawny-headed Swallow and Chalk-browed Mockingbird. Based on “A birdwatching guide to Sout-east Brazil” and Van Perlo’s “A field guide to the birds of Brazil” and my memories from Sao Paulo area.

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  12. 12. Andreas Johansson 1:58 pm 06/7/2013

    only one swallow does not make a summer

    Perhaps interestingly, we’ve got the same saying in Swedish: en svala gör ingen sommar “one swallow makes no summer”.

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  13. 13. John Harshman 3:57 pm 06/7/2013

    It’s in English too, and apparently comes from Latin: “This old proverb is listed in several early glossaries, notably Richard Taverner’s transcription of the [Latin] proverbs of Erasmus – Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, 1539:

    It is not one swalowe that bryngeth in somer. It is not one good qualitie that maketh a man good.”

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  14. 14. Oenitholestes 5:48 pm 06/7/2013

    I can definitely say the swallow is not a barn swallow, as they have obviously forked tails. I’d go cliff swallow, as it seems to have iridescent blue wings.

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  15. 15. Hydrarchos 7:05 pm 06/7/2013

    Are you a member of BirdForum (birdforum dot net)? The people in their “Bird Identification Q&A” subforum can identify pretty much any bird from any part of the world almost instantly…

    The finches certainly look like something(s) in the Serinus/Carduelis/Spinus/Crithagra/etc group, but there are so many of them I couldn’t hazard a guess as to which one(s). I’m not very familiar with neotropical carduelines, though I seem to recall the males of most of them tend to have bold patterns with black involved, so these are likely females or juveniles. (Is Sicalis another genus split from this group?) Neither of them looks quite right for Carduelis chloris though – something subtle about the “jizz” as well as the lack of yellow in the wing.

    (I’m sort of surprised that C. chloris can be found in Brazil – I presume it must be introduced? The standard online sources mention that it was introduced to Australia and New Zealand, but I can’t find any mentions of introduction to South America. Greenfinches must be pretty adaptable in terms of climate and habitat…)

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  16. 16. naishd 5:22 am 06/8/2013

    I’m familiar with the Greenfinch and, I agree, there’s something not right about that identification. Yup, European greenfinch is one of several Old World passerines introduced to Brazil: it’s included in Ber van Perlo’s field guide to Brazilian birds.

    Other non-natives in there include European goldfinch C. carduelis (like the greenfinch, it’s restricted in distribution and only present in the Rio Grande so Sul region [incidentally, that's well south of Rio de Janeiro]), House sparrow Passer domesticus, and Common waxbill Estrilda astrild.


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  17. 17. David Marjanović 7:51 am 06/8/2013

    Swallows and summer: also in German; in Russian, it’s spring instead.

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  18. 18. Lars Dietz 8:07 am 06/8/2013

    We have that proverb in German too: “Eine Schwalbe macht noch keinen Sommer.” It’s from Aesop’s fable The Young Man and the Swallow.
    “Is Sicalis another genus split from this group?”
    No, Sicalis is a tanager, like most S. American “finches”. And I agree that the bird probably is not C. chloris, nor does it look like any of the native siskins, so it’s probably some kind of tanager. But I don’t know enough to tell which one.

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  19. 19. darkgabi 9:17 am 06/8/2013

    so cool to know about the same proverb everywhere! and how did i not think about mimus saturninus before?? embarrassing.. it is indeed a well more suitable identification for the fourth pic

    minha terra tem palmeiras
    onde canta o sabiá
    as aves que aqui gorjeiam
    não gorjeiam como lá

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  20. 20. Allenspach 8:57 am 06/9/2013

    My guesses:

    #1 Saffron Finch

    #2 Southern Rough-winged Swallow (I´m not really sure)

    #3 Chalk-browed Mockinbird

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  21. 21. Hai~Ren 10:39 am 06/9/2013

    I’m useless at Neotropical birds, but hmm… are you sure these aren’t actually gorgonopsians in disguise?

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  22. 22. calyptura 9:05 pm 06/9/2013


    The first two birds are Sicalis flaveola (male – the colors are not good because the photo isn’t good- and immature) the swallow is a Stelgidopteryx ruficollis, and the mockingbird is a Mimus saturninus.


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  23. 23. dgrahamqc 9:20 pm 06/9/2013

    Agree with calyptura on S. ruficollis for the swallow–more likely than Tawny-headed, I think.

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  24. 24. naishd 3:59 am 06/10/2013

    Ok, agreed: we’re going for Southern rough-winged swallow Stelgidopteryx ruficollis on that hirundine. Its head coloration is more subdued than that of the Tawny-headed swallow.


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  25. 25. rafatosi 12:28 pm 06/10/2013


    *I also believe the first two pictures belong to a Sicalis species. I don’t think the first one is a full grown Sicalis flaveola male though, they are a lot more yellow, and the forehead goes all the to orange on some individuals. I’d say both might be Sicalis luteola (first one a male, the second one a female), although I don’t know if their distribution includes Rio de Janeiro.

    *Bottom one on the left is Stelgidopteryx ruficollis.

    *Bottom right one is a Mimus, but I don’t know if it’s saturninus or some other one.

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