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More passerines as seen from the peripheries (part III): Great tits!

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


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Parus major, aka Great tit, photographed in southern England in early 2014. Photo by Darren Naish.

Welcome to another of my articles on passerines from the peripheries. As before, the idea here is that we’re looking at passerine bird groups as seen ‘from the fringes’ – from an obscure, maritime archipelago on the eastern fringes of the North Atlantic, far from the places where these birds underwent most of their evolution and diversification. This time, we once again find ourselves surrounded by tits – Great tits Parus major, no less. If you’re a Tet Zoo regular you’ll recall Great tits being covered here once or twice before, most memorably in the article titled Great tits: still murderous, rapacious, flesh-rending predators! Anyway…

Gosler's 1993 The Great Tit, a fine book on tits.

Here (above) is a photogenic Great tit I encountered recently here in Southampton. The Great tit is an extensively studied bird. My first port of call when needing information on this species is Andrew Gosler’s 1993 book The Great Tit. He starts that book by noting how previous authors have frequently apologised for producing yet another study of what’s been regarded as the most extensively studied of all small birds (Gosler 1993). He also says therein that over 700 published studies have been devoted to this one species, and that was as of 1979, so I wonder what the figure is now. It should be said that tits as a whole are extensively studied: James et al. (2003) noted that at least 100 articles on the group are published every year.

For a tit, P. major is large (up to a gargantuan 20 g in some British birds). Its black ventral stripe, white cheeks and distinctive ‘teecha teecha’ springtime song are all highly familiar. Males and females can be easily distinguished on the basis of how extensive the belly stripe is (its size is also age-dependent), but the birds also exhibit dimorphism in the ultraviolet reflectance of their black crown feathers (Hegyi et al. 2007) – something invisible to us, of course, and something indicating that mutual sexual selection is at play, as it often seems to be in bird species where males and females display similar display patterns.

Great tits (almost) everywhere

Cinereous tit (P. cinereus) in Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo by J. M. Garg, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Great tit is insanely widespread, occurring from western Europe eastwards to Japan, across the Mediterranean region of Africa and as far south-east as Sumatra, Java and the Lesser Sundas (though read on). Because it’s so variable in size and plumage across this range, about 30 subspecies have been named, conventionally grouped into four ‘subspecies groups’ or ‘allospecies’. The full story is vastly complex, but the diversity of forms included within the P. m. major group that occur around the Mediterranean suggests that this was an area of early diversification before (some time within the last 8000 years or so) members of this particular group spread north and east. The histories of the other subspecies groups involve the evolution of numerous island-endemic forms, adaptation to high-altitude life on the Himalayan Plateau and elsewhere, and a post-glacial expansion northwards by birds restricted to a south-east Asian refugium during the Pleistocene. [Adjacent photo by J. M. Garg.]

However, those south-east Asian ‘Great tits’ – members of the P. m. cinereus group (they actually occur as far west as Iran) – are increasingly regarded as a distinct species, the Cinereous tit P. cinereus. Molecular analyses indicate that they’ve been distinct from P. major proper for something like 1.5 million years and clearly qualify as ‘distinct species’ when compared to other passerines (Martin et al. 2005).

Distribution map showing range of Great tit (P. major) and related taxa sometimes regarded as part of P. major as well (P. minor is the Japanese tit). Image in the public domain.

European Great tits are extensively predated upon by Eurasian sparrowhawks Accipiter nisus (so much so that some sparrowhawks are able to raise their chicks on Great tit and nothing else), but important predators at the nest site include Great spotted woodpeckers Picus major and weasels Mustela nivalis. Woodpecker predation on nesting birds is really interesting and I must talk about it at length some time. Weasel predation on tits is also interesting both because it involves a substantial amount of arboreal behaviour on the part of the weasels, but also because it’s tightly linked to the fortunes of local rodent populations. [Photo below by Luc Viatour.]

Great tit photographed in Belgium; photo by Luc Viatour, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Where do tits belong within the passeridan tree?

Tits are passerines, and are undeniably and obviously part of Passerida, the great clade that includes sparrows, finches, thrushes, larks, swallows, Old Word warblers and so on. But where do they belong within this group? That’s been hard to answer: they can’t really be said to have a ‘traditional’ placement, since they really have been put all over the passerine tree in different classification schemes. Since the 1950s, they’ve often been regarded as close relatives of nuthatches, properly termed Sittidae, and for this reason the two are included together in the same books (e.g., Harrap & Quinn 1996). Some phylogenetic studies that feature reasonably good sampling of taxa do actually find these two groups to be sister-taxa on the basis of osteological characters (James et al. 2003)

However, modern molecular studies do not recover any such relationship: nuthatches are part of Certhioidea, a clade that also includes treecreepers and wrens, while tits (Paridae) – together with penduline tits (Remizidae) – belong to a distinct lineage, now termed Paroidea (Johansson et al. 2008, Fjeldså 2013, Alström et al. 2014). Paroidea has generally been of uncertain position within Passerida but might be especially close to Hyliota and Stenostiridae, these three lineages forming a clade that’s close to Sylvioidea according to Alström et al. (2014). The thing that I would have said about tits several months ago – that they’re not especially closely related to any of the other major clades within Passerida – no longer seems to be true.

Substantially simplified depiction of passeridan passerine phylogeny, based mostly on Alström et al. (2014). All images by Darren Naish except the kinglet (by Alpsdake; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license), waxwing (by Randen Pederson; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license), and stenostirid (by Tom Tarrant; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

[Kinglet photo above by Alpsdake, waxwing photo by Randen Pederson, stenostirid photo by Tom Tarrant.]

And that’s enough about tits for now. More passerines some time soon! For previous Tet Zoo articles on passerines, see…

Refs – -

Alström, P., Hooper, D. M., Liu, Y., Olsson, U., Mohan, D., Gelang, M., Hung, L. M., Zhao, J., Lei, F. & Price, T. D. 2014. Discovery of a relict lineage and monotypic family of passerine birds. Biology Letters vol. 10 no. 3 20131067.

Fjeldså, J. 2013. The global diversification of songbirds (Oscines) and the build-up of the Sino-Himalayan diversity hotspot. Chinese Birds 4, 132-143.

Gosler, A. G. 1993. The Great Tit. Hamlyn, London.

Harrap, S. & Quinn, D. 1996. Tits, Nuthatches & Treecreepers. Helm/A & C Black, London.

Hegyi, G., Szigeti, B., Török, J. & Eens, M. 2007. Melanin, carotenoid and structural plumage ornaments: Information content and role in great tits Parus major. Journal of Avian Biology 38, 698-708.

James, H. F., Ericson, P. G. P., Slikas, B., Lei, F.-M., Gill, F. B. & Olson, S. L. 2003. Pseudopodoces humilis, a misclassified terrestrial tit (Paridae) of the Tibetan Plateau: evolutionary consequences of shifting adaptive zones. Ibis 145, 185-202.

Johansson, U. S., Fjeldså, J. & Bowie, R. C. K. 2008. Phylogenetic relationships within Passerida (Aves: Passeriformes): a review and a new molecular phylogeny based on three nuclear intron markers. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48, 858-876.

Martin, P., Martens, J., Eck, S., Nazarenko, A. A., Valchuk, O. P., Petri, B. & Veith, M. 2005. The great tit (Parus major) – a misclassified ring species. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 86, 153-174.

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 darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! 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. Dartian 2:25 am 08/21/2014

    This time, we once again find ourselves surrounded by tits

    Tit jokes never get old, do they? ;)

    The Great tit is an extensively studied bird.

    As the rest of your article makes clear, however, that statement really only applies to the European great tit.

    tits (Paridae) – together with penduline tits (Remizidae) – belong to a distinct lineage, now termed Paroidea

    What about the long-tailed tits; where do they belong nowadays?

    Link to this
  2. 2. CS Shelton 3:15 am 08/21/2014

    Around here I’ve seen two different species of chickadee with some regularity and the black-capped looks rather like its Eurasian cousin you covered here – a cute lil’ puffball halfling version. I’ve read online that they can hybridize with bushtits, but they aren’t placed anywhere near each other. Is that possible?

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  3. 3. naishd 6:43 am 08/21/2014

    Dartian: what tit jokes? I’m talking about passerine birds here.

    Aegithalids (long-tailed birds) are part of Sylvioidea, surrounded in the phylogeny by the various ‘Old World warbler’ lineages.

    CS Shelton: hybridisation between phylogenetically distant lineages is often possible, but whether it happens or not is another matter (many alleged hybrids are unusual individuals or morphs, not hybrids at all [I say this after talking a lot yesterday about alleged deer x bovid 'hybrids']). Bushtits are aegithalids so, in keeping with the comment above, their phylogenetic distance relative to tits proper renders the idea of hybridisation unlikely… but not impossible. I just checked Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World: it lists hybrids between various Psaltriparus species, but not between Psaltriparus and chickadees so far as I can see.

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  4. 4. Neil K. 10:35 am 08/21/2014

    He also says therein that over 700 published studies have been devoted to this one species, and that was as of 1979, so I wonder what the figure is now.

    Google Scholar returns ~700 additional papers with Parus major in the title published since 1980. So perhaps the Great Tit corpus has doubled since 1979. However, Google Scholar only returns about 60 results prior to 1979 so it’s not a perfect index.

    Link to this
  5. 5. vdinets 2:54 pm 08/21/2014

    Google scholar results for scientific names in paper titles (excluding citations): Gallus gallus 3730, Coturnix japonica 1960, Columba livia 1350, Anas platyrhynchos 1170, Anser anser 1090, Parus major 791, Passer domesticus 766, Sturnus vulgaris 705, Meleagris gallopavo 477, Taeniopygia guttata + Poephila guttata (older name) 456, Hirundo rustica 354. I tried many other species but none of them got over 100, not even Serinus canarius.

    This is clearly heavily tilted towards species bred for meat and eggs, despite the fact that many authors working in agricultural science don’t put scientific names in paper titles. Another pattern I noticed is that European researchers are much more heavily focused on a small number of species compared to North Americans (3 of the top 5 passerines occur in both Europe and North America, but the papers on them seem to be mostly from Europe).

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  6. 6. naishd 4:20 pm 08/21/2014

    There is a paper that discusses which bird species have been studied the most, let me see if I can find it…

    Incidentally, some of my favourite quotes in the scientific literature come from…

    Thomas, G. H., Székely, T. & Sutherland, W. J. 2003. Publication bias in waders. Wader Study Group Bulletin 100, 216-223.

    Link to this
  7. 7. vdinets 5:56 pm 08/21/2014

    Interesting paper… but I find some of their methodology strange. How can you treat the latitude of breeding range and the migration distance as independent variables? Also, it seems to me that they were looking for simple correlations while it could be more complex. Here in the USA, for example, it looks like both endangered and abundant species get a lot more attention than those that are uncommon, but not listed. (The authors give the example of Eskimo Curlew as a species that is listed as critically endangered, but has no recent papers devoted to it. I find that absence of resent studies on the poor curlew hard to explain: don’t they teach the use of ouija board at biology departments anymore?)

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  8. 8. Yodelling Cyclist 6:30 pm 08/21/2014

    I think Cornell has a ouija board program. Seemed to be working in 2005….

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  9. 9. vdinets 8:28 pm 08/21/2014

    He that has never allowed wishful thinking to cloud his judgement, let him first cast a stone at Cornell :-)

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  10. 10. Tayo Bethel 12:03 am 08/22/2014

    Dr. Naish:
    You mentioned arboreal behavior of weasels preying on tit eggs and young. How common is arboreal behavior in weasels? Reading through the literature, one gets the impression that arboreal behavior isnt all that unusual: weasels preying on nestbound squirrels, for example.

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  11. 11. CS Shelton 6:16 am 08/22/2014

    Thx for the info, Darren. In looking up further info, I couldn’t find where I’d seen the suggestion of hybrids in the first place. And I did find that some bushtits have darkness around the head (not seen where I live) that could give someone the idea of hybridization.

    Tayo, that reminds me of a TV show on honey badgers where they faked like the baby honey badger was in peril from an eagle, then showed the mother badger stroll up the tree and grab the baby eagle. o_O

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  12. 12. Heteromeles 11:52 am 08/22/2014

    I’m still gibbering gently at the thought of bushtit X chickadee hybrids. Say what? They’re really different birds when you see them in the wild. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen the local bushtit flock in a while. I hope they’re okay.

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  13. 13. Felix2 5:17 pm 08/22/2014

    I’ve never heard of hybrids between tits and chickadees. In the US, chickadees are renowned for their fearlessness-regularly approaching humans within distances of a few feet, and so on. Are tits like that as well, or are they warier (I realize it probably varies between species and populations).

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  14. 14. naishd 5:56 pm 08/22/2014

    Fearlessness: blue tits and great tits will allow you to get reasonably close – I suppose within 5 m or so – but I’m not sure that they’re fearless enough to allow approach within the sort of distances you mention.

    The European passerine that does, famously, allow close approach is Erithacus rubecula, the Robin. It seems to have a long history of closely associating with big mammals that overturn soil.

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  15. 15. John Harshman 6:45 pm 08/22/2014

    I tentatively conclude that at least in California, willingness to accept close approach is roughly correlated with size. Of passerines, bushtits and kinglets seem least shy. And hummingbirds will come up and hover within a foot of your face for a few seconds.

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  16. 16. CS Shelton 8:49 pm 08/22/2014

    Harshman – The opposite of my experience here with bushtits and kinglets. Chickadees are moderately bold, bushtits all go silent or take off if you approach the tree. I’ve heard the call of a ruby-crowned kinglet but never seen one, and the golden-crowned seemed about as shy as the bushtits. I’ve seen hummingbirds being pretty badass though.

    Re: the hybrids, I think it was a caption on a photo I saw about a year ago. It stuck in the back of my mind, but I can’t find it now.

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  17. 17. Heteromeles 8:57 pm 08/22/2014

    I’ve had bushtits come within two meters of me. Granted, I stood still for 20 minutes before the birds came up to yell at me from a safe branch, but still, it was a lot of fun. I think the trick was habituation to help them see me as a normal and unthreatening part of the fauna, which included not focusing binoculars at them every time they turned up and looking away from them whenever possible.

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  18. 18. John Harshman 12:22 am 08/23/2014

    In my experience, neither bushtits nor ruby-crowned kinglets care much about your presence, whether you’re familiar or not, moving or stationary. I commonly have both within a few feet of me, foraging as if I weren’t there. How can two people have such different experiences of the same species?

    And you’ve never seen a kinglet? Where do you live?

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  19. 19. vdinets 12:47 am 08/23/2014

    In many city parks of western Russia, wintering great and blue tits (and common nuthatches) readily take sunflower seeds from hand, but chickadees and crested tits virtually never do it.

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  20. 20. CS Shelton 6:59 am 08/23/2014

    John – Just not ruby-crowned. I live in the grey smear visible from orbit on the east side of Puget Sound. I’m pretty sure I heard the call once, as I’d coincidentally been listening to calls on the computer the day before and it was fresh in my mind.

    There are some other birds that are common around here I’ve barely glimpsed because I never got used to using binocs over my glasses. That circumstance has me paying a lot more attention to calls.

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  21. 21. Felix2 8:30 am 08/23/2014

    I hear (I’ve never tried it myself) that (like those tits and nuthatches, vdinets) chickadees will take food out of your hand, if you stand still for a long time (imprecise, but I don’t know the specifics). So they need you to at least seem relatively still to actually come within a few feet. But a few meters distance is nothing-they regularly come that close, unless you are really being active. Wow-that was longer than it was meant to be.
    P.S. I have never seen a kinglet either.

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  22. 22. John Harshman 10:15 am 08/23/2014

    Coming next in an attempt to build circulation: a long article on boobies.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Heteromeles 11:03 am 08/23/2014

    @John: with bushtits, I think it’s a function of disturbance and focus. If I’m actively looking at the local birds, they go quiet and go away (possibly because they’re actively hunted by the local cooper’s hawks). If I’m walking along with my head down, not looking at them, they’ll go on with their feeding right over my head, so long as I don’t stop and look at them.

    On a different note, it looks like the speculative biology of the panbiogeography of boobies would be a sure crowd pleaser, hitting all the Tetzoo demographics. Too bad that cryptids don’t have, excuse me, include, boobies.

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  24. 24. Andreas Johansson 11:35 am 08/23/2014

    There’s been at least one article on boobies.

    I think there’s even been one on asses.

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  25. 25. BrianL 12:23 pm 08/24/2014

    It’s probably true that a generally Eurocentric view on biology has played a large role in notions in zoology, despite Europe being something of an outpost on a global scale. It did make me wonder if that also goes for paleontology though.

    Specifically, it made me wonder about those Eocene European faunas. Since these offer (some of) the best views into what the world’s biota were like those days, their importance is clearly warranted. However, Europe at the time would not even have been a continous landmass, instead being a tropical archipelago and something of a crossroads between the much larger landmasses of North America, Africa and Asia, possibly somewhat comparable to modern day Wallacea in that respect. Now, Wallacea and its fauna are hardly typical for the world at large. If this is all true, surely Europe’s Eocene faunas might have been odd for their time? Presumably then, those faunas would have been composed of odd mixes of immigrants, perhaps augmented with a few native endemics. What’s more, the insular nature of the known fossil localities would possibly have resulted in some weird insular evolution and overall somewhat impoverished ecosystems compared to the larger adjacent landmasses. Likely, different islands would also have had differing faunas following a cline, with African elements likely being more prevalent in the south for example. Messel’s fauna seems to have shared many elements with that of the Green River Formation in North America, but shouldn’t the picture have been rather different in, say, Romania or Spain?

    All this would probably also make the European archipelago more of a recipient of various immigrants rather than a source of colonisers. Yet, in the paleontological literature, one does sometimes find the latter being implied. Zygodactylids and basal psittaciforms suggesting that passeriforms and parrots first originated in the northern hemisphere or Paleogene European primates being ancestral to African ones come to mind here. Surely we should expect that to be a biased view from the peripheries too?

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  26. 26. Felix2 1:17 pm 08/24/2014

    I had never thought of the Eocene of Europe as a peripheral zone. I had heard that Europe was more an island continent than an archipelago in the Eocene, though. I have a (ridiculously outdated) palaeontology book that says that Europe was a crossroads though, for African, Asian, and South American animals. In my opinion, Paleocene and Eocene faunas seem relatively uniform (Arctocyonids in North and South America and Europe, Palaeotheres across the Northern Hemisphere, etc.). But I don’t know much about the Paleogene, so that might all be wrong.

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  27. 27. DavidCerny 2:22 pm 08/24/2014

    @ BrianL #25:

    Zygodactylids and basal psittaciforms suggesting that passeriforms and parrots first originated in the northern hemisphere or Paleogene European primates being ancestral to African ones come to mind here. Surely we should expect that to be a biased view from the peripheries too?

    In the case of passerines and parrots, the opposite appears to be true – the available fossil data, which are biased toward Europe, are ignored in reconstructions of their biogeographic history, which are instead based on deep divergences among living taxa. The fact that the basalmost extant lineages of passerines and parrots (acanthisittids and strigopids, respectively) are endemic to New Zealand is often assumed to reflect an Australasian – or at least Gondwanan – origin of the two groups and sometimes also of the larger clade that they form (Psittacopasserae), even though both of them have Laurasian stem-group representatives (Cracraft 2001; Ericson et al. 2002; Ericson 2008, 2012; Wright et al. 2008).

    Refs:

    Cracraft J 2001 Avian evolution, Gondwana biogeography and the Cretaceous–Tertiary mass extinction event. Proc R Soc B 268(1466): 459–69

    Ericson PGP 2008 Current perspectives on the evolution of birds. Contrib Zool 77(2): 109–16

    Ericson PGP 2012 Evolution of terrestrial birds in three continents: biogeography and parallel radiations. J Biogeogr 39(5): 813–24

    Ericson PGP, Christidis L, Cooper A, Irestedt M, Jackson J, Johansson US, Norman JA 2002 A Gondwanan origin of passerine birds supported by DNA sequences of the endemic New Zealand wrens. Proc R Soc Lond B 269(1488): 235–41

    Wright TF, Schirtzinger EE, Matsumoto T, Eberhard JR, Graves GR, Sanchez JJ, Capelli S, Müller H, Scharpegge J, Chambers GK, Fleischer RC 2008 A multilocus molecular phylogeny of the parrots (Psittaciformes): support for a Gondwanan origin during the Cretaceous. Mol Biol Evol 25(10): 2141–56

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  28. 28. BrianL 3:15 pm 08/24/2014

    @DavidCerny:
    I am aware of that, yet on this very blog Darren has said different things in the past. For example, in the comments section in this thread:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2012/07/21/isotemnid-toxodonts-2012/
    and in the main article of this thread:
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2013/03/02/kea-kaka-kakapo/
    Sure enough, you and I would apparently consider the presence of stem-parrots in Eocene Laurasia (as they are known from all three continents) not to have much bearing on the evolution of crown parrots, but there are people who think it does.

    My main point was mostly that, with so few other good Paleogene sites to go on as far as birds are concerned, it is inevitable that we give much importance to the ones known from Europe. Yet, their faunas may have been as atypical for the world then as Europe’s post-Pliocene faunas were, though for different reasons.

    Am I mistaken in thinking Eocene Europe was an archipelago roughly halfway between Africa, Asia and North America?

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  29. 29. naishd 6:28 pm 08/24/2014

    Thanks to everyone for the great comments. I should say that the idea of the British Isles/western Europe being ‘on the fringes’ relates predominantly to recent geological history – not to the whole of history, nor even to the whole of Neogene, or Cenozoic, history. As alluded to in some of the comments above, there was certainly a time where western Europe was indeed positioned so as to be biogeographically important with respect to the movement of organisms between Africa and Asia, and/or between Asia and North America.

    As for parrot history (comments # 27 and 28), the extant lineages obviously paint a picture of Gondwanan origins, while the Paleogene stem-taxa seemingly suggest a Northern Hemisphere origin for the group as a whole. The point I’ve been making in the previous Tet Zoo comments and articles is that there are several Miocene Northern Hemisphere parrots (Xenopsitta, Archaeopsittacus, Bavaripsittca) that might be close to – or even part of – the crown-group, and which mean that we might need to be sceptical of assumptions about a vicariance-based distribution.

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  30. 30. SteveKuntz 10:54 pm 08/24/2014

    Chickadees in upstate New York can definitely be taught to feed out of your hand. There is a park near here where all the chickadees do this, and on a nice winter day a lot of people will be standing there with sunflower seeds in their hands. I’ve even gotten nuthatches and tufted titmouse to land on my hand and feed. And now that I’ve mentioned titmice, this thread has come full circle.

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  31. 31. Dartian 2:16 am 08/25/2014

    Darren:
    blue tits and great tits will allow you to get reasonably close – I suppose within 5 m or so – but I’m not sure that they’re fearless enough to allow approach within the sort of distances you mention.

    Actually, those species are both quite bold; with a little patience, they can pretty quickly be taught to take food from the hand. Like this (great tit) and this (blue tit).

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  32. 32. Dartian 2:21 am 08/25/2014

    And it’s not just great and blue tits that can be taught to take food from the hand. Here are a coal tit Periparus ater and a crested tit Lophophanes cristatus, respectively…

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  33. 33. Dartian 2:25 am 08/25/2014

    …and here are a willow tit Poecile montanus and a Siberian tit (a.k.a. grey-headed chickadee) Poecile cinctus.

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  34. 34. Dartian 2:28 am 08/25/2014

    And, finally, an Eurasian nuthatch Sitta europaea (not a parid, but it often associates with them and, besides, it was already mentioned earlier in this thread by Vlad).

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  35. 35. Dartian 3:07 am 08/25/2014

    Aww, what the heck – I can’t resist showing two more pictures of bold parids: a tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor and a varied tit Sittiparus varius.

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  36. 36. BrianL 4:26 am 08/25/2014

    It might be pedantic of me at this point, but I did not mean that vicariance would be the reason for the distribution of any bird. In fact, it’s one of my pet peeves when people insist on doing so, despite birds being great dispersers over long distances.
    Being sceptical of crown parrots originating and spreading from the northern continents does not mean I support vicariance over dispersal. Rather, I’d speculate crown parrots evolved in the southern hemisphere and spread from there, with those Miocene European examples being immigrants from the south.

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  37. 37. naishd 6:33 am 08/25/2014

    BrianL – fair enough, sorry if I misunderstood your point. Given the rich record of Northern Hemisphere stem-parrots, it might, however, be more parsimonious to favour Northern Hemisphere origins for the crown. Hard to say more on this when the oldest indisputable crown-parrots (the Miocene cockatoo from Riversleigh and the St Bathans strigopoids) occur in the same place as the extant members of their respective lineages.

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  38. 38. Dartian 7:16 am 08/25/2014

    Still regarding the willingness of birds to accept human proximity; generally speaking I agree with John Harshman’s comment:

    I tentatively conclude that at least in California, willingness to accept close approach is roughly [negatively] correlated with size.

    If by “close approach” we mean willingness to actually land on people’s hands, it’s my intuitive impression too that smaller birds tend to be far more willing to do that than larger ones are. Perhaps it has to do with faster reaction times in smaller birds (meaning that they ‘know’ that they are able to escape quickly if necessary), or perhaps smaller birds are just generally less likely to consider human-sized animals as predators/threats?

    Incidentally, even among such relatively large birds as woodpeckers and corvids, ‘wild’ members of some species may land on people’s hands if food is offered – but it only seems to be the smallest members of these groups that do so. Respective examples of this are the downy woodpecker Picoides pubescens and the Siberian jay Perisoreus infaustus. (Perisoreus is particularly famous for being bold and fearless of people.)

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  39. 39. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:19 am 08/25/2014

    Did I point it before?

    So many papers are published on Great and Blue Tits (and Ficedula pied flycatchers), because they are among the easiest tetrapods to study in ‘the wild’: they readily colonize nest boxes, which can be put in big densities and easily controlled.

    Now, one researcher pointed that nest boxes are artifical structures, and were originally designed to be maximally bird-friendly and predator-safe. In natural forests (eg. in Bialowieza national park in Poland) tits breed in various natural tree holes, and nest predation is the major factor. Plus, there are things like drowning of nests in sloping hollows, limited clutch sizes in too small hollows etc.

    So the questions arise: are these studies really on ‘wild’ animals? How many phenomena observed in nest boxes would be insignificant or reversed in truly natural conditions?

    Link to this
  40. 40. Felix2 1:52 pm 08/25/2014

    Apparently parids are among the most intelligent birds (as are corvids, which, as you mentioned, Dartian, will also approach people closely). Could intelligence somehow have to do with willingness to come near people. I would have thought that a intelligent birds would have been less, not more, likely to closely approach humans.

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  41. 41. John Harshman 1:57 pm 08/25/2014

    Jerzy reminds me of this: My old professor Charlie Thompson originally set out to study the breeding biology of black-capped chickadees. He set out several hundred nest boxes in a tract of prime bottomland forest and waited for spring. Unfortunately, only a few chickadee nests appeared. But on the other hand, around a hundred boxes were inhabited by house wrens. So he changed his study species, and worked on wrens for the next several decades. Which by a roundabout process brings us to this: I would guess that house wrens are another of the most-studied passerine species, though I’m pretty sure that red-winged blackbirds have them beat for most-studied North American species.

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  42. 42. John Harshman 2:01 pm 08/25/2014

    On geographic origins: I’d say that when we have paleogene lagerstätten on each of the southern continents as good as the Green River or Messel, then we can usefully talk about continents of origin based on fossil data.

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  43. 43. naishd 4:05 pm 08/25/2014

    On parid intelligence: the fact that birds learnt how to peck through the foil lids of milk-bottles really says something, since this indicates reasonably complex cognitive abilities. Strangely, the habit (tradition?) now seems to have died out.

    And (comment # 42) good call on absence of data…

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  44. 44. Felix2 6:25 pm 08/25/2014

    I definitely agree about lack of data. Search Paleogene at the palaeobiology database navigator and the number fossil sites in North America and Europe is just overwhelming to the number in Gondwana. So far, the Paleogene of the southern continents has given us tantalizing but scrappy fossils (Tingamarra, Monotrematum) with little hard evidence. Pity, too.

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  45. 45. Dartian 4:04 am 08/26/2014

    Felix2:
    Could intelligence somehow have to do with willingness to come near people. I would have thought that a intelligent birds would have been less, not more, likely to closely approach humans.

    ‘Intelligent’ birds will approach humans (or other dangerous objects), but only up to a certain point. They are better than ‘dumb’ birds at judging how close they can get and still be safe. Compare corvids and gulls, for example; casual observation suggests that the latter are usually much less ‘careful’ (for lack of a better word) in dangerous situations. Corvids, unless they are young and inexperienced individuals, rarely get hit by cars whereas gulls quite frequently do. And a zookeeper friend once told me that while both corvids and gulls often try to steal food from the big cats’ enclosures in zoos, the felids almost never succeed in catching the former while they relatively often succeed in catching the latter*.

    * Incidentally, the lions and the tigers usually don’t eat the gulls that they catch – apparently they don’t like their taste. Ducks and pheasants that accidentally end up in the cats’ enclosures are, by contrast, relished.

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  46. 46. BrianL 5:51 am 08/26/2014

    That last comment reminds me of the Amur Leopard that lives in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam. Back when I was a very regular visitor, I fairly regularly saw the remains of devoured Wood Pigeons in its enclosure. Magpies were regular scavengers there and likely were more regular visitors than Wood Pigeons, but I only once saw an eaten magpie there.
    Contrasting with those smart corvids though, was the captive Azure Magpie that had ended up in the Great Hornbill aviary. Fun times were had by the two hornbills as one held the dead magpie in its beak and the other one chased it around, with the two of them jumping around from branch to branch…

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  47. 47. Felix2 11:14 am 08/26/2014

    Thanks Dartian. Its interesting that gulls get caught more. I wonder if that might also have to do with wing loading. I don’t know the differences between magpie and pigeon wing loads, though.

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  48. 48. DavidMarjanovic 4:45 pm 08/26/2014

    Strangely, the habit (tradition?) now seems to have died out.

    That’s sarcasm, right?

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  49. 49. naishd 4:47 pm 08/26/2014

    Not sarcasm. I thought it had died out. Am I wrong?

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  50. 50. John Harshman 3:34 pm 08/27/2014

    How would you know if it had died out unless you put out some glass milk bottles with foil caps? (I presume it’s been roughly as long since these have been seen in England as it’s been in America.) But given that tits learned this behavior by observing other tits, and that it’s been many generations since any tit had the opportunity to observe, I’m sure you are correct.

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  51. 51. DavidMarjanovic 6:27 am 08/28/2014

    Not sarcasm. I thought it had died out. Am I wrong?

    Don’t tell me milk is still delivered to people’s doors in the UK. o_O Because if it’s not, it doesn’t make sense to say the habit has or has not died out – it has become a purely theoretical possibility.

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  52. 52. naishd 6:39 am 08/28/2014

    The phrase “it has died out” is used commonly in the literature with respect to the bottle-opening behaviour; while I certainly see the point that milk delivery and the use of full-fat milk has also virtually died out, in those places where it didn’t, the behaviour did really seem to come to a stop. I’ve mostly heard this as a pers. comm. and not seen it discussed in the literature, but here’s one discussion.

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  53. 53. naishd 6:40 am 08/28/2014

    Of course, someone should test this (by leaving full-fat milk with foil bottles out in the open, automatic hidden camera nearby). Has anyone done this, and published the results?

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  54. 54. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:50 am 08/28/2014

    Crows and magpies are highly adapted to stealing food from carnivores, so no wonder they get caught less.

    I wonder if Arctic gulls which regularily scavenge from polar bears (Glaucous, Iceland and Ivory) are better at dodging carnivores?

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  55. 55. MikeWall 2:56 pm 08/28/2014

    Real milk in real bottles with real foil tops is still delivered in my part of the world (Hampshire, UK). Even so, as it must have been learnt behaviour and was probably never widespread, not just only locally common, a reduction in provision of doorstep delivery and move away from full cream milk would surely quickly die out in such short lived species as parids

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  56. 56. Yodelling Cyclist 4:34 pm 08/28/2014

    Similarly, the predation of ornithiscians by theropods has died out.

    Still got the theropods, we’re just missing a crucial ingredient.

    Link to this
  57. 57. DavidMarjanovic 6:04 am 08/29/2014

    Oh yeah, I forgot that the craze about white water (skimmed and semi-skimmed milk) has escaped the confines of the US…

    Link to this

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