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Ornothologists now use DNA-sampling to ascertain relationships among the various bird species.

by Ian Hinze

Ornothologists now use DNA-sampling to ascertain relationships among the various bird species. Prof. Robert Payne of the University of Michigan has been able to prove that all firefinches (Lagonosticta) are closely related. The brown twinspot (Clytospiza monteiri) comes next to fire finches, but the other twinspots form two groups: (1) Peters', Dybowski's and Dusky, and (2) Green. Neither group has the fire finch as its closest relative, although species in group (1) are not too distant.

Samples of most Estrildids have now been sequenced, but Prof. Payne is most interested to undertake DNA-testing on a number of species that have, thus far, eluded him. All that is required is a feather picked from each bird. Large feathers are best (one per bird), and each should be placed in a separate envelope along with details of the species the feather was taken from. Grown feathers are better than growing ones. (It is strongly advised not to pull a growing feather as this can cause bleeding, which is bad for both the bird and the sample.)

Feather samples should be sent to: Prof. Robert Payne, Curator of Birds and Professor of Zoology, 3019 Museum of Zoology, 1109 Geddes Avenue, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1079, USA.

The list of birds from which feathers are required are:
Emblema (Stagonopleura) oculata: red-eared firetail
Erythrura cyaneovirens: red-headed parrot-finch
Erythrura kleinschmidtii: pink-billed parrot-finch
Erythrura viridifacies: green-faced parrot-finch
Estrilda nigricolis: black-faced waxbill
Estrilda rufibarba : Arabian waxbill
Estrilda kandti: Kandt's waxbill (sometimes listed as a subspecies of the black-headed waxbill)
Estrilda poliopareia: Anambra waxbill
Estrilda (p.) ochrogaster: Abyssinian waxbill
Lonchura (c.) caniceps: grey-headed mannikin
L. (c.) vana: grey-banded mannikin
L. ferruginosa: black-throated mannikin
L. (f.) forbesi: New Ireland munia
L. (f.) nigerrima: New Hanover munia
L. (f.) hunsteini: mottled/Hunstein's mannikin
L. kelaarti: rufous-bellied black-throated/hill munia
L. leucogastroides: Javan munia
L. melaena: thick-billed/Bismarck munia
L. montana: snow mountain mannikin
L. monticola: alpine mannikin
L. stygia: black mannikin
Oreostruthus fuliginosus: crimson-sided/mountain finch
Palaudipasser locustella uellensis: Northern locust finch
Parmoptila jamesoni: Jameson's ant-pecker
Pholidornis rushiae: tit-hylia

Prof. Payne, however, has an additional line of proof besides DNA — that of audiospectrograms. Lavender waxbills (Estrilda caerulescens), for example, are most closely related to black-cheeked waxbills (E. erythronotos). Not only do they have similar mtDNA, but their calls are similar too.

A few major surprises are that the swee waxbills, E. melanotis and E. quartinia, are not very close to other Estrilda waxbills at all and have now been placed in the genus Coccopygia. They are believed to be closer to the olive backs (Nesocharis). There's also only one species of quail finch.


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