BABBLERS IN THE UK
I started bird watching in 1966, and was soon spending my school holidays travelling by train and bus to birding hotspots on the southern England coast. If someone had told me back then that in 50 years’ time I would be able to go birding in the UK and see five species of babbler, I would have thought they were smoking something. (It was, after all, the ‘swinging sixties’!)
Half-a-century ago, babblers were exotic species of Africa and Southern Asia. They formed a widely diverse group of garrulous chatterers, living in habitats ranging from dry savannah to high mountain forest. So what has happened since the 1960s? We know climate change is a reality, but it hasn’t (yet) brought swathes of foreign birds to the UK’s shores.
Of course, what has changed is our understanding of how species are grouped together in families and how those families are related to one another. Recent DNA testing techniques have shown that falcons are more closely related to woodpeckers than sparrowhawks, that nightjars are near relatives of ducks and swans, and that what we thought of back in the 1960s as ‘warblers’ is a much more diverse group of species than we had imagined.
Perusing my 1966 edition of ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe’ (Peterson, Mountfort, Hollom), I find that back then all warblers were lumped together with flycatchers, thrushes and chats into a sprawling family named ‘Muscicapidae’. This family is still large and diverse today, but warblers and thrushes have long since been separated out. One genus within the 1966 Muscicapidae family was Sylvia. In 1966 there were 12 recognised species in this genus that were regularly present in Europe. Along with a few other species, they were referred to generically by Peterson et al. as ‘scrub warblers’.
One of the repositories of latest thinking on bird taxonomy is the IOC World Bird List, which can be found on the website of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) here. In all that follows I am referring to version 10.1 of the IOC birdlist, published 25th January 2020: Gill F, D Donsker & P Rasmussen (Eds). 2020. IOC World Bird List (v10.1). doi : 10.14344/IOC.ML.10.1.
Of the 10,770 extant species in the IOC birdlist, 170 have the word ‘Babbler’ or a hyphenated version ‘-babbler’ as part of their English name. They range across 12 families, from Pomatostomidae – Australasian Babblers to the single species Bagobo Babbler, which is in the modern family Muscicapidae – Chats, Old World Flycatchers and most closely related to ‘shortwings’. The largest number (52) are in the aptly named family Timaliidae – Babblers, Scimitar Babblers, but others are in Pellorneidae – Fulvettas, Ground Babblers (44), Leiothrichidae – Laughingthrushes & Allies (32) and Sylviidae – Sylviid Babblers (8).
It is this last family, Sylviid Babblers, that most interests me here in the UK, because it contains species I am very familiar with. Eurasian Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat and Dartford Warbler are all members of this family, which studies have shown is more closely related to Laughingthrushes than to family Phylloscopidae – Leaf Warblers & Allies (e.g. Willow Warbler, Common Chiffchaff) and family Acrocephalidae – Reed Warblers & Allies (e.g. Sedge Warbler). Furthermore, these five species and 23 others are members of the genus Sylvia. Hence the name of the family: ‘Sylviid Babblers’. Besides bird species with an English name including ‘Babbler’, there are also within this family 10 species of ‘Fulvetta’ [confusingly, not part of the Fulvettas, Ground Babblers family!] and 21 species of ‘Parrotbill’. Also within Sylviidae is Wrentit, the only member of the family that is resident in the Americas.
So, we have five species of Sylviid Babbler that you can reasonably expect to see in the UK in one day at certain times of the year. It is likely that many UK-based readers will have at least one of them (Eurasian Blackcap) either in their garden or close by.
So, next time you are out birding in the UK or Europe and you hear a male Eurasian Blackcap going at full throttle, or see a Common Whitethroat performing its scratchy song-flight, bear in mind that these birds are more closely related to Fulvous Parrotbill of the Himalayas, or indeed Southern Pied Babbler of southern Africa and White-breasted Babbler of Java, than to that Eurasian Reed Warbler chattering away in the reedbed. And remember – they’re not singing, they’re babbling!
More information about these and other bird species can be found in the All the World’s Birds (ATWB) series of Kindle eBooks.
Some details …
Each of the ATWB 2020 Companion Guides has a number of important features, including:
– A complete taxonomic listing of bird species
– An indication of where each bird family and species can be found in its native state
– Spotlighted species that have a restricted regional or worldwide range
However, perhaps the key feature of all eBooks in the Companion Guide series is the way you can quickly and simply access relevant, up to date online information about every featured bird species. If your reading device is connected to the internet, a single click will take you to a search results page for a species, from where you can continue to search for additional information to whatever level of detail you desire.
The ‘All the World’s Birds’ series of Companion Guides derives its taxonomy, English names and scientific names from The IOC World Bird List, an open access resource maintained by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). The IOC bird list is hosted on a dedicated World Bird Names website, which provides access to the list in various different formats. The version of the IOC bird list used in the ‘All the World’s Birds 2020’ series of Companion Guides is Version 9.2, published June 22 2019.
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