Bird Families Challenge

Oz Horine 06/07/2019 00:00

Birding around the globe in an eggshell


How can you see all the world's bird species? Simple answer - it's impossible. Although there are a few birders (rich, aged, lucky, to be jealous of…) who crossed the 9,000 bird mark on their life lists, they still have a way to go. There are more than 10,000 species known today, and industrious ornithologists are kept busy with splitting species to new ones. So, there is always a remote island where there is a new species that is missing on your wish list. What do I propose? Go for a short, selected list - at least one bird from each bird family.  This is doable! It would be a proper representation of the enormous variety of the avian world. Birding "in a nutshell", or in keeping it birdy, "in an eggshell".

The idea of this project emerged in 2013, while I was trying to arrange about 2,000 bird species photos I took by that time. I was looking for a hieracical method to sort these photos and decided to do by Family.  This was not a new idea: Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist already put nature in order in the 18th century.  Actually, in Orders and Families - he developed Taxonomy.

Like a bingo player, I formed a matrix with 250 cells, one for each bird family. All that was needed now was to tick the cells, one for each seen family from my list. A challenge that will lead to many birding trips around the globe. Sounds fun!


Click the table to enlarge


Bird Families in Israel

Israel is a birding power. The ratio of land vs. bird species is one of the highest in the world. The checklist includes around 540 species of 80 different bird families.

Novice birdwatchers can easily tick at least 60 bird families. Birding just around dwelling places will let you see representatives of Hoopoes, Sunbirds, Old World Sparrows, Pigeons and Doves, Crows, Tits, Cisticolas (Graceful Warbler), Woodpeckers, Swifts, and etc. Wandering around open areas will add families like Pheasants (Chukar), Stone-curlew, Larks, Bee-eaters, Falcons. Visiting fish ponds and water reservoirs contributes to finding Gulls and Terns, Plovers, Sandpipers and Osprey.  Desert trips will add Sandgrouses, Laughingthrushs (Arabian Babbler), and Bustards.

There are families which require specific trips on a certain time: Wallcreeper, Nuthatches, Shearwaters, Boobies and Gannets.


There are some unique Families as well: Ostriches (we missed them by about 100 years - Ostrich has been extinct in Israel since the beginning of 20th century), Albatrosses (for the lucky ones who were in Eilat on February 1983 to see the Shy Albatross), Drongos (Ashy Drongo, Gan-Shmuel 2014) or Auks, Murres, and Puffins (a dead Atlantic Puffin found on the Mediterranean shore, 2018).

The most important bird family in Israel is the monotype Hypocolius. It is very rare in Israel, so on its next visit it is a must to tick it. Most of the other options to see it are in the Persian Gulf region.


Grey Hypocolius - Ashkelon - Spring 2015 photo: Oz Horine


What is a bird family?

Bird family members usually look alike.  Sometimes they are more alike, especially when they share Genus, like Hooded Crow, Eurasian Jackdaw or Brown-necked Raven. Sometimes they are less alike , like Eurasian Jay and Common Raven.

In the past, taxonomy was based on morphology (bird physical structure) and geography. Today, it is supported (or sometimes denied) also by genetic researchers based on DNA and vocalisations.

Based on evolution, all family's members share the same ancestor, which prehistorically branched out, tens of millions of years ago, to different species.


Taxonomy is built on hierarchical structure, where higher level unit contains lower level units. The Family unit is in a good position: it contains Genera which contain Species, and Famiies themselves belong in Orders,  which in turn belong to Classes.





Birding families in Europe is not needed

The 4 families added to my list in Europe could be also be seen somewhere else in the northern hemisphere : Snow Buntings, Treecreepers, Long-tailed Tits and Auks, Murres, and Puffins.

The only unique family in Europe is the monotype Bearded Reedling, so while birding in Europe it is worthwhile to tick this Palearctic endemic family.  I was lucky to see it in Israel (1983, Acre area) and who knows when it might return.


Bearded Reedling - Spain Photo: Oz Horine


It's getting serious in Africa

A classic safari in countries like Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda will boost your families list by at least 25 new ones: Ostriches, Guineafowl, Hamerkop, Secretary-bird, Wood-hoopoes, Oxpeckers and others. 

Red-billed Oxpeckers - "binging"    Photo: Oz Horine

Other Afrotropical families require special trips: You will need to visit South Africa for Rockjumpers and Sugarbirds, West Africa for Rockfowl (Picathartes, I ticked the White-necked Rockfowl in Ghana) or Mabamba marshes in Uganda for Shoebill.


Cape Rockjumper   Photo: Oz Horine                                 White-necked Rockfowl   Photo: Oz Horine

Shoebill - Mabamba swamp - Uganda   Photo: Oz Horine

Taxonomy in a nutshell

There are three leading taxonomic methodologies: Clements, International Ornithological Congress (IOC) and Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW). There are tiny differences among them, mainly in the order of the families. The order is based on the time that the first member of the family appears on the planet (chronically by evolution). Ostriches are always first (appeared here about 160 million of years), and passerines which are the newest ("just" a few tens of millions). Other differences are that a few families in certain lists are included as one family, while in others it is vice-versa. You can compare the lists here:

I choose Clements list for my project as it is used in eBird.


Family birding in North America is almost unnecessary

Almost every bird family in North America has at least one member which migrates to the Neotropics. Others, some of which are residents, have representatives in Europe or Asia.   Apparently, bird family listers can skip birding in USA or Mexico. Apparently. The monotype Olive Warbler family is the exception. This is the only family which ranged in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. So, I climbed Mount Lemmon (or should it be called Olive Mountain?) 2800 meters above sea level, and in this alpine Pine forest surprisingly located above the dusty deserts around Tucson, I found the family honour of North America birding.


Olive warbler - Arizona Photo: Oz Horine


South American birds' carnival

On the samba rhythm, South America brings the world a richness on bird species, families and wildlife. To make a long story short ("in an eggshell"), it's difficult to cover all bird families of this huge continent within a single visit, but visiting birdy nations like Brazil or Peru (in different areas each) is a good start. To complete the list one may need visit the north (e.g.  Ecuador or Colombia, Panama or Costa Rica) and the other edge for the Patagonian zone of Chili or Argentina.


Red-breasted (or Green-billed) Toucan   Photo: Oz Horine
Magellanic Plover   Photo: Oz Horine                          Red-necked Tanager   Photo: Oz Horine


Birds of Australasia (Pacific Rim)

Birding in Australia is a great pleasure. Endless distances and enormous mileage are a must but you can still gain dozens of new bird families just in the vicinity of Sydney or Melbourne. Some are Australian endemics like the Superb Lyrebird, the master of mimicking, or Crested Shriketit, which is an expert in Eucalyptus bark peeling. 


Superb Lyrebird    Photo: Oz Horine

Spotted Quail-thrush   Photo: Oz Horine                  Crestes Shriketit   Photo: Oz Horine


Other families are Australasian-endemic like Quail-thrushes or Honeyeaters (Honeyeaters are the parallel evolution of old-world Sunbirds and new-world Hummingbirds, as they eat flowers' nectar and pollinate them).


The vicinity Islands provide some other endemic families: the flightless Kagu from New Caledonia which is titled as the most remote family, and the 6 New Zealand families which include of course Kiwis and New Zealand Parrots.


New Zealand Kea   Photo: Oz Horine             Kagu   Photo: Oz Horine



Far East

Birding in Thailand, India or other countries in the Indo-malayan region will contribute a nice list of new families like Leafbirds, Parrotbills, Asian Broadbill. Other families are not easy to find as they are secretive in Himalayan forests and Asian rain forests. 


Golden-fronted Leafbird            Pale-bellied Parrotbill            Long-tailed Broadbill

Photos: Oz Horine


Big families and small ones

The family with the highest number of members is Tyrant Flycatchers from the Americas area with 423 species. Next to follow are Tanagers with 377 species and Hummingbirds with 345.

Large families with representatives in Israel are Pigeons and Doves with 329 species, and Old-world Flycatchers with 317 (in Israel it includes Flycatchers, Wheatears, Chats, Rock-thrushes and others).

About 40 families are monotype - a single-species family. Families like these in Israel are Osprey, Wallcreeper, Crab-plover, Bearded Reedling, and Hypocolius.


Island Families

Islands, especially tropic ones, host some interesting families (some have already been mentioned). Madagascar, for example, with its unique flora and fauna, is the home of 6 endemic ones.


Subdesert Mesite   Photo: Oz Horine         Scaly Ground Roller   Photo: Oz Horine


Out of 7 Caribbean bird families, 5 can be found in the island of Hispaniola (which is shared with the Dominican Republic and Haiti). The cutest Caribbean family is definitely Todies.


Narrow-billed Tody   Photo: Oz Horine          Broad-billed Tody   Photo: Oz Horine

What's left?

Although 90% of my project is done, I still have a long (and enjoyable) way to go:

8 families in northern Neotropical (Ecuador & Peru) the same number to tick in New Guinea, 6 in Asia, 2 on the Caribbean, 1 in Africa and the final will be probably in Australia.


The site describes the milestones on my project, information about taxonomy and biogeography. WF250 club allows to join and tick your own bird families list. You are welcome to visit!

land marks