New Feature: Bird Families of the World

Shawn Billerman January 20, 2020
Paridae Family

One of the most exciting features in Birds of the World is the new Bird Families of the World Explorer, which provides detailed family overviews for all 249 bird families. Read more below.

The centerpiece of Birds of the World is the in-depth, scholarly accounts of all 10,721 species of birds. With this many species, however, it can be challenging to keep track of the interrelatedness of species and understand how diversity is distributed around the world.

That’s where bird families come in handy. Families are a level of taxonomic classification that help zoologists, taxonomists, and systematists organize and describe all life on earth. Families represent groups of species and genera that are all more closely related to each other than they are to any other. Unlike species, families do not represent true biological entities, and are instead human constructs to help scientists understand diversity.

While what constitutes a family is somewhat nebulous and not exact; all families, and all taxonomic ranks for that matter, follow one simple rule: monophyly. That is, all members of a family are all more closely related to each other than to members of another family; they share a common ancestor. As a result, an examination of shared characteristics of a family can help us understand avian biodiversity both within and among other families.

While families have traditionally been classified based on morphological characters, most families are now organized based on genetic data. Although some of the arrangements may initially seem incongruous and confusing, a closer inspection of these family groupings can help us to understand the evolution of certain traits, behaviors, and ecologies of species.

In Birds of the World, we recognize 249 different bird families, ranging from monotypic groups containing only a single species, such as Pityriasidae (Bornean Bristlehead), Rhynochetidae (Kagu), and Dromadidae (Crab-Plover), to large, diverse families that contain hundreds of species, including Thraupidae (tanagers), Columbidae (doves and pigeons), Furnariidae (ovenbirds), and Muscicapidae (Old World flycatchers).

Our new Bird Families of the World Explorer provides detailed family overviews for all 249 families. Each overview presents brief, scholarly summaries of each family, covering broad patterns of breeding behaviors, conservation threats, feeding ecologies, general habitat preferences, and overall physical characteristics of each family (continued below).

Bird Families of the World Parulidae

What truly sets these accounts apart is the in-depth and thorough summary of recent scientific literature of the relationships of each family, covering how different families are related to each other, and how it was determined that certain, enigmatic species were determined to be classified in the way they are.

As co-author of Bird Families of the World with Drs. David W. Winkler and Irby J. Lovette, a reference that served as a guide for birders and ornithologists to the families of the world and aimed to introduce and help people understand the diversity of birds on a broader scale, it was with excitement that I was able to help adapt this content for the new Birds of the World.

While much of the scholarly content is the same, we have been able to make the reference much more visual and interactive, allowing users to navigate between families, genera, and species with ease. These interactive capabilities will enable users to easily compare and contrast different families, better see shared adaptations to similar environments across distantly related groups, and generally enhance the joys of learning about avian diversity in a fun and exciting way.

Take a tour of your favorite bird family now.

Shawn Billerman, PhD.
Science Editor, Birds of the World

Cover of Bird Families of the World
Bird Families of the World by David W. Winkler, Shawn M. Billerman, Irby J. Lovette and co-published by Lynx Edicions and Cornell Lab of Ornithology