Seedeaters Get No Respect


The title is not a comment on WC’s vegetarian friends. It’s about the families of birds that are the second tier (after the seeds themselves) of the food chain; the ones that primarily consume seeds.

WC recently visited Peru, which has some fifty or more seed-eating species, about twenty that are actually called “seedeaters.” But as their names reflect, they get no respect: Drab Seedeater. Plain-colored Seedeater. Dull-colored Seedeater, Variable Seedeater. There might as well be one called a Boring Seedeater, judging the birds by the species’ names alone.

Ornithologists are annoyed by the name “seedeater,” because it is imprecise. There are finches, sparrows, tanagers and grassquits that all have names that include “seedeater.” It’s dangerous, misleading and confusing to label bird species by their diet. It’s one of the reasons ornithologists use the Latin scientific names of birds. That annoyance results in even less respect for these little guys.

In fact, they are handsome birds, perfectly adapted to their habitat and food sources. Their coloration is cryptic, but that’s because any ground-foraging bird that’s brightly colored got killed and eaten before it had a chance to pass its genes along.

Drab Seedeater, Abra Laga, Peru

Drab Seedeater, Abra Laga, Peru

Rather than being drab, this bird’s coloration helps it blend in to ground cover where it searches for seeds.

Dull-colored Seedeater, Pantanal, Brazil

Dull-colored Seedeater, Pantanal, Brazil

Maybe WC is easily entertained, but there’s nothing dull or dull-colored about this bird.

Plain-colored Seedeater Female, Eulalia Canyon, Peru

Plain-colored Seedeater Female, Eulalia Canyon, Peru

Females, who have to brood their eggs, are usually even more cryptic than the males.

Plain-colored Seedeater Male, Abra Malaga, Peru

Plain-colored Seedeater Male, Abra Malaga, Peru

While this male shows well against the grazed grasses, against the cobbles it is nearly invisible. Note the bill, which evolution has also shaped to crunch seeds. This last photo also shows the rufous butt – birder’s call them “vents” – which is diagnostic for one whole genus of seedeaters.

All seed-eating bird species can get a little messy when they forage. If you have ever had bird feeders, you know what WC means. It’s an evolutionary accommodation between the seed-eating birds and the seed-producing plants. The birds serve as seed dispersal agents. But that’s another topic, maybe for a future post.

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One thought on “Seedeaters Get No Respect

  1. These birds are all beautiful. For some they may seem drab, but I always like the monochromic feather patterns. Not everyone likes monochromatic color schemes.

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