The name "finch" at one time was applied to
ten different subfamilies of songbirds such as
the chaffinches, goldfinchlike birds, buntings,
grosbeaks, tanagers, weaver-birds, and sparrows.
All of these birds have large jaw muscles that
power cone-shaped bills. They differ, however,
in skull structure and in the ways they open
seeds. These differences suggest that at least some
"finches" may have evolved independently and
share characteristics as a result of convergent evolution.
In view of these differences, most modern
taxonomists agree that the name "finch" should
be limited to the family Fringillidae in the order
The 112 species of fringillids are among the
most successful of the seed-eating passerines. All
have conical bills or crossed bills adapted for eating
seeds. Several fringillid subfamilies are recognized.
The subfamily Carduelinae includes
the New World rosy finches, purple finches,
crossbills, redpolls, siskins, some grosbeaks, and
saltators. Old World chaffinches and bramblings
are placed in the subfamily Fringillinae. Two other
NewWorld fringillid subfamilies include the Hawaiian
honeycreepers (subfamily Drepanidinae),
which are restricted to the Hawaiian Islands, and
Darwin's finches (subfamily Geospizinae), which
are found only on the GalГЎpagos Islands.
Several finchlike birds have recently been
placed in a separate family called the Emberizidae.
This family is further subdivided into the
subfamily Emberizinae, which includes the New
World sparrows, juncos, longspurs, and tropical
brush finches, and the subfamily Cardinalinae,
which includes the forty species of cardinals and
OldWorld sparrows, which include the familiar
house sparrow (Passer domesticus), are more
distantly related and placed in a separate family
called the Passeridae. They are widespread seed
eaters that occur in a wide variety of habitats
throughout most of Eurasia and Africa. Some,
such as the house sparrow, have been deliberately
and successfully introduced in many other areas
of the world.
The Ecology of the Finches
Most finches are forest-dwelling, seed-eating songbirds that have nine instead of ten primary feathers in the wing and twelve tail feathers. The outermost part of ten primary feathers is usually small and hidden. Most species have sweet, melodious songs and often sing in winter, which is why they were named finch (from Latin frigus, "cold", because finches sing in the cold of winter). The female builds an open, cup-shaped nest with her tail feathers and also uses the feathers to incubate the eggs. Incubation and the fledgling period usually last between eleven and fourteen days. Members of the subfamily Fringillinae feed insects to their young and inhabit large territories while breeding. There are usually about three or four eggs and they are blue-gray with purple-brown spots. In the summer, the birds eat caterpillars from trees, and in winter seeds from farmland, including spilled grain and weed seeds. Over most of their territory they are migratory, but females tend to move farther away from their territory than males. The Carduelinae form the largest branch of the finch family, with about 122 species. These birds are more specialized seed-eaters than Fringillinae and they feed their young mostly seed, sometimes augmented with insects. They nest either alone or in loose colonies and feed away from the nest in packs. Many feed directly on plants and are adept at clinging to stems or hanging on twigs. They demonstrate a wide range in bill shape and adaptation for extracting the seeds from different types of seed pods. The fringillids range in size from the Mycerobas grosbeaks of the Himalayas, which reach eight inches in length and 3.5 ounces in weight, to the relatively tiny Lawrence's goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei) of eastern North America, which just reaches four inches in length and weighs no more than 0.3 ounce. Most fringillids are found in temperate regions, with fewer in the Arctic, deserts, tropics and subtropics. About sixty-eight species occur in Eurasia, thirty-six in Africa, and twenty-five in the New World. Fringillids are absent only from Madagascar and the islands of the South Pacific. Some species have been introduced into Australia and New Zealand.
Families: Fringillidae (finches and allies, New World sparrows); Emberizidae; Passaridae (Old World sparrows)
Subfamilies: Carduelinae (NewWorld rosy finches, purple finches, crossbills, redpolls, siskins, some grosbeaks, saltators); Fringillinae (Old World chaffinches, bramblings), Drepanidae (Hawaiian honeycreepers); Geospizinae (Darwin's finches); Emberizinae (NewWorld sparrows, juncos, longspurs, tropical bush finches); Cardinalinae (forty species of cardinals and allies)
Geographical distribution: All continents, except Madagascar and South Pacific islands
Habitat: Prefer temperate regions, although some species are found in Arctic, desert, tropic, and subtropical regions
Gestational period:Varies by species, but most eggs are incubated for eleven to fourteen days
Life span: Varies; three to ten years in the wild, five to eight years in captivity
Special anatomy: Beaks adapted for gathering, holding, crushing, and eating seeds; finches have nine primary wing feathers and twelve tail feathers; melodious song
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