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In Europe, most species are called buntings. In North America, most of the species in this family are known as (American) sparrows, but these birds are not closely related to the (Old World) sparrows, in the family Passeridae. The family also includes the North American birds known as juncos and towhees.
It was hypothesized that the family Emberizidae may have originated in South America and spread first into North America before crossing into eastern Asia and continuing to move west. This would explain the comparative paucity of emberizid species in Europe and Africa compared to the Americas. However, a DNA sequence-based study of passerines concluded emberizids spread from North to South America.
As with several other passerine families the taxonomic treatment of this family's members is currently in a state of flux. Many genera in South and Central America are in fact more closely related to several different tanager clades, and at least one tanager genus (Chlorospingus) may belong here in the Emberizidae.
Emberizids are small birds, typically around 15 cm in length, with finch-like bills and nine primary feathers. The family ranges in size from the Sporophila seedeaters, the smaller species of which are about 10 cm and weigh 9–10 g, to Abert's towhee, at 24 cm (9.4 in), and the shorter-tailed, but chunkier canyon towhee, at 54 g (1.9 oz). They live in a variety of habitats, including woodland, brush, marsh, and grassland. The Old World species tend to have brown, streaked, plumage, although some New World species can be very brightly coloured. Many species have distinctive head patterns.
Behaviour and ecology
Their diet consists mainly of seeds, but may be supplemented with insects, especially when feeding their young.
The habits of emberizids are similar to those of finches, with which they sometimes used to be grouped. Older sources may place some emberizids in the Fringillidae family, and the common names of some emberizids still refer to them as finches. With a few exceptions, emberizids build cup-shaped nests from grasses and other plant fibres, and are monogamous.
Taxonomy and systematics
The relationships of these birds with other groups within the huge nine-primaried oscine assemblage are at this point largely unresolved. Indeed, relationships within the Emberizidae as defined here are uncertain with the possibility that each of the three main groups may not be all that closely related.
- Genus Melophus – crested bunting
- Genus Latoucheornis – slaty bunting
- Genus Emberiza – typical buntings (nearly 40 species)
The American sparrows and brush-finches, including juncos and towhees
- Genus Arremon (19 species)
- Genus Arremonops (4 species)
- Genus Melozone (7 species)
- Genus Pipilo – (5 species)
- Genus Aimophila (3 species)
- Genus Rhynchospiza (2 species)
- Genus Peucaea (8 species)
- Genus Oriturus – striped sparrow
- Genus Torreornis – Zapata sparrow
- Genus Spizella (7 species)
- Genus Pooecetes – vesper sparrow
- Genus Chondestes – lark sparrow
- Genus Amphispiza (3 species)
- Genus Artemisiospiza (2 species)
- Genus Calamospiza – lark bunting
- Genus Passerculus (1–2 species) – Savannah sparrows, Ipswich sparrow, large-billed sparrows
- Genus Ammodramus (9 species)
- Genus Passerella – fox sparrows (probably 4 species)
- Genus Xenospiza – Sierra Madre sparrow or Bailey's sparrow
- Genus Melospiza (3 species)
- Genus Zonotrichia (5 species)
- Genus Junco – juncos (4 species)
- Genus Atlapetes (around 28 species)
- Genus Lysurus (2 species)
- Genus Pselliophorus (2 species)
- Genus Pezopetes – large-footed finch
Genera belonging elsewhere
The rest of the traditional Emberizidae are listed below. While they do not form a natural group most appear to be closer to various tanager genera, and for the largest part they are often known collectively as tanager-finches.
- Genus Amaurospiza – blue seedeaters (4 species) - may belong with certain grosbeaks (Cyanocompsa) in the family Cardinalidae.
- Genus Acanthidops – peg-billed finch
- Genus Camarhynchus – tree-finches (5–6 species)
- Genus Catamenia – atypical seedeaters (3 species)
- Genus Certhidea – warbler-finches (2 species)
- Genus Charitospiza – coal-crested finch
- Genus Coereba – bananaquit
- Genus Coryphaspiza – black-masked finch
- Genus Coryphospingus (2 species)
- Genus Diglossa – typical flowerpiercers (14 species)
- Genus Diglossopis – blue flowerpiercers (4 species)
- Genus Diuca – diuca-finches (2 species)
- Genus Dolospingus – white-naped seedeater
- Genus Donacospiza – long-tailed reed-finch
- Genus Emberizoides – grass-finches (3 species)
- Genus Embernagra (2 species)
- Genus Euneornis – orangequit
- Genus Geospiza – ground finches (6 species)
- Genus Gubernatrix – yellow cardinal
- Genus Haplospiza (2 species)
- Genus Idiopsar – short-tailed finch
- Genus Incaspiza (5 species)
- Genus Lophospingus (2 species)
- Genus Loxigilla – Antillean bullfinches (4 species)
- Genus Loxipasser – yellow-shouldered grassquit
- Genus Melanodera (2 species)
- Genus Melanospiza – St. Lucia black finch
- Genus Melopyrrha – Cuban bullfinch
- Genus Nesospiza – Tristan da Cunha finches (3 species)
- Genus Oryzoborus – seed-finches (6 species)
- Genus Paroaria – cardinal-tanagers (5 species)
- Genus Phrygilus – sierra-finches (11 species)
- Genus Piezorina – cinereous finch
- Genus Pinaroloxias – Cocos Island finch
- Genus Poospiza – warbling-finches (17 species)
- Genus Rhodospingus – crimson-breasted finch
- Genus Rowettia – Gough finch
- Genus Saltatricula – many-coloured Chaco finch
- Genus Sicalis – yellow-finches (12 species)
- Genus Sporophila – typical seedeaters (some 55 species)
- Genus Tiaris – typical grassquits (5 species)
- Genus Volatinia – blue-black grassquit
- Genus Xenospingus – slender-billed finch
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