Falcons, Parrots, and Passerines: More alike than meets the eye

I noticed a notch on Darwin’s beak, just behind the tip of his beak. I looked it up and some internet sources say he has a tomial tooth. When I joined the WSU Raptor Club, I learned that falcons like my new friend Everett the American Kestrel, have a notch in their beak referred to as a Falcon’s tooth. I immediately wondered… Is it a pure coincidence that I have two fanged and feathered friends? Perhaps the internet sources incorrectly labeled the notch in my parrot’s beak as a “tomial tooth”. I didn’t have any good close-ups of Darwin’s beak, so I found a few photos from different types of parrots from the internet (top row) and falcon beaks (bottom row):

Parrots and falcons related taxonomically Parrots and falcons related taxonomically Parrots and falcons related taxonomically

Falcons and parrots related taxonomically  

Since discovering beak-notches, I’ve learned little science-based information from the internet about them. However, I did learn that falcons are more closely related to parrots and songbirds than to hawks and eagles! Although the relationship between parrots and falcons was discovered in 2006, it wasn’t until last week that I righted this myth for myself. In fact, there is substantial phylogenetic evidence that Falconidae (falcons) are a sister to the clade of Passeriformes (parrots) and Psittaciformes (songbirds). The diagram below (called a phylogram) shows how songbirds (Passeriformes) and parrots (Psittaciformes) are sister taxa (genetic groups), and their closest relative is falcons (Falco) – and falcons are not closely related to the other raptors (hawks and eagles; Buteo).

Stay tuned for future posts as I explore the relationship between these three groups!

For detailed scientific information about the relationship between parrots, passerines, and falcons, see:

Ericson, P.G.P., Anderson, C.L., Britton, T., Elzanowski, A., Johansson, U.S., Källersjö, M., Ohlson, J.I., Parsons, T.J., Zuccon, D., and Mayr, G. 2006. Diversification of Neoaves: integration of molecular sequence data and
fossils. Biol. Lett. 2: 543-547. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0523

Hackett, S.J, Kimball, R.T., Reddy, S., Bowie, R.C.K., Braun, E.L., Braun, M.J., Chojnowski, J.L., Cox, W.A., Han, K., Harshman, J., Huddleston, C.J., Marks, B.D., Miglia, K.J., Moore, W.S., Sheldon, F.H., Steadman, D.W., Witt, C.C.,
and Yuri, T. 2008. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science. 320: 1760. doi: 10.1126/science.1157704

Jarvis, E. D., Mirarab, S., Aberer, A. J., Li, B., Houde, P., Li, C., Ho, S. Y., Faircloth, B. C., Nabholz, B., et al (2014).
Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. Science 346, 1320–1331.

McCormack, J. E., Harvey, M. G., Faircloth, B. C., Crawford, M. G., Glenn, T. C., and Brumfield, R. T. (2013). A
phylogeny of birds based on 1500 loci collected by target enrichment and high throughput sequencing. PLoS One 8.

Prum, R. O., Berv, J. S., Dornburg, A., Field, D. J., Townsend, J. P., Lemmon, E. M., and Lemmon, A. R. (2015). A
comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 526, 569–573.


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