American Tree Sparrow
Spizella arborea
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Suborder: Passeri
Family: Emberizidae
Vigors, 1831

Over 70, see text

The Emberizidae are a large family of passerine birds. They are seed-eating birds with a distinctively shaped bill.

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, the family Passeridae. The family also includes the North American birds known as juncos and towhees.

The Emberizidae family probably originated in South America and spread first into North America before crossing into eastern Asia and continuing to move west. This explains the comparative paucity of emberizid species in Europe and Africa when compared to the Americas.[citation needed]

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,[1][2][3] and at least one tanager genus (Chlorospingus) may belong here in the Emberizidae.[4]



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 grams, to the Abert's Towhee, at 24 cm (9.5 in), and the shorter-tailed, but chunkier Canyon Towhee, at 54 grams (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. Their diet consists mainly of seeds, but may be supplemented with insects, especially when feeding the young.[5]

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, 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.[5]


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.

The buntings

The results of a recent biochemical study[6] suggest that Melophus, Latoucheornis, and Miliaria may be related to various members of Emberiza and perhaps should be subsumed within that genus.

  • Genus Melophus – Crested Bunting
  • Genus Latoucheornis – Slaty Bunting
  • Genus Emberiza – typical buntings (nearly 40 species)
  • Genus Miliaria – Corn Bunting

The american sparrows and brush-finches, including juncos and towhees

Chlorospingus seems to belong here too.[citation needed]

  • Genus Arremon (13 species)
  • Genus Arremonops (4 species)
  • Genus Melozone (7 species)
  • Genus Pipilo – towhees (9 species)
  • Genus Aimophila (6 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 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)

The following are a group of apparently closely related neotropical sparrows known as the brush-finches

The longspurs and arctic buntings

  • Genus Calcarius (3 species)[7]
  • Genus Rhyncophanes (1 species)
  • Genus Plectrophenax – Arctic buntings (2 species)

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 Finch
  • 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 Piezorhina – 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-colored 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


  1. ^ Burns, K. J., S. J. Hackett, and N. K. Klein, 2002. Phylogenetic relationships and morphological diversity in Darwin's finches and their relatives. Evolution 56 (6). 1240-1252.
  2. ^ Lougheed, S.C., J.R. Freeland, P. Handford & P.T. Boag. 2000. A molecular phylogeny of warbling-finches (Poospiza): paraphyly in a Neotropical emberizid genus. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 17: 367-378.
  3. ^ Burns, K. J., S. J. Hackett, and N. K. Klein. 2003. Phylogenetic relationships of Neotropical honeycreepers and the evolution of feeding morphology. J. Avian Biology 34: 360-370.
  4. ^ Yuri, T., and D. P. Mindell. 2002. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of Fringillidae, "New World nine-primaried oscines" (Aves: Passeriformes). Mol. Phylogen. Evol. 23:229-243.
  5. ^ a b Baptista, Luis F. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph. ed. Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. pp. 210–212. ISBN 1-85391-186-0. 
  6. ^ Alström, P., Olsson, U., Lei, F., Wang, H-t., Gao, W. & Sundberg, P. Phylogeny and classification of the Old World Emberizini (Aves, Passeriformes). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 47, pp. 960-973.
  7. ^ Klicka J, Zink RM, Winker K. 2003. Longspurs and snow buntings: phylogeny and biogeography of a high-latitude clade (Calcarius). Mol Phylogenet Evol. Feb;26(2):165-75.

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