Back to top

Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America

Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America
The Passerines

Drawn from The Birds of South America: The Oscine Passerines and The Birds of South America: The Suboscine Passerines—including full accounts of nearly 2,000 species and more than 400 new bird paintings, for a total of more than 1,500 species illustrations—this is the definitive field guide to South American songbirds.

Series: Mildred Wyatt-Wold Endowment in Ornithology and the Natural World

Sales restrictions: Not for sale in British Commonwealth (except Canada) or Europe
July 2009
Add to cart
760 pages | 6 x 9 | 256 pages of color plates and maps |

With the publication of the landmark volumes The Birds of South America: The Oscine Passerines and The Birds of South America: The Suboscine Passerines, Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor established themselves as the leading authorities on the songbirds of South America. Reviewers hailed the volumes as the essential reference works for professional ornithologists and avocational birders alike, and they remain the only volumes that provide full scientific coverage of the continent's passerines.

Recognizing the need for a more compact guide that birders can take into the field, Ridgely and Tudor have now extracted and updated the essential identification information from The Birds of South America to create the Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America. This definitive guide is filled with indispensable features:

  • 121 color plates that present Guy Tudor's magnificently detailed paintings of more than 1,500 species of songbirds, including more than 400 that were not illustrated in BOSA
  • 160 additional color illustrations of subspecies and females
  • Extensively updated color range maps for all of the species in the field guide, prepared by Robert S. Ridgely with technical assistance from Maria Allen and Terry Clarke, appear opposite the plates for each bird family
  • Robert S. Ridgely's authoritative accounts of nearly 2,000 species that cover each bird's abundance, habitat, and range; elevational preference; taxonomic or nomenclatural changes; plumage description; general behavior and voice; and range beyond South America, if applicable
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The Species Accounts
  • Miners and Leaftossers: Scleruridae
  • Ovenbirds: Furnariidae
  • Woodcreepers: Dendrocolaptidae
  • Typical Antbirds: Thamnophilidae
  • Antthrushes: Formicariidae
  • Antpittas: Grallariidae
  • Gnateaters: Conopophagidae
  • Crescentchests: Melanopareiidae
  • Tapaculos: Rhinocryptidae
  • Tyrant Flycatchers: Tyrannidae
  • Tityras, Becards, and Allies: Tityridae
  • Sapayoa: Sapayaoidae
  • Manakins: Pipridae
  • Sharpbill: Oxyruncidae
  • Cotingas: Cotingidae
  • Crows and Jays: Corvidae
  • Swallows and Martins: Hirundinidae
  • Donacobius: Donacobiidae
  • Wrens: Troglodytidae
  • Thrushes: Turdidae
  • Dippers: Cinclidae
  • Mockingbirds and Thrashers: Mimidae
  • Gnatcatchers and Gnatwrens: Polioptilidae
  • Pipits and Wagtails: Motacillidae
  • Larks: Alaudidae
  • Vireos: Vireonidae
  • New World Warblers: Parulidae
  • Tanagers: Thraupidae
  • Bananaquit: Coerebidae
  • Grosbeaks, Saltators, and Allies: Cardinalidae
  • Emberizine Finches: Emberizidae
  • Cardueline Finches: Fringillidae
  • Waxbills, Munias, and Allies: Estrildidae
  • Old World Sparrows and Snowfinches: Passeridae
  • Weavers and Widowbirds: Ploceidae
  • Starlings: Sturnidae
  • New World Blackbirds: Icteridae
  • Notes on Taxonomy and English Names
  • Bibliography
  • Index to English Names
  • Index to Scientific Names

Robert S. Ridgely, a leading ornithologist and author of A Guide to the Birds of Panama and The Birds of Ecuador, is Deputy Director of World Land Trust-US. He has served on numerous conservation-related boards, and currently is especially involved with Fundación Jocotoco in Ecuador, of which he is president.

Guy Tudor, a MacArthur Fellow and well-known bird artist and naturalist, was the principal illustrator of A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela and A Guide to the Birds of Colombia.


With the publication of Volume II of The Birds of South America in 1994, we were faced with a choice of how best to proceed. The University of Texas Press proposed producing a more compact, single-volume work covering all of South America's passerine birds—a more portable book than the first two volumes, one designed more for use in the field. GT was enthused, but it must be admitted that RSR preferred to move ahead on our planned Volume III of the series, one that would cover families from the pigeons through the woodpeckers. With the appearance of this volume, it will be clear who was the more persuasive.


As seems so often to be the case, the effort took far longer than either of us envisioned. Truth be told, much of the fault lies with RSR, for whom the press of other activities has become truly overwhelming during the past decade. In particular, the drive to see The Birds of Ecuador through to completion and publication (achieved in 2001) consumed an inordinate amount of his time; in addition, and especially since the late 1990s, his bird conservation activities have become a major priority and responsibility. GT, having long since completed his artistic efforts for this work, had to be patient, while at the same time attempting to keep RSR's feet to the fire.


We hope, now that the book finally is in your hands, that the wait was worth it. We like the completed effort, and—despite the appearance of a number of single-country bird books in recent years—we remain convinced that there still is a role for publications that provide a broader perspective, dealing with the avifaunas of much larger areas. Producing this volume gave us the opportunity to update and revise our treatments where this was required, revisions that reflect the extraordinary amount of new information that has come to light during the last 15+ years. And yes, we do still intend to forge ahead with Volume III. That volume likely will be organized somewhat differently from Volumes I and II, and a new cast of characters may become involved, at least to some extent, but we do still want to do it. All we need is sufficient time and energy. Meanwhile, now it's back to a focus on bird conservation work, at least for RSR, and we hope that you, our readers, will recognize that conservation must come as the highest priority of all.


Plan of the Book


It will be evident that this volume on the passerine birds of South America (or songbirds), designed to be a field guide, has been organized entirely differently from Volumes I and II of The Birds of South America. Its geographic scope remains the same, with all continental islands being included (e.g., Trinidad and Tobago, Juan Fernández, Fernando do Noronha), but not oceanic archipelagos (e.g., the Galápagos, South Georgia). All of GT's illustrations from the original two books are here, and about 325 new figures have been inserted in their proper taxonomic sequence (or as close to it as could be managed, within cost restraints). Almost all these figures depict species that were not originally included. A very few show distinctly different plumages of a species already included (usually a different subspecies, sometimes the other sex). The presentation has been completely reorganized, with the original 83 plates expanded to 121. Even with the additional illustrations, a few species still are not pictured, but these gaps are certainly now far fewer than in the original two volumes, mainly involving species closely similar to one that is depicted, species with very limited geographic ranges, and certain boreal migrants. As before, a few species that occur only as vagrants are given even less coverage, only being mentioned under the species they most resemble.


As an example, Plate 1 now incorporates coverage of two furnariid groups, the miners and the horneros. Ten miner species are depicted, two of them newly illustrated species (Grayish and Puna), with only one now left unillustrated (the scarce and range-restricted Creamy-rumped). For the horneros, five species are now depicted, one of them new (Lesser), leaving three of them unillustrated (the Bay and two recently separated from the similar Pale-legged, the Caribbean and the Pacific).


Originally we intended to arrange the species accounts on the text pages surrounding the plate on which those species were illustrated, but ultimately this proved a bit too complicated. We thus opted instead to arrange the book in the more or less standard way for bird books of this genre, with all plates clustered together as a unit. Inspired by the arrangement in Rasmussen and Anderton's Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, we opted to place the species distribution maps on the pages opposite the plates, an arrangement that we hope will prove to be convenient for users in the field. Unfortunately, space limitations prevented us from including any text material here.


The species accounts have all information combined into one paragraph. Genera with more than one species are introduced by a brief paragraph that outlines generic characters; where practicable, information is presented here and then not repeated in the species accounts (such as the generalization that all hornero species build mud nests).


Following the bird's length (given in both inches and centimeters), each account begins with a summary of that species' abundance, habitat, and range; if the species migrates, this is also noted here. An indication of the species' elevational preference follows. Bearing this introductory information in mind is vital; yes, range extensions are still being made, but most are now minor. In the vast majority of cases, if your initial identification turns out not to be in range, then odds are that your first determination was in error.


Next, where necessary, comes a summary of taxonomic or nomenclatural changes subsequent to that found in The Birds of South America. The Latin names of such species are followed by an asterisk (*), and supporting details have been presented in "Notes on Taxonomy and English Names". We have attempted to keep abreast of taxonomic changes as they develop and are (usually) published, and to be evenhanded in deciding which forms to recognize as species and which not (while admitting a slight propensity toward splitting). Debate is ongoing concerning many of these issues, and such debate will certainly continue; there often is no "correct" course. We should expressly note that we have opted to follow the decisions on English names and taxonomy that were put forward, after a number of years of deliberation, by the standing committee set up under the auspices of the International Ornithological Congress to make recommendations on a standardized list of names for the world's birds. This list was recently published (Gill and Wright 2006). Although we do not necessarily agree with or even like every decision (e.g., "American Bare-eyed Thrush" and "American Cliff Swallow"), given our personal involvement with this effort (on the Neotropical Committee), it seems only appropriate that we accede to its decisions. Further, we conclude that to pick and choose would defeat the rationale that was behind creating the committee in the first place. In point of fact, apart from a shift in the way some group names are constructed (particularly the elimination of most hyphens, e.g., "Slaty Antshrike" as opposed to "Slaty-Antshrike" and "Seedfinch" as opposed to "Seed-Finch"), the number of changes to English names used in The Birds of South America is minimal. One significant difference, however, is the decision to continue to include diacritical marks (accents) in English bird names, where these names reflect a word in the Spanish or Portuguese languages (e.g., Marañón or Várzea).


Plumage descriptions have been reduced to the basics, omitting those points judged minor or less evident. The most important salient points are indicated in italics. Males are described first, with, as needed, females and any juvenile plumages described in relation to them. If there is significant geographic variation in plumage, the illustrated subspecies is the one described, with differences in other subspecies noted subsequently. Subspecific names have not been given; rather, the range of that subspecies (or group of subspecies) is indicated in boldface. Subspecific names can be found in the two Birds of South America volumes. For species in which more than one subspecies has been illustrated, these are denoted by an "A" or a "B" both in the text and on the plate. Comparisons with the species most likely to cause confusion follow.


A brief characterization of the species' general behavior comes next, together with a transcription of its voice, generally just its primary vocalization (or song). Commercially available cassette tapes, CDs, and even DVD-ROMs with recordings of the vocalizations of many species are now available for many areas. Learning to recognize bird voices is hard for most people. Although there is nothing like actually hearing (ideally in the field) a bird's vocalization in order to fix it in one's mind, we still find it worthwhile to transcribe bird voices phonetically, and we hope that our transcriptions will prove helpful.


Last in the species account, where applicable, we indicate ranges beyond South America.


As noted above, after much debate we opted not to position our distribution maps on the outside margin adjacent to each species account, but rather to place these maps on the pages facing the plates. RSR has spent an inordinate amount of time over the past two decades attempting to keep up with the flood of new information on bird distribution, in a multitude of publications; in addition, he has undertaken extensive travels and research of his own (with, at least some of the time, GT's company). As much of these data as feasible have been incorporated into these maps. Although they are assuredly not perfect or complete, we are confident that the maps represent as accurate a generalized interpretation of South American bird ranges as exists. This distribution information (including the specific locality points from which our generalized ranges have been drawn) is now being stored digitally, and we would be remiss not to mention here the invaluable assistance that RSR has received in this endeavor from his "map crew": Maria Allen, David Agro, Terry Clarke, Andrew Couturier (and Bird Studies Canada), Jamie Stewart, and Bruce Young (and NatureServe). Also, it should again be noted that the initial hard-copy paper maps that started this whole process, drawn up some 25 years ago, were assembled by our old friend and colleague, the late William Brown.


An astonishing amount of new information on all aspects of Neotropical ornithology has come to light over the past quarter-century, an explosion of knowledge that no one could have anticipated would be so fast or complete. If anything, it is now accelerating with the proliferation of Web sites, "gray literature" bird lists, and the like. Though at times it has seemed almost overwhelming, we have included as much of this new information as was practicable within the confines of our rather rigid format and the limited amount of space available. Where the information here differs from that presented in The Birds of South America, it should be assumed that what is given here is more up-to-date and correct.


Over the course of the past nearly 40 years (!), RSR has had the good fortune to have encountered the vast majority of Neotropical birds. This experience, usually long-term and repeated, forms the backbone of this work (though some species remain elusive). GT's exposure to South America's birds has, unfortunately, been much less sustained, but his ability nonetheless to capture a bird's essence in his artwork remains a widely recognized marvel. Photographs and study skins are of course essential, but it is GT's genius that he has been able to portray our birds as accurately as he has. We both have benefited from information provided by numerous other individuals who share our passion for Neotropical birds, and we will always be grateful to them. We should expressly state that if a point of information presented here is not derived from our own experience, the individual responsible is credited at the appropriate point. We hope and presume that what we present is correct, but of course we take responsibility for any errors should it not be. Please let us know!


The cutoff date for new information to be incorporated into this volume was late 2006.




In part because bird conservation efforts have become such an integral part of RSR's life during the past decade, we would be remiss not to include at least a brief personal assessment of where bird conservation efforts in South America stand at present and what we hope to achieve in the next few decades.


First, the last few decades have seen a quantum leap in the quantity and the quality of information available on a multitude of bird conservation issues (and indeed on ornithology in general). Most notably these involve efforts to determine more accurately the status of species considered to be at risk, information that has been amassed by the ever-growing numbers of talented field observers and summarized by the staff of what is now called BirdLife International in a series of useful publications, in particular Collar et al. 1992 and BirdLife International 2000. These two publications present accurate and up-to-date summaries of the species at greatest risk of extinction: where their remnant populations persist, what factors have caused their decline, and what steps can be taken to ensure their survival and (one hopes) to increase their population size. Some of this information has been employed in what has turned out to be the very useful process of identifying, on a country-by-country basis, areas of maximum importance to birds, sites that are now universally called Important Bird Areas (usually simply IBAs). Such areas have been selected for a variety of reasons, employing standardized criteria including their importance for rare species, for long-distance migrants, and so on. Although the designation in and of itself confers no actual protection status, it can and should lead to increased awareness (individual, organizational, and governmental) of the importance of these sites to birds, thereby lessening the likelihood that they will be altered and their importance compromised. Focusing on the most critically endangered species of all (not only birds, but other taxa as well), in 2002 an international consortium of conservation groups began to coalesce, under the banner of the Alliance for Zero Extinction, to focus attention on species found wholly or predominantly at single sites. This effort to halt extinction, although perhaps literally unachievable, has begun to acquire some momentum, and our hope is that it continues to do so.


Given the existence now of such detailed information on the status of birds, there is no longer any real excuse for not actually doing something about the dire straits so many species now find themselves in. Nothing is stopping us, except apathy and the discouraging sense, all too common in the developed world, that the situation is hopeless (especially in the tropics), that no effective actions can be taken to stem the extinction tide threatening to overwhelm our wonderful blue and green globe. Happily, developments demonstrating that this premise of hopelessness is false have begun to take form and gather in strength. It is especially encouraging that some of the impetus now is coming from Latin Americans themselves, a possibility that could not even have been dreamed of a few decades ago. Also encouraging to us is that private organizations are playing an important role in this effort; organizations and individuals now seem less willing to sit back complacently and wait for some government or international entity to deal with the extinction crisis and other problems that are bearing down on us.


In South America, private groups such as ProAves Colombia in Colombia, Fundación Jocotoco in Ecuador, ECOAN in Peru, Armonia in Bolivia, Guyra Paraguay in Paraguay, AvesArgentinas in Argentina, SaveBrasil and Biodiversitas in Brazil, and numerous others have sprung up and are gradually strengthening. Though their institutional strategies may differ, all are beginning to achieve significant conservation success in their respective countries. BirdLife International is associated with many of these groups and is playing a key role in the coordination of their activities by hosting regional conferences and by supporting publications. In recent years the Neotropical Bird Club has come to play a role as well, not only by publishing the journal Cotinga but also increasingly by supporting direct conservation efforts.


We applaud and take personal delight in these efforts. They give one hope, especially now that our own country, the United States, seems so totally to have abdicated its former leadership role in environmental matters both domestic and global. (We continue to entertain the hope that the USA will someday once again play that role, but realistically, we suspect that that day may not come soon.) We must emphasize that what all the private groups mentioned above (and many others besides) need most are the financial resources to do what they now know needs to be done. Such groups universally operate on a shoestring, typically in an environment in which charitable giving is not the social norm. We thus encourage all our readers, especially readers in the so-called First World, where such giving tends to be much more frequent, to support one or more of these organizations directly, through donations either financial or in-kind. These groups are accomplishing a lot already, and with additional resources, they could do so much more. In particular, if you care enough about South American birds to travel a long way to see them and to pay a considerable sum to do so, it is also your responsibility to contribute toward the efforts being made to protect them. Consider it your duty to do so.