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The Green Life: Bird Family Tree Gets Ruffled

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June 26, 2008

Bird Family Tree Gets Ruffled

Broadbilled_hummingbird Cuban_nightjar

  A new gene study changed the meaning of "birds of a feather" today. The international research effort known as the Early Bird Project found that dozens of similar-looking bird species once thought to be related actually evolved from different branches of the avian family tree.

Lead scientist Sushma Reddy described the two major findings of the study: "First, appearances can be decieving," she said. "Second, much of bird classification and conventional wisdom on the evolutionary relationships of birds is wrong." In other words, it turns common sense and previously accepted science on its head. Irridescent hummingbirds (above left), for example, evolved from drab-colored nightjars (above right). And falcons, which look and act a lot like hawks and eagles, have very different DNA.

For birdwatchers, this means it's time to update the guidebook library. While publishers scramble to put out books with the new names and classifications, you can turn to the frequently-updated Birds of North America project from Cornell's ornithology lab.

Share your stories about birds, birding tips, and surprising discoveries here.

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