Off of a trail in Redlands, California, bird watcher Matthew Grube first spotted a skulking yellow bird and wondered what it was. The bird watching community noted that the bird looked like a hybrid of two birds from different taxonomic families. This bird is back in the area and looking to get some action.
In September, the bird started making rounds on the internet as it has different features of a specific bird. At first glance, it looks like a yellow-breasted chat-a slinking enigmatic bird that has confused ornithologists for a hundred years.
But upon a closer look, the bird was not easy to identify. It has a long and pointy bill, and featured stripes across its wings like the oriole birds have. The bird has also had lots of patterning on its back, while chat birds' backs are plain.
A weird hybrid
Since it looks weird, the birders began to suspect that the bird could be the hybrid result of a chat mating with an oriole. But they are two birds coming from different species and genera or level above species, and they belong to different families as well.
Orioles belong to the Icteridae family, along with blackbirds and meadowlarks. Chats, on the other hand are their own family, the Muscicapidae. The California bird found by Grube had distinguishing features of both birds.
Natalia Cristina Garcia, a Cornell postdoctoral fellow said that it is more common to find hybrids between sister species or very closely related ones or those in the same genus because more distantly related species will have much more differentiated genomes. The inter-family hybrid makes the newly discovered bird even more interesting.
Grube spotted the bird again this past weekend singing a raucous, chat-like song with a raspier and coarser voice. Birds sing to attract their mates or t protect their territory.
Maybe not a hybrid
Irby Lovette, a professor of ornithology from Cornell University, said that identifications on birds based on their outward appearance are not always reliable as hybrids do not usually look like clean 50/50 combinations of their parents. Additionally, the evolutionary distance between those birds is so large that a hybrid would be very unlikely.
But there are still ornithologists who believe that the bird is a hybrid. For example, Alvaro Jaramillo, a senior biologist at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory agrees with the hybrid theory. He said that the bird has oddities not only in its physical appearance but also in its structure and bill shape. The best way to determine the bird's lineage would be to get a sample of its DNA.
Penn State's assistant professor of biology, David Toews explained that the appearance of the bird alone can be a difficult way to determine its ancestry. He also noted that a recent study found that yellow-breasted chats and hooded orioles had a common ancestor less than 10 million years ago. This information provides little more evidence of their potential to produce an offspring.
At present, scientists are trying to figure out how to proceed and whether they can catch it to take a DNA sample. If they find that the bird is indeed a hybrid between a chat and an oriole, it further suggests that chats might be more closely related to Icterids than previously thought.