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grassquit-femaleBy Mark Yokoyama

 

Eye on Endemics: Black-faced Grassquit

 

This common resident has a cheerful, chirpy song and a mysterious past.

 

Back in the first half of the 20th century, author S.J. Kruythoff commented that the Black-faced Grassquit was the “commonest of all birds on the [Windward Netherlands Antilles] islands.” The variety of local names we have for this bird on St. Martin indicates it was indeed a familiar friend of St. Martiners: Tobacco Seed, Chee-chee Bird and Sparrow were used in English and Mangeur d’herbes and Ci-ci-z’herbes in French.

 

The male grassquit, true to its name, has a black head and breast and is a dark greenish brown elsewhere. The female is plain brown with a lighter belly. It is a small bird, similar in size to the Sugar Bird, and noticeably smaller than the Lesser Antillean Bullfinch. Their chirpy call is often written as “zeezeezee” and is probably the reason for the name Chee-chee Bird.

 

The Black-faced Grassquit has a number of similarities to the Bananaquit or Sugar Bird. They are both primarily Caribbean species, they both build covered nests and they both have evolutionary origins that we are still trying to understand.

 

The grassquits (there are a half-dozen species in the American tropics) are now placed in the tanager family. They are a sister group to a much more famous group of sparrow-like tanagers: Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos. Although our grassquit didn’t inspire the most important biological concept of all time, it is notable that members of the tanager family have been so adept at colonizing islands and adapting to new ecological niches.

 

Although it may not be the commonest of all birds on St. Martin today, the Black-faced Grassquit can still be seen all over the island. It is most common in scrub and pasture areas where it can easily find the grass and plant seeds that make up most of its diet. It can also be seen from time to time in urban areas. A cheerful companion to island life, as we learn more about its evolutionary relationship with other tanagers, we may also learn more about the ecological past of the Caribbean and the mechanics of evolution itself.

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Saturday Oct. 17, 2015
Friday, 16 October 2015
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Friday Oct. 16, 2015
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