Reclassifying the Yellow-breasted Pipit

Recent genetic findings show that the Yellow-breasted Pipit should, in fact, be classified as a longclaw.

By Hugh Chittenden         

This short note has been compiled to give support to the recent genetic findings that show that Yellow-breasted Pipit, Anthus chloris, is in fact a longclaw, and that it should be now placed in that family.

The latest genetic work by Pietersen et al showing that this bird should rightfully be placed with the Longclaws (Macronyx), and not with the Anthus pipits, is overdue and welcomed. I have always thought that this species is misplaced as an Anthus pipit, it just doesn”t have the right “pipit” feel, so the delay in accepting the Yellow-throated Pipit as one of the Macronyx Longclaws in the latest checklist updates comes as a surprise.

It appears that those involved with compiling world bird lists have decided that the Pietersen et al genetic finding should be kept on ice and that the current conservative generic classification be maintained “until future studies are performed”. Regarding the Yellow-breasted Pipit, which was just one of the 56 species looked at in the study, I totally disagree! Its DNA has been shown to be aligned with the Macronyx Longclaws and any observer with good field experience with this species would know that its current inclusion in the pipit family is just not correct!  

A male (left), and female (right)

Sharpe’s Longclaw Macronyx sharpei is the East African equivalent of our endemic Yellow-breasted Pipit. Classification of the latter, however, has meant that it has, till now, been regarded as a pipit, whereas Sharpe’s has always been correctly positioned in the Longclaw genus (for a time it was lumped with yellow-breasted Pipit in the genus Hemimacronyx). Both are morphologically and genetically nearly identical. Both have bluish bases to their lower mandibles and both have dark brown/blackish blotching to their backs, with feathers broadly margined yellowish white. They are not only surprisingly similar in appearance, but also in behaviour and habitat choice. Both are high elevation, short grass specialists, occurring in Afromontane grassland, preferring fairly short-cropped grassy areas. Both are uncommon species and both are about the same size (16 – 17 cm). Sharpe’s is endemic to Kenya, and the Yellow-breasted Pipit is endemic to South Africa.

A Yellow-breasted Pipit (left), and Sharpe’s Longclaw (Macronyx sharpii) (right)

Time in the field with Yellow-breasted Pipit will show that there are two morphological characters that are unlike grassland-inhabiting pipits. Firstly, the blue base to their bills, and secondly, their dorsal plumage that is unlike all Anthus pipits. Pipits don’t have a bluish base to their bills, and an infield view from the rear will reveal that the dorsal plumage blotching is more akin to longclaws than pipits.

Ninety-nine years ago, Austin Roberts in his landmark 1922 publication, wrote that this species “reminds one of the Yellow Wagtails. It has little in common with the other plainer coloured Pipits” and would seem to be allied to Tmetothylacus (Golden Pipit) …… and is the link between the Pipits and the Longclaws (Macronyx)”.  The Pietersen et al findings show that both the Yellow-breasted Pipit and Golden Pipit are indeed nested within the longclaw group, and that they should both thus be transferred to Macronyx.

Head views of Yellow-breasted Pipit, male (left), and female (right). The bluish lower mandibles are more pronounced during breeding (Photographs: Golden Gate National Park, January)
(Left) A male Yellow-breasted Pipit showing typical Longclaw back feathering
(Right) A back view comparison of skin specimens, showing how the dorsal plumage of Yellow-breasted Pipit contrasts with those of true pipits: Nicholson’s Pipit (top), Yellow-breasted Pipit (centre), Grassveld Pipit (bottom)
(Left) A Cape Longclaw Macronyx capensis showing typical black blotching to its back feathers.
(Right)  Longclaw back comparisons, showing the dark blotching to their dorsal plumages: Cape Longclaw (top), Yellow-breasted Pipit (centre), Yellow-throated Longclaw (bottom)

Setting aside taxonomic issues, the following photos are included to give insight into their everyday lives, and the typical upland grassland habitat they favour.

A female carrying nesting material (Photograph: Golden Gate National Park, January)
The female perched in a patch of pale grey coloured Helichrysum odoratissimum, a strongly aromatic perennial herb
A bird drinking at a shallow hillside pond
The male scratching for invertebrates in Black Wildebeest dung

Finally, when the change to this bird’s classification does take place, having two yellow Longclaws in the region with similar names (Yellow-throated and Yellow-breasted) might lead to confusion. If so, perhaps Montane Longclaw, instead Yellow-breasted Longclaw, might be a better option.

References:

Pietersen DW, McKechnie AE, Jansen R, Little IT, Bastos ADS. 2018. Multi-locus phylogeny of African pipits and longclaws (Aves: Motacillidae) highlights taxonomic inconsistencies.” Ibis doi: 10.iiii/ibi.12683.

Austin Roberts. 1922. Review of the nomenclature of South African Birds. Annals of the Transvaal Museum. Vol 8, Part 4, 1922.

Acknowledgments: David Allan is thanked for taking photos of museum specimens, and the use of Durban Natural History Museum specimens is gratefully acknowledged. Adam Riley is thanked for the use of his Sharpe’s Longclaw photograph & Geoff Nichols for identifying the Helichrysum species. Chris Lotz and Darren Pietersen are thanked for their comments.

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