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Spindalis portoricensis

Puerto Rican Spindalis

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Thraupidae
  • Monotypic

Authors: Kemink, Kaylan



Guánica State Forest, Puerto Rico. 9 January 2006 © Judith Toms

Male Puerto Rican Spindalis have a yellow throat, white chin patch, and an orange neck collar. Two white stripes run the length of the black head and the upperparts are a bright yellow-green. In contrast, females are much less distinctive and have a dull olive-green coloration on their upperparts.

Guánica State Forest, Puerto Rico. 23 October 2008 © Judith Toms

Similar Species

The three other allospecies within Spindalis share many physical and behavioral life history traits with Spindalis portoricensis.  However, the Puerto Rican Spindalis is the only one of this species group that is present in Puerto Rico, making field identification straightforward.


Males often singing high in the treetops, while females are commonly known to sing their "whisper song'"’ in low-lying dense thickets (Garrido et al. 1997).  Most often heard at dawn during the breeding season, the high-pitched territorial song of Puerto Rican Spindalis males is a series of three note phrases given in groups of three: seet see seee seet see seee seet see seee (Raffaele et al. 1989, Garrido et al. 1997).  The call note, a soft "tweweep," has been described as having "ventriloquial tendencies" (Raffaele et al. 1998).  Variations on this main call include an aggression call, a contact call, a fly-off vocalization, and several calls whose purpose is unknown (see sonograms from Garrido et al. 1997 below).

Sonagrams from Garrido et al. (1997) of Puerto Rican Spindalis. Sonogram of main three note call (Figure A), twitter call (Figure B), “chi chi chi” (Figure C), aggression calls “tsee er” (Figures D, E, F), contact call “queet” (Figure G), descending whistle (Figure H), fly-off vocalization (Figure I).

Nonvocal Sounds

Garrido et al. (1997) described clicks, caused by wing fluttering, that occurred during the fly-off vocalization. The faint vertical lines on the sonogram provided (Figure I) demonstrate the presence of this sound.

Detailed Description (appearance)

Sexually dimorphic.

Maricao State Forest, Puerto Rico. 16 January 2009 © Judith TomsAdult male: Male Puerto Rican Spindalis exhibit a much more vibrant plumage than females. The yellow throat, white chin patch and bright orange neck collar contrast sharply with the dark black head. Two white stripes run the length of the head, one above and one below the eye (Bond 1974, Raffaele et al. 1998). The upperparts are a bright yellow-green. Dark olive-brown rectrices also are edged with this yellow-green color. The white coloration seen on the rectrices of the males of other taxa of Spindalis is evident only in a narrow line on the outside of the two outermost rectrices (Garrido et al. 1997). The whitish flanks of the Puerto Rican Spindalis are streaked with indistinct gray markings, which are more evident in immature males (Garrido et al. 1997).


Guánica State Forest, Puerto Rico, 23 Mar 2009, © Judith TomsFemales and juveniles

Adult females and juveniles of both sexes have a dull olive green upperparts. Greenish yellow breast feathers fade towards the abdomen and flanks, which are dull whitish, streaked with gray (Garrido et al. 1997, Raffaele et al. 1998). The two white head stripes seen on adult males are present but are not as sharply defined. In fact, the stripe above the eyebrows is almost invisible in adult females (Garrido et al. 1997).

Younger males are similar to adult males dorsally, although they often have narrow black shaft streaks on their feathers (Garrido et al. 1997). The gray markings seen on the flanks are sometimes evident on the yellow breast as well.

See also the detailed plumage descriptions in Ridgway (1902: 65-67).

Bare Parts

Data from Ridgway (1902):

Iris: dark reddish brown

Bill: maxilla black, mandible bluish gray

Tarsi and toes: gray


Table 1. Measurements of Puerto Rican Spindalis in grams (mass) and mm (linear measurements). Note that measurements by Garrido et al. (1997) were taken from museum specimens while those from Arendt et al. (2004) and Olson and Angle (1977) were taken from live birds. See Arendt et al. (2004), Garrido et al. (1997) and Olson and Angle (1977) for more detailed information on measurement methods. *n=25 **n=11


Few published data are available on molt. Captive-reared males showed the adult plumage after the first molt, indicating that there are probably no extra molts before the adult plumage (Perez-Rivera, pers. comm.).  Four Puerto Rican Spindalis were captured in Guánica Dry Forest in 2008 and 2009, one in October, one in January and two in April. While one individual captured in April was actively molting the remiges, all others appeared to have relatively fresh remiges. Rectrices and body feathers appeared to be more worn in April than in October or January, suggesting that body molt may occur in the summer or fall (J. Toms, unpublished data). The timing of molt in Guánica may be different from other areas with less seasonal climates.

Geographic Variation

There is evidence of geographic variation in the coloration of males within Puerto Rico. Although Garrido et al. (1997) found no trace of chestnut on the breast of male specimens (n=19) from west-central and eastern Puerto Rico, they mentioned verbal reports of birds seen with this type of coloring in western Puerto Rico (Vilella, as cited in Garrido et al. 1997). A recent photograph of a male Puerto Rican Spindalis with a band of chestnut across its breast provides support for these verbal reports (see below). Súsua State Forest, Puerto Rico. 3 January 2009 © Judith Toms


Traditionally Spindalis has been classified as a tanager, Thraupidae (e.g., Hellmayr 1936, Storer 1970, American Ornithologists' Union 1998). Phylogenetic analysis of DNA sequence data cast doubt on the thraupid affinities of Spindalis, but also have not yet fully clarified where this genus falls in the radiation of nine-primaried oscines (Burns et al. 2003, Klicka et al. 2007).

At least since Hellmayr (1936), the various taxa of Spindalis were united in a single polytypic species, the Stripe-Headed Tanager (Spindalis zena), with eight subspecies found in various areas of the Greater Antilles.  Garrido et al. (1997), however, reviewed variation in Spindalis in vocal behavior, coloration, morphometrics, and in nesting habits, and recommending the recognition of four species. This taxonomy was adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union in 2000.  The four allospecies of Spindalis are: the Western Spindalis (Spindalis zena, including the subspecies zena, townsendi, pretrei, salvini, and benedicti), the Puerto Rican Spindalis (Spindalis portoricensis), the Hispaniolan Spindalis (Spindalis dominicensis), and the Jamaican Spindalis (Spindalis nigricephala). 

Recommended Citation

Kemink, Kaylan. 2011. Puerto Rican Spindalis (Spindalis portoricensis), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: