The gray-crowned palm-tanager is closely related to another Hispaniolan endemic bird, the black-crowned palm-tanager (Phaenicophilus palmarum). However, the gray-crowned palm tanager is found only on the Tiburon peninsula, in the south west of Haiti making it that country’s sole endemic bird. The two species are very similar in appearance, but the gray-crowned palm-tanager has a gray crown and nape (instead of black) and smaller white spots above the eyes. The chest and throat are also gray. The two species of palm tanagers of Hispaniola are another example of “sister” species. That is, closely related species, which, like the chat-tanagers and todies, make Hispaniola a very special place to study bird evolution. A peculiar detail in this case is the absence of the gray-crowned palm-tanager on the Barahona Peninsula and the high limestone ridge that forms Sierra de Bahoruco in the Dominican Republic and Massif de La Selle in Haiti.
This absence suggests that it was not only the Neiba/Cul de Sac Valley that was limiting this species’ dispersion to the north of Hispaniola, but also the presence of a geographic barrier further to the west that kept it isolated at the western end of the Tiburon peninsula. This could well have been the Jacmel-Fauché depression, or Bond’s Line, which until about 100,000 years ago was a marine channel running north-south on the Tiburon peninsula near Jacmel, Haiti. This ancient channel, formed when sea level rose during interglacial periods, may have created the separation that led to the evolution of the gray-crowned palm-tanager and other new species at the western tip of the Tiburon peninsula.
The gray-crowned palm-tanager can be found throughout south-west Haiti from sea level to the 2,400 meters high summit of Pic Macaya, on Massif de La Hotte. It inhabits a range of dry and humid forests, mangroves, scrubland and secondary forests, both on the mainland and on three of Haiti’s satellite islands (Île à Vache, Gonâve and Grand Cayemite). Some authors recognize three subspecies based on physical differences between individuals on each of these islands (grouping the mainland species with the subspecies of Grand Cayemite). Gray-crowned palm-tanagers build a cup-shaped nest of small sticks on a bush or in a tree, in which they lay 2 to 4 eggs.
“The complex geological history of Hispaniola as multiple separate island blocks has presented multiple opportunities for the divergence of palm tanagers.” Nicholas D. Sly et al.
Their call is similar to that of the other Palm-Tanager: peee-u, like a sad kitten, but shorter. In addition to its lovely courtship song it occasionally sings a canary-like whisper song. In contrast to the black-crowned palm-tanager, which is often noticeably curious, the gray-crowned palm tanager is shy, and often retreats quickly, typically flying low. Although the gray-crowned palm-tanager is still relatively common within its range, the IUCN Red List classifies it as “near threatened” because of degradation and loss of habitat within its limited range.