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Classy Birds

November 30, 2005

The deeper one delves into the study of birds, the thornier (and more intriguing) the issue of bird taxonomy becomes. My own interest in birds began over a decade ago, but only in the past year have I made a concerted effort to learn about family relationships and overall classification – before that, my lack of bioscience background inclined me to stay away from such topics, which appeared to me to be merely academic. (Bear in mind that my own science background has an adage, only semi-joking, that “all science is either physics or stamp-collecting”!)

Once I realized how much understanding bird relationships could help me be a better birder, I started to take the topic far more seriously. I took the trouble to classify my whole life list, so that I could figure out which families I’d seen in my travels. Traveling abroad definitely gives an impetus to studying these things, because it is when you see birds that don’t fit at all into your previous experience (or better yet, you see birds that do resemble those you see at home), it is natural to wonder if they are relatives. Also, learning family relationships allows one to consider morphology and behavioral differences between species, especially the subtle ones, and those often are key to making proper identifications on hard-to-see birds. Besides, learning all these things turns out to be quite rewarding in its own right – having context for your observations makes the experience in the field all the more enjoyable. And, it allows you to recognize when you’re actually seeing something unusual, if the bird happens to deviate from its usual appearance or actions.

I’ve been using several resources so far to gain knowledge on bird families, but the main two at my disposal are Don Roberson’s Creagrus website, and my copy of Firefly’s Encyclopedia of Birds, edited by Christopher Perrins. The Firefly series may be familiar as one popular for getting kids more interested in science, especially animals, as they have similar books to this  on insects, the human body, mammals, and the earth. But this book, despite its supersized photography and eye-candy layout, is hardly a book just for the younger set. The articles are written by the world experts on each bird family (or grouping, strictly speaking), and are quite detailed. Of course, it is only meant as an introduction to the field, and isn’t as in-depth as the Handbook of the Birds of the World series, the 16-volume set that covers every single species in the world. But the Perrins’ book does its job well, and makes the continued study of bird classification very fun.

And thorny, as I mentioned at the outset. I’ll post more soon about some of the more difficult problems of classification, because even to a neophyte like me, it is clear that there are plenty of deep mysteries in bird relationships.

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