Archive for the ‘taxonomy’ Category


Give me Gallinule

June 29, 2008

This is one of those topics that doesn’t really matter a whole lot in the scheme of things, yet seems to bring out the strongest and most fiercely guarded opinions – the names of things.

The species Gallinula chloropus has been a problematic one apparently with regard to its name, although for as long as I’ve been birding, I’ve known it as the Common Moorhen. I’ve been blissfully unaware of the history of the naming of this bird until recently, where I’ve learned that it used to be known as the Common Gallinule. In fact, on some web pages including the very Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology page that I referenced in the link to Common Moorhen, under Cool Facts, the last bullet item uses the old name ‘Common Gallinule’ whereas the rest of the page uses Common Moorhen. Obviously the content writer still hears the old name in his or her head.

But change is afoot again! Just last month the South American Classification Committee, a subcommittee of the American Ornithological Union, passed proposal #335 which will return the name Common Gallinule to the species. This will be a reversal of the naming convention adopted in 1983, as stated in the proposal’s background section:

Gallinula chloropus was known in the W. Hemisphere as “Common Gallinule” in the 1957 AOU checklist but was changed to “Common Moorhen” in a Supplement sometime in advance of the 1983 AOU checklist. For more than a century prior to the 1983 list, it had been known as either the Florida Gallinule or Common Gallinule, but always a Gallinule. The change was a concession to the BOU to keep the “Moorhen” in the name; the species there had been known “forever” as the Moorhen.

The ‘BOU’ referred to here is the British Ornithological Union, which oversees among other things the English naming conventions for Old World birds, like those in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Gallinula chloropus is a wide-ranging species with subspecies in the Old World, and those birds have long been called ‘moorhens’. There are also several other species of closely-related birds in the genus Gallinula, also commonly called ‘moorhens’. Still, as the proposal states:

The breaking point for me came when, at the Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Venezuela this year, even the Spanish-first speakers were ridiculing it and using it as an example of an absurd common name. To make matters worse, the endemic Neotropical species of Gallinula still retains the name Gallinule (Spot-flanked Gallinule, G. melanops). The credibility of NACC as a body capable of governing English name usage was questioned. [Yes, I mentioned to them that this change happened before I was on NACC.]

Although most Old World Gallinula are now called Something Moorhen, two Australian species are called Native-hen, so the genus itself already does not go by a single English name.

The globalizers will go ballistic if we backtrack on this one, and there will be some who say that, heck, we’ve lived with Moorhen for 25 years and to backtrack now looks bad. I am reasonably certain, however, that the vast majority of our clientele, professional and amateur, will welcome a return to a better and historically traditional name. In fact, many of you may have noticed that many people refuse to use Moorhen in the field anyway except to fill out official checklists, and that many state game agencies retain Gallinule.

Makes good sense to me. Although I do have affinities for some bird names, ‘moorhen’ is not one of them. It has always struck me as a strange name, and I like that it now shares a common name with the Purple Gallinule, even though the latter species isn’t even in the genus Gallinula. It visually makes more sense, given the similarities between the two North American gallinules.

And maybe it’s just my naivete, but I am struck by the arguments against changing the name, made by a few of the committee members:

Comments from Stotz: “NO. I voted against this return to Gallinule in the North American committee, and I will vote against it here as well. I didn’t like the change in 1983 and it took me a long while not to think of this bird as a Gallinule, but it has been 25 years now, and a large number of birders and ornithologists have never known it as anything other than a Moorhen.

Yes, and I am one of them. And yet, I love this name change, so please don’t think you’re doing me some kind of favor by voting against the name change in this instance! Honestly, it’s this kind of argument that drives me bonkers: “Yes, we made a bad decision a while ago, but it’s too late now to do anything about it, so let’s ignore it.” Good grief! You’re the naming committee! That’s what you do. I understand about the ‘optics’ of reversing a name change made only 25 years ago, but if it was a bad decision then, I see no problem of correcting it now. And really, of all the birds that people are likely to get huffy and defensive about, Gallinula chloropus is kinda low on the list. Are there really legions of birders who would ‘go ballistic’ by changing it back? Really?

NO. We made our bed, and we need to lie in it. Too many have switched to the dark side, but it would give our committee a lot less credibility if we whimsically switch back and forth without any real reason aside from personal opinion.

This is another variant of the previous argument, but it does raise an interesting question, that of ‘committee credibility’. I can at least understand the concern about name changes like this as it pertains to credibility, but again, as the proposal states, there are already state game agencies using the old term anyway, despite AOU official convention to the contrary. I really don’t think the SACC is sacrificing any credibility here, because on the issue of Gallinula chloropus, they were being ignored anyway.

I think the worry here is way overstated, and that the gallinule-moorhen question is not going to be generalized and become a slippery-slope into ornithological common-name chaos like it is with botany. I think it is plain to see here that this is a very special case, and although it is a reversal of a position taken a short time ago, I really can’t see it as having any significant impact on the seriousness with which the ornithological and birding community at large takes the committee’s work. With all the highly technical taxonomic work they do, are there really people out there who would use the gallinule name-change as a reason to ignore, say, the removal of Saltator from Cardinalidae? I dunno.

In any case, this only applies for now to the South American lists – it has no bearing (yet) on the North American committee, until at least someone in the committee proposes changing its name to maintain consistency in the Western Hemisphere. But I would have to think that proposal will come within the next several months to a year, and after that we should start seeing ‘Common Gallinule’ back on the official state checklists and in bird guides. I’m fine with that, really.

I can understand the reluctance to change common bird names wholesale, for sure. I agree that there needs to be some measure of continuity, even if the current common name isn’t fully accurate or sensible. But at the same time, that desire for continuity shouldn’t rule out every single name change, especially when the change is actually to set it back to what many people are still using out in the field.


List tweaks

September 22, 2006

I just returned from a brief non-birding trip to Kansas, during which I curiously managed to do a fair amount of birding. Funny that. Anyway, I managed to see my first-ever Nashville Warbler, which was life bird #799. On the day I returned, neighbor Nick called and we went in the afternoon down to nearby Union Reservoir to look for recently reported Arctic and Least Terns. We didn’t find them, but we did find a few Common Terns, and that too was a lifer me, #800.

And so, while updating my lists, I decided to do a little organizing of my taxonomic life list, where I break down my life sightings by family. I thought it might help if I ordered them as they are listed in the AOU list, where possible. (I realize that the truly kosher thing to do here is to list them in accordance with, say, Sibley-Monroe or some other world checklist, but I don’t have such lists handy. All in due time, I’m sure.)

I came to realize that some taxonomic changes have occurred, and these have a bearing on my list. Not only that, I discovered that I had omitted a very commonly seen bird from my life totals – the Western Gull! That’s right, perhaps one of the first birds I ever learned to identify never made it into my life totals until this week. Well, that immediately pushed me up to #801.

The Scarlet-rumped Tanager, a bird of the neotropics, was also split not long ago into Passerini’s Tanager and Cherrie’s Tanager. These new species generally occupy the eastern and western coastal areas in Costa Rica and Panama, and although my current lists record sightings for the bird in and around the Caribbean Slope, I do have very distinct recollections of the bird around Corcovado down along the southwest coast. So there’s #802 – 2 new life birds, and I didn’t even have to leave my couch!

But alas, not all was good news. While sequencing hummingbirds, I realized that I had mistakenly counted Magnificent Hummingbird twice – once in Costa Rica in 2002, and again this year when I saw it up close down at Beatty’s Guest Ranch near Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ooops. Back to #801.

I’m mostly done with the list review, but a few other changes have been made, mostly in the arena of species’ renaming, based on new splits. For example:

  • Little Hermit -> Stripe-throated Hermit
  • Crowned Woodnymph -> Violet-crowned Woodnymph
  • Gray-fronted Dove -> Gray-headed Dove
  • Pacific Dove -> West Peruvian Dove

Unlike the aforementioned Tanager case, here I’ve only seen one of the “new” species that was previously considered a subspecies, so no automatic list bumps.*

Also, the family of Dendrocolaptidae, or Woodcreepers, has been subsumed under Furnariidae, the Ovenbirds. Recent genetic evidence confirms their close association, and the decision has been made to put them all in one family, as opposed to keeping them as subfamilies under one family name. I’ve also moved a couple European members of Turdidae (Thrushes) to Muscicapidae, in accordance with recent decisions regarding the breakup of the family of Old World Warblers. Namely, these two species were moved from Turdidae to Muscicapidae:

  • Black Redstart
  • European Robin

I may find other changes to make soon as well. I also might have to make notes in my guidebooks too, especially regarding the Neotropic name changes. Guides like Skutch and Stile Costa Rica book still haven’t been updated since 1989, and probably won’t be for a long time.

* Some of these updates were tricky to make – I was able to find out about the Gray-fronted Dove change from AOU Supplement 46 to their 7th Edition, but the other ones involved consulting the latest info on their South American checklist Committee site, which annotates many of their species lists and name changes. Very informative, albeit time consuming.

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Berlepsch’s Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

February 7, 2006
Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

I wanted to be the first person in the history of humanity to have a blog post with this title. This is the name of a recently rediscovered bird, found in a very remote and amazingly undisturbed rainforest in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia. The bird was known previously from specimens collected well over a century ago, and unseen since, entirely because no one knew where the bird could be found.

Birds of Paradise are part of the aptly named family Paradisaeidae, which has between 38 and 45 extant members, depending on whichever taxonomy you prefer. Berlepsch’s, once evaluated by ornithologists, will surely be added to this. Birds of Paradise are truly breathtaking creatures, in many cases ornamented in spectacular otherworldly fashion. And if that weren’t enough, the courtship displays of some species are just as outrageous as their outfits.

Listers can be happy to know there is yet another bird to be seen in the world, without requiring some committee-decided species split. Conservationists can be happy to know that this bird, as well as a number of other newly discovered or rediscovered creatures, appear to be thriving in this untouched wilderness. And those of us who are both definitely enjoy the double-whammy.


Cool Birds 1: the Hoatzin

December 1, 2005

Welcome to the first installment of a new feature for Feather Weather, a regular series on Cool Birds. These posts highlight birds which possess outstanding traits, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, sometimes just outright peculiar. These birds surprise and inspire us, and help us appreciate the grand biodiversity of our planet. Our inaugural feature today will be for the very distinctive Hoatzin, a bird that some consider the strangest bird in the world.

I was fortunate enough to go on a 5-day trip to the upper Amazon basin last May, specifically to Manu National Park in Peru. Tropical South America is the only place in the world where you can find the unique Hoatzin (pronounced “waat-zin”). Hoatzin, May 19 2005, Otorongo Lake, Manu National Park, Peru This photo was taken by me on our last day in Manu, on Otorongo Lake (an oxbow lake near the river, a common place to find Hoatzin). We plied the calm lake waters in a small catamaran, and came across a half dozen individuals on a snag over the water. The other 4 left, but this character (and the one in the photo below) hung around to see what we were on about. I only had my Nikon point-n-shoot, but we got close enough for me to get this decent shot. It was a memorable moment, drifting as close as we did, all the while hearing the hiding birds perform their enigmatic wheezy whine calls.

The Hoatzin has a very primeval appearance – a blue patch of featherless facial skin, an upright spindly crest, and bright red eyes. The nestlings also possess something extremely rare among living birds – hooks at the elbow on either wing, to help them clamber back up logs or branches, in the event that they fall to the ground or into the water below. With age these hooks disappear, but their resemblance to fossilized features on Archaeopteryx adds to their prehistoric cachet.

The Hoatzin’s digestive system is also highly peculiar. Most birds have a system involving a crop, a gizzard, and the stomach – the Hoatzin’s crop instead has evolved into a foregut, making it more similar to a cow than to virtually any bird. (Only the Kakapo of New Zealand has something similar.) It needs this foregut because it digests leaves and other vegetable matter which require an area to ferment. The fermenting process takes on quite a stench though, and sure enough the bird is sometimes colloquially known as the “stinkbird”. This foregut adds considerably to the weight of the bird, making it something of a clumsy flier, which was apparent when we saw them flutter into the brush in Peru. (Fortunately we didn’t have to experience their stink!) It also means they have to spend some time digesting, which makes them relatively sedate while roosting and not so hard to see for interested birders. As to why the Hoatzin has this bizarre system, researchers remain uncertain.

The Hoatzin has also been difficult to discern taxonomically. Early systematists placed it among the Galliformes, which include birds like quail, grouse, turkeys, chickens, and pheasants. This made some sense, given the unclear relationships between these groupings of birds already – the Hoatzin was yet another mystery set among them. Hoatzin (2), May 19, 2005, Otorongo Lake, Manu National Park, Peru However, with more advanced biochemical and genetic methods, as well as continued anatomical and morphological study, the distinctiveness of the Hoatzin increased, and the closest relatives to the Hoatzin were determined to be the Cuculiformes, the Cuckoos. But including the Hoatzin among cuckoos is problematic not only because of the its aforementioned digestive system, but also unlike any cuckoo, the Hoatzin is anisodactyl, meaning that its feet have 3 toes forward and one pointing back, like many birds. All true cuckoos are zygodactyl, with 2 toes forward and two back. Thus, the Hoatzin is placed in a monotypic family (a family of one species) called Opisthocomidae. A few researchers then go further and place it in its own Order, Opisthocomiformes, while other more cautious types leave it among the Order Cuculiformes.

Regardless of whatever becomes known about the Hoatzin’s lineage, it certainly qualifies as a unique and remarkable creature. The Hoatzin is definitely a cool bird.


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 thisĀ  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.