Sunday, July 17, 2016

Split, Lump, Whinge, Repeat

I am now king of the scrub-jays, having seen California, Florida, Island (above) and Woodhouse's. With that milestone, I now just need to become the king of...lots of other things. 

When I first started birding, I had seen one species of scrub-jay. This is not because I hadn't yet been to places like Santa Cruz Island, Arizona or Florida, it is because the only scrub-jay that "officially" existed was the Scrub Jay. Now, the Scrub Jay has been left by the wayside, stripped of its capital letters but gaining a hyphen...and most notably was made into four separate taxa. We've come a long way.

The newest American Ornithologists Union (AOU ) supplement just came out, and a lot of birders are happy with gotta love armchair lifers, or at least I do. Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay was my only addition from north of Mexico, but I got several more from Mexico and Costa Rica. I did not delifer at all, which is how I prefer it when these supplements come out. I'm not anti-lump, I just dislike losing birds. You understand. The vast majority of birders in North America bend the knee to the AOU (the king in the north!) regarding what is considered a full species and what is not, though we are rarely totally happy with what they decide.

Lesser Violetear was one of my armchair lifers. While I am pleased that I now have Mexican Violetear and Lesser Violetear instead of plain old Green Violetear, many are left wondering why the name Lesser Violetear was chosen...there is no Greater Violetear, after all. But hey, I'll take yet another poor bird name if that means a legit split got to go through.

What fascinates me is that there are a number of birders out there who are can't stand all this tinkering with species. They are neither splitters nor lumpers, they just dislike the amount of splitting and lumping that goes on. They are essentially against taxonomic revisions altogether. They dislike the new names, the new species. To them, this is just a nuisance, something they have to endure. Why is this so?

A poor grasp of science comes to mind immediately. Believe it or not, a lot of people fail to comprehend that our understanding of science is constantly changing, and overall these changes are improvements. Like many people, many birders don't really understand basic scientific concepts. People like to pigeonhole things, it's in our nature, at least culturally, and the tendency of pigeonholing is at direct odds with the changing ways we perceive and describe the world around us. We don't want to find out that the planet is not round, that the sun does not rotate around Earth, that American Coot and Caribbean Coot are conspecific. So while a lot of folks are really hung up on things staying the way they were originally taught, science marches on.

There is another reason birders advocate for a static taxonomy...they have trouble being up to date. In other words, they are simply unaware that the AOU is responsible for making these decisions and that it happens annually. A surprising number of birders believe that the American Birding Association (whose primary focus is advocating birding, not science) is "in charge" of splitting and lumping, which is indicative of the general ignorance on this topic out there in birderdom.

Finally, there is a distinction between birding and ornithology. Not all ornithologists are birders, at least not in the traditional sense. One does not simply earn the title of ornithologist after a few years of birding. Almost all birders are not ornithologists (no, "field ornithologists" don't count in this case). Science does not have to answer to the whims of birders; that's just how it is, but some birders have great difficult accepting this.

There is no doubt that birders have a lot to contribute when it comes to the field of ornithology, such as documenting the abundance and distribution of seabirds like Long-tailed Jaeger. That does not entitle reluctant birders to a moratorium on updating avian taxonomy. The AOU does not have a list enforcement arm (unlike bird record committees), so if you don't like what they do, you don't have to play by their lists.

Obviously the AOU is not perfect. If you follow the AOU very closely, you are probably aware there is no shortage of criticisms that can be lobbed at them. One could say that they act extremely slowly, they give birds poor names, they split things that should not be split and they lump things that should not be lumped. However, no one who is well-versed in taxonomic relationships, and science in general, advocates for keeping taxonomy static. There is no reason to release a single AOU supplement every 25 years just to make sure all the whinging birders are ready for it. Advocating for a fixed list of species is basically just saying "Fuck off, science. I don't want to be bothered by things changing"...and that, obviously, is a myopic, selfish and bizarre way of viewing the world. If you want to reject the fact that our collective knowledge of birds is constantly growing and changing, then you can go ahead and reject the names of birds and established species altogether. Call the Common Gallinule an American Coot one can stop you. Lesser Nighthawk?, that is a Greater Daybat. Island Scrub-Jay? Napes. Mainland Blue-Flapper.

A lot of species that we now take for granted were once considered two or more species, or lumped in with other species. Long-billed Dowitcher was once considered a subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher (above).

It all comes down to change...the last thing the world needs are more people who cannot accept the fruit of new studies and research, and the accompanying changes in the way which we understand said fruit. Sure we can be skeptical and not accept everything the AOU does as ordained by the gods of ornithology (though much of what the AOU does is ordained by ornithological gods), but change is going to come and that isn't something to be afraid of. You don't have to agree with it. The science in this field is not always perfect (the infamous Kumlien's Gull study comes to mind), as we are imperfect beings...but all the world's authoritative entities on bird taxonomy (the AOU, the IOC, the Clements checklist) can agree on one thing...taxonomy should be updated regularly. In attempting to refine the relationships between the world's birds, trying to figure out the passenger manifest of Noah's Ark is not going to cut it!

Will Red Crossbills ever be split? There was a lot of hype about it for years...but maybe an 8-way split is just too gnarly, and perhaps it is just simply not deserved...these "types" are thought to have diverged less than 100,000 years ago (for comparison, Eastern and Western Willets diverged 700,000 years ago). Whatever new information that can be gleaned about Red Crossbill types and how they are related will be fascinating to learn. Whole new frontiers of bird knowledge are opening up, and I hope those who would rather drag their sluggish feet in the past will eventually want to keep pace with the rest of us, regardless of whether field guides change or not.


  1. I got my hand smacked by my regional ebird policeman...I checked Willet, unknown to me the software then opened up to Eastern and Western and Eastern got checked. I am "old school" still using my 1993 Nat-Geo Birds of NA field guide, so when he said, "What you saw was NOT an Eastern Willet, because a wintering Eastern Willet has never been recorded in SC." OUCH I didn't even know they were split since I pay very little attention to that part of birding, not that I don't respect it, like you say it now adds yet another bird to hunt down!! I sent a very apologetic response noting I had made the change to Western, and his Zen was restored...I made a quick note in the margin of my antique field guide, adding a little box and made my check mark CA-Ching my life list just increased by one!

    1. Hi Sondra, Eastern and Western Willets are actually "officially" just subspecies of Willets, but a lot of birders think that this split is inevitable, which might have contributed to the fastidious response from the eBird reviewer.

      I have to say I am a fan of the newest version of Natty Geo, a lot of different species are in there and the illustrations are much improved!

  2. I know it's a lot more fun to whine and complain than actually do some homework, but If anyone is interested in the rationale behind AOUCLC proposals and decisions, see: At this link, you can see all the proposals, the pros and cons for each, and all the committee members' comments as well as experts solicited for their views. The process is completely transparent.

    Also note that anyone is welcome to submit a well-reasoned proposal to the AOU to change the current classification, regardless of credentials. This aspect of the process is entirely open to the ornithological and birding world.

    All this transparency and accountability comes at a cost. Leaving the paper trail requires time and energy. The bottleneck in the process is to get people to write proposals. Committee members are mostly overworked academics who don't get any official credit for proposal writing. Therefore, the process is much slower than it would be if we just had, say, teleconferences to discuss the data and decide on the spot. Thus, NACC welcomes help from non-committee members. See Marshall Iliff's terrific proposal on Lillian's Meadowlark in the current batch for an example. Even though it did not pass, now "the world" knows why the split is not (yet?) acceptable and what new data are needed to make a better decision; thus, even rejected proposals are productive.

    Concerning the name choices such as "Lesser Violetear", the rationale for English names is always included in the proposals and discussion that are available to anyone. In this case:

    "English Names:
    If this passes, I recommend a return to the names used by Ridgway, i.e. Mexican
    Violetear for thalassinus and Lesser Violetear for the cyanotus group. “Mexican” is not
    ideal because its range extends to Nicaragua, but thalassinus is often referred to as
    “Mexican Green Violet-ear”. “Lesser” is insipid, but appropriate because it is the
    smallest species in the genus; this also resurrects a name for the daughter species of
    the split, thus restricting use of “Green Violetear” to a broadly defined thalassinus."

    Parenthetically and pedantically, "Lesser" CAN refer to a group that is collectively "greater" -- thus there is no need to have a single "Greater Violetear" to validate the name Lesser Violetear. For example, we use "lesser of all evils" without requiring a specific Greater Evil. "Least", technically, might be better, but (1) most would prefer to restrict "Least" to the real shrimps out there, like Least Storm-Petrel and Least Flycatcher, rather than for something that is barely "THE least; and (2) "Lesser Violetear" was in use historically for roughly a half-century. Finally, if someone has a better name, then send us a proposal before Lesser gains more traction. No one out there is enamored with the name Lesser Violetear.

    1. Hi Van, if you are addressing birders who essentially want the checklist committee to stop what they are doing entirely, I think your comment is a bit over their heads...they probably don't even know what the NACC is, let alone have the capacity to submit a serious proposal of any sort. That said, it is informative for the rest of us.

      If by chance you thought my intention with this post was to bitch about the AOU, that was not at all the point.

      Agreed on Least vs. Lesser, and "inspid" is an accurate description. Is there really historical precedent for a new official common name coming in to use and then having it changed (quickly) simply because it was inaccurate or disliked?

    2. We've made quick revisions of English names in SACC. It's worth the temporary instability to get it right in the long run. I can't think of a precedent for NACC for "quickly", (maybe Orange Bishop?) although Nelson's and Saltmarsh sparrows come close (vs. Saltmarsh Sharp=tailed Sparrow ... ).

  3. My apologies Van, but my inner pedant jibs at 'lesser of all evils', prompting me to do an on-line search for the phrase; nearly all hits were trumped (sorry for the connotations that such usage brings at present) by 'lesser of two evils' by a huge (should that be Yuuuge?) margin.

    I agree that 'lesser' can reflect a group that is collectively greater, but if we had 'all evils' to consider, we would need 'least' as our modifier, and where would this leave 'Least Tern' and 'Least Sandpiper in future disputatious squabbles?