Sixtieth Supplement to the AOS’s Check-list

Yellow-thighed Brush Finch Chiriqui Panama

Atlapetes tibialis, Yellow-thighed Brush Finch

This is the first time in several years that I haven’t prepared a précis of the July Supplement to the Check-list — which doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few observations on some of the decisions reached there.

For whatever that’s worth.

Pink-footed Goose

Anser brachyrhynchus, Pink-footed Goose

It’s a big supplement this time, with lots of changes, and non-changes, to ponder. For listers — not that long ago a dying breed, but one revived by eBird — there is a handful of “splits” and, if a quick glance proves true, just a single “lump”; newly accepted records add five species to the United States list, a nice haul indeed.

The split most likely to draw the most attention is that of the old, polytypic white-winged scoter into three species, bringing the AOS list in line with most other taxonomic authorities. It’s a shame, though, that the English names weren’t rationalized, an easy enough task: instead of the velvet, Stejneger, and Degland Scoters, with “white-winged” remaining available for use as Sammelbegriff, we have the Velvet, the Stejneger, and the white-winged scoters, that last –long attached to Melanitta fusca — now the English name of M. deglandi. If the AOS Committee insists on dealing with English names at all, it really should start to abide by its own principle of avoiding the re-use of a broader name for a more narrowly defined taxon.

White-winged Scoter Degland Scoter

Melanitta delgandi, White-winged Scoter

The other big waterfowl news is the admission, even longer overdue, of the pink-footed goose to the US list. Birds seen in New England and the mid-Atlantic states are deemed wild, while reports from Colorado, Washington, and British Columbia “may also pertain to wild birds.” There is no mention here, however, of the individual photographed in south-central Nebraska in 2006, a bird considered to be of wild origin.

Sparrow people (aren’t we all?) will be interested to learn that Pselliophorus is no more and that the old yellow-thighed and yellow-green finches are now placed in Atlapetes and their English names changed to “brush finch” (or, in the AOS’s teutonicizing orthography, “brushfinch”).

The passerellids are also the beneficiary of a new linear sequence, beginning with the chlorospinguses and ending with the Atlapetes brush finches. (Oddly, the new list reproduced in the Supplement omits the yellow-thighed and yellow-olive brush finches, but it’s easy enough for the reader to just drop them in at the end.) Translating phylogenetic trees into vertical lists is a tricky business indeed, and I abandoned the effort about ten minutes in, preferring to just run down the right-hand edge of the tree generated by Klicka and colleagues five years ago. We should all be grateful that somebody else took the trouble.

Panama May 2007 116

Arremon brunneinucha, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch

The change that pleases me most, I suppose, is the restoration of an English name for the Brewer duck.

Brewer duck

Anas platyrhynchos Mareca strepera, Brewer Duck

This relatively frequent hybrid combination was described more than 180 years ago, but has languished in an appendix of the Check-list simply as Anas breweri. Giving this bird its English name back contributes to the standardization of the appendix entries, but more than that, it will return this duck to more birders’ mental horizons. Mark my word, we are about to see an explosion of sightings and reports of Brewer ducks around the country.

Things don’t really exist until we have a name for them.

As always, the updates the Committee has declined to undertake are at least as interesting as those it has carried through. The Harlan hawk remains a red-tailed hawk.

Harlan's hawk

The Melozone towhees and the Aimophila sparrows (whatever those happen to comprise this week) remain segregated.

Abert's Towhee

The vermiculated screech owl is still embedded within the Middle American screech owl (contra IOC), and the Cabanis violetear is still keeping company with the lesser violetear rather than the Mexican.

Middle American screech-owl vermiculated owl

A large number of proposed changes to English names not based on taxonomic reassessment have also gone unadopted. The proposal to rename the saltmarsh sparrow was correctly found to be utterly unmotivated.

saltmarsh sparrow

More surprisingly, and to my mind inappropriately, the proposal to change the English name of the McCown longspur to something less historically fraught also failed.

McCown's longspur

Several alternative names have been available for many decades, any one of which would have suited. This was a low-stakes matter for the committee–no code governs the assignment of English names–and the demurral disappoints, especially if, as I suspect, the rejection was grounded in some kind of slippery-slope fear. Others are likely to take this up now with greater vigor.

Harris Sparrow

And now the one everyone was waiting for. I understand that the vote was decidedly split, which perhaps bodes well for the near future.

For now, though, the beauty in the photograph above is “a Harris’s sparrow,” however barbarous the construction. I’ll bet you a shiny new Lincoln’s penny, maybe even a Kennedy’s half dollar, that we will soon be looking back on this decision as the beginning of the AOS’s appropriate and understandable deferral in the matter of English names to the people who actually use them, leaving the committee members to focus on what is after all their expertise and their purpose, evaluating the relationships and evolutionary history of birds.

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Not a Mystery Bird — Unless….

melodious hippolais

There’s no big mystery about this bird’s identity. We’re in southern France, it’s getting to be late May, and melodious warblers like this one are are busy and noisy on the edges of marshes and woodlands everywhere.

But play along here for a moment. When I’m out and about and smugly identify one of those challenging little brown birds, or yellow birds, or green birds, I like to step back and ask myself what usually turns into a truly disturbing question:

What if I were to run into this bird someplace where the species is utterly unexpected? Would I think of a hippolais warbler at all, or would I try to squeeze it into the procrustean mental image I hold of an entirely different bird? And just how many genuine rarities do I overlook as something familiar but just a tiny bit “off”?

melodious warlber

“Bird every bird,” they say. Little yellow warblers help me try to remember to do just that.

melodious polyglot warbler

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The Moral Swift

Swifts, Chavarillo

The common swifts are screaming all around as I look forward to meeting the group for this year’s Tuscany tour. Objectively, I suppose, it’s not a pleasant sound, like the screech of a thousand tiny tires on pavement, but it calls to mind so many wonderful spring and summer days from the past that I smile every time I hear it.

Their black plumage, otherworldly keening, and intimidatingly powerful flight aroused dire suspicions in our ancestors, who gave the birds such names as “skeer devil,” “jack squealer,” and “devil screw.” The species was known for its fearsome vengefulness:

A farmer, the owner of seventeen cows, is said to have shot seventeen Swifts in one day, and to have had every one of his cows die within seven weeks.

More sophisticated exegetes, however, found in the swift a range of moral exempla, positive and negative.

With their tiny feet, swifts are limited to either flying or perching, with no capacity for walking or hopping in between. Thus they can be understood to represent

anyone who spurns holy moderation and prefers instead to do either everything or nothing, and so is always running to one extreme or the other.

Such people are wont to rush to the goods of the world and the flesh, but to lie languid when it is time to praise God.

Another behavior of swifts leads us in a different direction, though.

Swifts nest in jagged crevices among rocks…. In the same way, too, as Jerome tells us, the Virgin Mary delivered her child in a cave in the rocks. And so also the soul given over to divine contemplation builds its own nest in caves in the rock and in chinks in the wall — that is to say, in the sacred wounds of Christ as he hung on the cross.

It’s rarely simple when we think about birds.

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Birding the Francisco Marroquín Campus

It’s one of the commonest of commonplaces when you’re birding the American tropics: “This place looks like an exotic plant nursery!”

Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

Especially this place, because it is … an exotic plant nursery, a quiet corner of Guatemala City’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín where palms and bamboos and other tropical fancies are being raised in pots for use in campus landscaping.

Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

It’s a spectacularly beautiful site, nestled into a steep canyon just a few minutes by taxi from the city’s international airport. I’d meant to have a quick look this morning while I was waiting for the Popol Vul Museum to open, but that look turned into nearly four hours of slow walking and exciting birding.

acorn woodpecker, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

I found about 40 species on my walk–and surely would have come up with more if I’d had my ear in better.

It’s a blast to see Lesson motmots, rufous-browed peppershrikes, and boat-billed flycatchers, but my favorite thing about visiting Guatemala this time of year has always been the combination of tropical novelties with so many wintering birds from the north. A motmot perched quietly above a path with a feeding wood thrush, a peppershrike hunting at eye level while a yellow-bellied sapsucker studies the tree trunk, a boat-bill striking righteous fear into a little flock of Townsend warblers and warbling vireos: that’s the Guatemala highlands in winter.

magnolia warbler

My favorite constellation this morning came late in my walk, when a couple of white-naped brush finches drew my attention to the weedy edge of a compost area. I love atlapetes, but there was no way I could ignore the magnolia and MacGillivray warblers and stunning yellow-throated vireo feeding alongside them, now was there? 

clay-colored thrush, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

Eventually it was time for me to do some indoor stuff. The museum was well worth the visit, though it wasn’t always entirely clear which objects were real and which were replicas (I’m guessing that I didn’t luck into the one single day in the history of the world when most of the most famous and most often reproduced pieces of Maya art were on loan here together).

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I was especially impressed by this curassow-headed whistling vessel. And I think I’ve found my new VENT leader portrait, too.

Popol Vuh museum

Like it?

Too late to join us in Guatemala this year, alas, but keep an eye on the new VENT website

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