The Fifty-fourth Supplement to the AOU Check-list

Sage Sparrow

Is anybody disappointed?

The AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature has declined to recognize the big maxima Canada Geese of the prairies and the corporate parks as a separate species, and it has declined to recognize Hanson’s proposed Branta lawrensis as a separate species, and it has declined to recognize the dark little minima Cackling Geese as a separate species, and it has declined to recognize the ring-necked little leucopareia Cackling Geese as a separate species. 

From the birder’s perspective, I’m betting that most of you, just like me, are relieved.

There wasn’t ever really any chance: In placing those still startling proposals before the Committee pro forma, Richard C. Banks quite sensibly “urge[d] a vote of NO.” So now we can all breathe a big sigh of relief and get back to studying up on Taverner’s Cackling Goose and Lesser Canada Goose in anticipation of the winter to come.

Before we do that, though, there is a lot of exciting news in the Committee’s Fifty-fourth Supplement, which has just appeared in the latest issue of the Auk. It’s not the easiest reading, but take a little time and work your way through it; if you’re a lister, your numbers may jump, and if, like the rest of us, you’re just interested in the way that our understanding of birds and their relationships evolves, you’ll find lots of fascinating details to ponder.

The most eye-catching changes, of course, are the additions to the United States and Canada list — no less than seven  of ’em this time around.

Two parrots have been added to the AOU list by introduction, the lovely little Rosy-faced Lovebird and the Nanday Parakeet. Largely following the ABA Checklist, the Committee considers the lovebirds of Phoenix established, as anyone who has ever visited Gilbert Water Ranch will agree; the parakeet is listed thanks to established populations in Florida, but the Committee finds the birds in California — which I think is the only place I’ve seen the species — not yet established. The lines are lighting up over at the ABA facebook page, I’m sure.

A startling Double-toothed Kite photographed in Texas in spring 2011 extends that lovely little raptor’s range into the US.

The Providence Petrel, once known as Solander’s Petrel, has been added on the strength of birds photographed off the Aleutians two falls ago; the new species account also notes possible individuals recorded from Washington and British Columbia in Septembers past.

Fea’s Petrel, a difficult gadfly from the Cape Verdes, has long been a hoped-for, even nearly expected, sight on North Carolina pelagic trips; it now takes its place on the list as a visitant from Nova Scotia to Florida, with a hurricane-borne bird having made it to the Virginia mainland. The smart money is on a further split from this species to come, the Desertas Petrel.

Two of this year’s newcomers come newly from Alaska: a Common Moorhen from Shemya in fall of 2010 (not, please, to be confused with the bird we once again are calling the Common Gallinule), and an equally amazing Asian Rosy-Finch from Adak. As the Committee did not lump the others as proposed, North America now has four species of Leucosticte on its list.

One of the most anxiously anticipated splits was that of the old Sage Sparrows. With the publication of the Supplement, we now, once again, have two species, the Sagebrush Sparrow Artemisiospiza nevadensis and the Bell’s Sparrow A. belli. The Committee notes that canescens, the subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow visually most similar to the Sagebrush Sparrow, may represent a third species; this is the population that moves in winter into western Arizona, where sage sparrow identification just got a lot more interesting.

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Not a species-level split, but probably more significant in what it tells us about the higher-level relationships of North American birds, results in the elevation to generic status of Coues’s Psiloscops (named for the bird’s naked toes) for the Flammulated Owl; that tiny baritone ghost of the pines had most recently shared the genus Otus with the scops owls.

The other splits announced here will be a bit more abstract to most of us North American birders. “Our” Little Shearwater, accidental off New England and the Maritimes, is now recognized as a separate species, the Barolo Shearwater. The House Wren of much of continental America no longer includes Troglodytes cobbi, which means that those lucky enough to have birded the Falkland Islands get a new bird.

In the American tropics, the Zeledon’s Antbird is split from the Immaculate Antbird, and the genus Schiffornis gets more species-rich with the splits of the Northern Schiffornis and the Russet-winged Schiffornis from South America’s Brown-winged Schiffornis. The Rufous-rumped Antwren, until now in the genus Terenura, is given a new genus Euchrepomis.

And as if the manakins weren’t hard enough to keep track of already, the venerable genus Pipra is determined to consist of “multiple independent lineages,” resulting in a split into Dixiphia (White-crowned Manakin) and Ceratopipra (Golden-headed and Red-capped Manakins). The linear sequence of the Check-list’s eleven manakin species is also updated.

Naturally, there are also lumps. Here in the north, the Surfbird, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the Broad-billed Sandpiper, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and the Ruff all lose the distinction of their monotypic genera and join the other brown sandpipers in the genus Calidris; the sequence of species in that newly enlarged genus is also changed, as are the relative positions of the families in the entire order Charadriiformes. I’ll miss some of those old sandpiper names, but not as much, I suspect, as will the editorial staff of a certain German periodical.

Farther south, the Green-crowned Woodnymph fannyi, etc., is now treated as a subspecies group of the Crowned Woodnymph. The Green Manakin, formerly known as Chloropipo, is now merged into the genus Xenopipo.

The largest of the wholesale lumps is the dissolution of the subfamily Drepanidinae; the Hawaiian honeycreepers now occupy a position in the subfamily Carduelinae immediately after the Eurasian Bullfinch and before the “purple” finches — and those last, by the way, are now placed in the sequence House, Purple, and Cassin’s Finch. It can be confusing when you’re a bird towards the end of the Check-list.

Purple Finch

Most of the remaining changes effected in this Supplement are housekeeping matters of nomenclatural propriety and orthography. Priority forces the alteration of the species name of the Common Bush-Tanager to flavopectus. The former genus of the Bare-legged Owl is replaced for similar reasons by the clunky Margarobyas; the subgenus of the American Woodcock is changed back to Nuttall’s Microptera. 

Fans of the silky-flycatchers will have to relearn the spelling of that family’s scientific name; “corrected” once to Ptilogonatidae, it has now been corrected back to Ptiliogonatidae, adding yet another small challenge for those us who can’t spell “Phainopepla” anyway.

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The bibliographic side of the Check-list may seem tedious to some readers, but it’s nice to see some historical justice done to scientists whose contributions have been underappreciated over the years. Emmanuel Le Maout gets full credit now for the Black Vulture‘s genus name Coragyps, and the name of Stephen Harriman Long, military commander of the Rocky Mountain Expedition of 1819-1820, is replaced in the citations for nine species by that of Edwin James, who actually edited the Account of the Expedition in which Thomas Say described those birds, ranging from the Dusky Grouse to the Orange-crowned Warbler.

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It’s a lot for the non-scientific reader like me to take in, as it is every year at this time, and each succeeding Supplement increases my admiration for the members of the Committee, whose learning and labor give the rest of us so much to think about and so much to learn. I hope that if you’ve never delved into the Supplement before, my quick précis encourages you to read this Fifty-fourth, and that even if you’re an old hand and eye at such things, you’ll find it useful in identifying those sections you want to examine first.


The 53rd Supplement to the AOU Check-list

Nobody I know could fail to be dazzled by the discovery of a new barbet in Peru–or by the painting of the bird, the Sira Barbet Capito fitzpatricki, on the cover of this month’s number of The Auk. At the same time, though, I bet nearly everybody e-leafs right past Seeholzer et al.’s description to get to the birderly meat of the new issue: the 2012 Supplement to the AOU Check-list.

My own thoughts of late are aswarm even more than usual with sparrows, so naturally I went to the emberizids first.

The proposal to split the beautiful pastel Baird’s Junco from the other Yellow-eyed Juncos, was not accepted; neither was the split, first formally proposed three or four years ago, of the Savannah Sparrow into two or three or four species.

The linear sequence of the Spizella sparrows, subject of an oddly half-hearted proposal this time around, also remains unchanged (that proposal summarizes research that purports to show, interestingly, that the closest relative of Worthen’s Sparrow is not the look-alike Field Sparrow but rather Brewer’s Sparrow).

But there are still some sparrow changes. The tropical “cardinals” of the genus Paroaria are kicked out of Emberizidae and moved to the tanager family Thraupidae, a taxon well on its way to becoming the next catch-all.

US birders will sit up and take note at the new and slightly ungainly genus name coined for the Sage Sparrow(s); it–or they—are henceforth members of the (provisionally) monotypic genus Artemisiospiza, while the Black-throated Sparrow now shares Amphispiza with only the Five-striped Sparrow. The only “splits” among the emberizids are the recognition of two new Arremon brush-finches, both formerly considered conspecific with South America’s Stripe-headed Brush-Finch; the North American committee agrees with the decision of its South American counterpart in recognizing as distinct the “new” Costa Rican and Black-headed Brush-Finches (and in retaining the hyphen).

The other species-level splits affect two seabirds and a raptor. Galapagos Shearwater, formally described 125 years ago by Robert Ridgway, is once again recognized as a species separate from Audubon’s Shearwater. A much-bruited change is the split of the old Xantus’s Murrelet into a northern and a southern species, Guadalupe Murrelet and Scripps’s Murrelet; these two have been well illustrated in the field guides for decades now, and birders fortunate enough to be out in places where they’re possible already routinely distinguish the two.

Equally anticipated is the recognition that the former Gray Hawk in fact represents two species, a reasonable view that has been taken at regular intervals over the past two centuries. Unfortunately, and in sad contrast to the sensible naming practice adopted for the “new” murrelets, the Committee muffed it in assigning English names to these two tropical raptors. Priority requires that the scientific name nitidus go with the southern species, the Gray-lined Hawk, but the AOU retained the English name Gray Hawk for the northern birds (now Buteo plagiatus). The historical record for Mexico and the southwest United States is full of mentions of Gray Hawk Buteo nitidus, a name combination that with the publication of this supplement no longer makes sense and is likely to be a source of perennial confusion. Notably, regrettably, the Committee rejected a proposal to assign the northern species the English name “Ashy Hawk,” which would have been a good step towards avoiding at least future confusion.

The Supplement makes another nine changes to English names. Most are simple and straightforward–easy enough to learn to say Indian Peafowl or Island Canary. Trudeau’s mysterious tern is now officially Snowy-crowned Tern, and Solander has lost his petrel, now named Providence Petrel. Like most history-minded birders, I was happy to see that this apparent hostility to the English patronym was not extended to the newly described Puffinus bryani, Bryan’s Shearwater.

Taking a broader view, name changes and splits are perhaps the least interesting of the Supplement’s determinations. If we really want to understand more about the relationships between avian taxa, we need to look at the higher levels of classification; there are some real eye-openers this time around. Birders from the Great Plains west will be especially interested this time of year in the move of the Calliope Hummingbird out of its prettily named genus Stellula and and into Selasphorus; as the proposal noted, this is no surprise to “anyone who knows Calliope Hummingbird.”

A change in the opposite direction takes place among the wrens: Carolina Wren is now all alone in Thryothorus, its former fellows there now spread among three resurrected genera that the linear sequence places closer to the cactus wrens than to Carolina.

Two other venerable and familiar genera have also been revised in ways that will take some getting used to. The nightjar genus Caprimulgus, a name reaching all the way back to the authoritative 1758 edition of Linnaeus, has been divvied up such that it is now entirely unrepresented in North America. “Our” old Caprimulgus species are now members of the genus Antrostomus, erected by Bonaparte in 1838 with reference to the Chuck-will’s widow and the Eastern Whip-poor-will. I’ll miss being able to initiate new birders into the meanings and the (partly contrived) mythology of the old name, but Bonaparte’s coinage isn’t half bad, either: if you’ve ever handled one, you know how like a gaping cavern the mouths of our goatsuckers are.

It’s a red-letter day for most of us when we actually see an Antrostomus nightjar, but the revision of the genus Carpodacus will affect most North American birders every time they look out the window. Cassin’s, Purple, and House Finches are apparently not closely enough related to the classic rosefinches to be considered congeneric with them any longer; Swainson’s 1837 Haemorhous has been revived to accommodate the North American breeders. I have to admit that I don’t know what the Swainsonian name means etymologically; the closest I can come is “blood-red like the sumac,” but corrections and conjectures welcome.

Perhaps the most revealing–and for birders perhaps the most jarring–of all the changes put forth in this Supplement is the move of the falconids and the parrots to a new position between the woodpeckers and the passeriform birds, a change made last year by the South American committee. No longer will the woodpeckers occupy the center of the field guides, and no longer will the falcons and caracaras follow immediately on the similar, but only rather distantly related, hawks and kites. The research cited in justification of this move suggests that the branch now believed to include the falcons, the parrots, and the songbirds may aso be shared by the seriemas, of all things. I’ll certainly be looking at all these birds differently now.

And that’s the fun of the annual Supplement, isn’t it? New names shift our thinking, new classifications jar our settled impressions. A very good thing.


The Fifty-first Supplement to The AOU Check-list

It’s that season, and the new Supplement to the AOU Check-list (still so quaintly spelled a century and a quarter after the first edition!) appeared at BioOne yesterday.

The news of a few species “splits” affecting birders in the US and Canada was not unexpected–the only thing surprising, and perhaps a little disappointing to a resolute non-scientist, was that there weren’t more. In any event, we now officially have two whip-poor-wills, Mexican Whip-poor-will and Eastern Whip-poor-will, and the old “winter” wren is now recognized as three species, two of which–Pacific Wren and the remarkably poorly named Winter Wren sensu novo strictoque–occur in North America. “Our” black scoter is split from the Old World species and renamed Melanitta americana, vindicating good old Swainson a hundred seventy-five years after he described it; its English name is apparently uncertain at the moment, though the copy of the Supplement I printed out today calls it, logically and straightforwardly, “American Scoter.”

While species determinations speak only to identity, genera are all about relationships, and this Supplement is full of new views about what belongs with what. Canyon, California, and Abert’s Towhees are moved over to Melozone, which they’ll be sharing with the tropical ground-sparrows; only the three rufous-sided and Green-tailed Towhees remain in the cheerful-sounding genus Pipilo.

There are some significant innovations in the warblers, too, both Old World and New. Here in North America, Vermivora is greatly diminished, now including, if I count right, only Blue-winged, Golden-winged, and the ghost of Bachman’s Warblers. The handsome old genus Oreothlypis is resurrected to contain all the other erstwhile vermies and two tropical “parulas,” Flame-throated and Crescent-chested Warblers; visually and intuitively, those latter two have always been thought of as intermediate between the parulas and the old-style Vermivora, so it’s nice to see them sharing a taxonomic drawer. I just wish that we could change their English names, too, to echo the genus name: wouldn’t it be nice to go out and see some Orange-crowned Mountain-Chats? And just imagine what high school football teams in Tennessee could do with it.

Another pair of warblers, the waterthrushes, have now got their own genus, Parkesia, bearing the name of one of the last century’s greatest museum men and warbler experts. Ovenbird stays behind to brandish its tail in Seiurus, no doubt to the posthumous frustration of Eliot Coues, who argued long and hard that it should by rights have been spelled Siurus.

I tremble to report it, but it’s official now: Aimophila, that wonderful ragbag genus of wonderful ragbag sparrows, has been dismantled. Here in Arizona, only Rufous-crowned Sparrow is still an Aimophila, our others moved into the revived genus Peucaea. Five-striped Sparrow, always an uncomfortable nomenclatural fit, has gone back to Amphispiza, joining once again the visually similar Sage and Black-throated Sparrows. (No action on the possible split of Sage into Interior Sage and Bell’s Sage Sparrows.)

These changes, of course, I take personal: my favorite bird in the world, Rufous-winged Sparrow, can no longer serve as the eponym for this b-log or my drowsy little guide service. What shall I do? Kenn suggested renaming it “Peucaea Perambulations,” but I think maybe I’ll just let people think that I can’t identify Rufous-crowned Sparrow and leave it at that.

The revisions don’t stop at the level of genus, either. There are eleven new families recognized, including the re-elevation of Osprey and the gnatcatchers to family status; the longspurs and white buntings also get their own family, Calcariidae (and McCown’s Longspur goes its own way generically once again).

The Old World “warblers,” a miscellaneous bunch if ever there was one,  are broken into many families: Cettiidae includes the bush warblers, Phylloscopidae the leaf warblers, Sylviidae the round-headed chattering warblers (now including Wrentit), and Acrocephalidae the reed warblers. Those new Eurasian families are followed in sequence by an American one, Donacobiidae: hurray for Donacobius, sometimes a wren, sometimes a thrasher, now confident enough to simply be itself.

Most far-reaching of all is the re-organization of a couple of non-passerine orders. Sunbittern and Kagu, two of the most extravagantly plumed birds anywhere, now get their own order, Eurypygiformes; I doubt that this particular innovation will last–higher categories generally want to be more densely populated–but that’s the solution of the moment. The falcons and the other diurnal raptors are split into two orders, falcons and caracaras keeping hold of the old Falconiformes and the rest inserted into a new Accipitriformes.

And then there are the storks and pelicans. Ciconiiformes relinquishes everything but the storks themselves; the herons and ibises are now part of the order Pelecaniformes, where they sit alongside the pelicans and form the suborders Ardeae (herons and  bitterns) and Threskiornithes (ibises and spoonbills).

The committee giveth and the committee taketh away, and the old totipalmate swimmers are now split up into three orders: the pelicans and herons (that phrase will take some getting used to!), the Phaethontiformes (tropicbirds), and the Suliformes (frigatebirds, boobies, and cormorants). When I was a boy, back before they’d invented DNA and chemistry and all that, we learned that orders were defined by foot characters: we’ve come a long ways!

And changes will continue. The committee rejected proposals to split the scrub-jays and the curve-billed thrashers, but watch the “pending” section of the committee’s web page for new proposals–and look forward to next July when the next Supplement will be published.


AOU Check-list Supplement

The Fiftieth Supplement to the AOU Check-list has been posted to the AOU website. The changes will be incorporated soon into the online version of the Check-list.

Summaries have been circulating on the web for a couple of weeks now, but there’s nothing like the horse’s mouth. And it’s always great fun to see one’s friends and colleagues cited in the Supplement. Jon Dunn, of course, is a greatly valued member of the Committee, and Jake Mohlmann and Paul Lehman are both credited here with recent additions to the North American list: Jake (along with John Yerger) the astounding first Brown Hawk-Owl for the region, and Paul the 2007 Gambell Sedge Warbler  and the nearly as surprising Yellow-browed Bunting from the same location the same year.

There’s much more in there, of course, and I’ll be spending as much time as I can over the next busy days teasing out the fascinating bits of buried material. Who’d have guessed, for example, that Linnaeus had unknowingly predicted the presence of a wild Graylag Goose in North America when he described the species 251 years ago?


AOU Check-list: 48th Supplement

It’s here, it’s here, the newest Supplement to the AOU Check-list. No great earth-shattering surprises this time, but a few changes of note to us amateurs.

BJ Rose, Bean Goose, Nebraska

First, the Bean Geese have been split; the species that has occurred in the 48 contiguous US states is Anser fabalis, the Taiga Bean-Goose (hyphen copyright 2007, AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature). I was fortunate enough to be half of the CBC team that discovered Nebraska’s first occurrence of this species in 1984, and was proud (I hope not prideful) to see that exciting record cited in the Supplement.

Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis has been split from Larus cachinnans, Caspian Gull; the only records for Yellow-legged Gull sensu novo accepted in the Supplement are from Quebec, Newfoundland, Maryland, and DC.

I was startled to read that Sacred Ibis “seems to be on the way to establishment” in Florida after individuals escaped from zoos after Hurricane Andrew. If poor Florida continues on this path, it will be more like escaping into a zoo.

The really big news, though, for those of us who like to collect odd facts for those cocktail parties I seem never to get invited to (wonder why) is the repositioning of the New World vultures. Remember how much fun it was to point out to new birders that “vultures are really storks”? Well, it turns out that vultures are really vultures, and the family Cathartidae has been returned to the order Falconiformes, though with one of those ominous asterisks indicating “uncertainty as to exact placement.”

My sentiments exactly.