The Politics of Taxonomy

The other day, the American Birding Association (ABA) Blog posted an overview to the first part of this year’s American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) Checklist proposal (which can be found here As usual, there were revisions to the family organizations (Parrots, this year), a genus reassignment (American Tree Sparrow), and multiple new splits. The splits included some reasonably predictable ones–Trindade from Herald Petrel, and Rosalia from LeConte’s Thrasher. However, for every split for which a reasonably measured argument can be made, it seems that one split that is more abstract is proposed. This time around, that split goes to the Painted Bunting.

Painted Buntings north of Mexico can be divided into two subspecies. A western subspecies that breeds in brushy areas of the southern Great Plains, and an eastern subspecies that breeds primarily in the coastal southeast. They are likely inseparable in the field, with the primary differences being moult timing and wintering range.

The Painted Bunting is a species whose proposed split is probably less about a biological difference in populations, and more about ornithology and conservations’ politics. The ABA Blog notes that the split proposal suggests treatment of the two populations as separate species as a way to create a more favorable environment for conservation of the eastern subspecies, which is relatively uncommon and declining. I have had long-discussions with other birders around my age, in which we have both questioned the way that the AOU seems to be deciding which populations of birds deserve full-species recognition. I at least, am not willing to hold anyone at fault for attempting to help a population of creatures that is threatened, but I wonder if the best way to do this is to elevate threatened populations to species status. I am of the opinion that the current trend of elevating many many populations of birds to full species status in order to make conservation funds reach them more easily, or because of differences in mitochondrial DNA that do not translate into field identification is diluting the definition of a species.

In the cases of elevating populations for genetic differences, moult-timing differences etc, the picture is much more complicated. But in the case of raising populations for the purpose of conserving them more easily and effectively, I think that there is a solution that will preserve the vitality of the species definition and protect the species–and it does not come from the AOU at all. I think the solution must come from the governments charged with protecting the populations. The governments must have the ability to recognize populations which are locally threatened and maybe not a full species, and offer them the same kind of protection on the basis that they are a locally significant part of the flora and fauna.

I understand that, until and unless this happens, there will, necessarily, have to be other ways of protecting these populations, and that it is, by some, considered valid to use species recognition as a way of doing this. I don’t have any solutions to this “problem”, but I do think it should be noted that this olution has ramifications for the science of taxonomy and genetics. Just some food for thought…


Lifebirds and Swamp Sparrows

One of things which I think fascinates people about birding and birds is that discovery is constant. Estimates for the number of extant bird species in the world vary, but most authorities agree that just over 10,500 species is probably a safe ballpark number. In the American Birding Association (ABA) area alone–defined as all of the North American continent North of Mexico and excluding Hawai’i–987 have been recorded and Maryland boasts records of just about half of these. Amazingly, all three of these figures continue to grow almost constantly. By the end of next year, the ABA area list will likely stand over 990.

There is always the chance of finding a record that is outstanding on some level–county, state, country etc. There is always the chance that that little park down by the grocery store that you walk through everyday will today hold something special. Maybe a new bird for the county, maybe even one that’s a lifebird; a bird which you have never seen before.


My most recent lifebird: the Harlequin Duck








This thrill, anticipation even, of discovery, is what keeps us coming back to birds again and again. Every time I leave my dorm to go birding, I’m wondering if this time might be the time when those Tundra Swans that everyone else in the county seems to be seeing will fly over, or if maybe when I get up to the ploughed corn and soy fields a Snowy Owl, the ghostly monarch of winter will be staring back at me with unfathomable golden eyes.

But that’s only part of the fun for me. The amazing thing about birding is that, while these are the discoveries that get all the attention, the ones that often provide the greatest satisfaction are on a much smaller scale. Take the Swamp Sparrow: it’s a common bird, being one of our expected “winter birds”. In spring most of them head to the muskegs and fens of central Canada and New England, but some deign to breed in the bogs of western Maryland, or the open grassy salt meadows of the Eastern Shore, and so they can be found in some part of Maryland the whole year. They’re attractive birds, but dressed in grays and chestnut-browns, they’re not what anyone would probably call a real knockout. Yet I haven’t met a birder who doesn’t pause to appreciate them, or whose face doesn’t twitch with a bit of joy when one tosses back its head and casts its melodic trill into the still morning air.


Swamp Sparrows are tastefully dressed, but not nearly as showy, or even as crisply-handsome as some of their relatives

One of birding’s–or even, of nature’s–true splendors is that a little Swamp Sparrow which I encounter daily from September till May can inspire me to stop and stare as much as a flashy, sexy, lifebird like a Harlequin Duck. I think its because we never really know these creatures that we share our world with. We can see them as often as we want, but when the Swamp Sparrow picks up and flys away, when the dragonfly darts into the shadows of a great cypress tree, when dolphins duck beneath the waves again, we can’t follow. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that we might catch another glimpse, that we might be given another chance to share, and discover, some of their  world.