The AOU’s 2019 Bird List

Hawk Trip-ElPasoCo-CO_LAH_6738Every year, the American Ornithological Society (AOU) reviews a number of proposed changes to the classification of North American birds. This affects the definitive list on which we birders base our life lists. Species may be added or deleted. Sometimes, a species is divided into two or more new species, such as the split of the Western Scrub-Jay a few years ago. (I gained a new life species as a result, as I have seen and photographed both the California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay.)

Other times, species may be lumped together—what was once considered two species is now thought to be only one, with various subspecies. Sometimes, entire genera are moved into new families. Or, a species remains unchanged, but the name is updated, as when the Gray Jay became officially known as a Canada Jay.

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Splitting Red-tailed Hawks?

Red-tailed Hawk_CanonCity-CO_LAH_8371.nef

If you’ve been birding for any length of time, you know that species come and species go. The birds don’t change, but our perception of which variations are actually different species is constantly undergoing review. We have lumpers, who combine disparate species into one, and splitters, who separate subspecies into two or more different species. Add in the (relatively) new ability to examine DNA, and you have a recipe for constant change.

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For Birds, This Feature Comes Standard

Barred Owl_HomosassaSP-FL_LAH_7885How’d you like to be able to see with your eyes closed? Wouldn’t it be handy? You wouldn’t get grit in your eyes during a dust storm. Your eyes would never turn red from swimming in a pool with too much chlorine. And you’d never get poked in the eye. If only we could see through our eyelids!

It turns out that birds, and many other animals, can do just that. They share a body part that we humans lack—a fully functional third eyelid. Also called a nictitating membrane or haw, this thin sheet of tissue may be transparent, translucent, or (rarely) opaque. It slides between the cornea and the outer eyelids, offering protection from anything that might damage the eye, such as grit or drying winds.

In mammals, (but not birds) the membrane also includes a gland that produces a thin mucus, offering lubrication similar to tears.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Cedar Waxwing_ChicoBasinRanchCO_20100501_LAH_4191I was wandering through the forest in western Washington when I heard a series of high-pitched, whistling bird calls. As I peered into the foliage, I finally made out the Cedar Waxwings that were making the sound. Another time, I was in southern Texas, along the Rio Grande border. Again, I heard birds singling some very high notes. In this case, they were followed by a series of lower notes and a distinctive two-tone call. I realized that I was surrounded by a number of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

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Good-bye Gray Jay

Gray Jay-1One aspect of nature I appreciate is its constancy. No matter who gets elected, a rose is still a rose. Whether I’m happy or sad, a moose remains a moose. The world can fall apart, but a jay is still a jay. Or not.

That’s right. This year, the American Ornithological Society (AOS, formerly the AOU) has voted to rename the Gray Jay. From now on (or should I say “once again”?), this personable gray-and-white bird will be known as a Canada Jay.

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Flightless Birds

What do the Ostrich, Kiwi, penguin, and Giant Coot have in common? Yes, they’re all birds—but none of them can fly. In fact, there are over 60 species of flightless birds, including all the Ratities (the family that includes the Ostrich, Rhea, Emu, and similar species) and all the penguins (in spite of the evidence in this video):

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