I was walking along a lake, part of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary in New Delhi, India, when I spied a familiar duck. Could that be a Green-winged Teal? But after looking through my field guide, I discovered that Green-winged Teal wasn’t one of the options. There was, however, an illustration of a Common Teal that looked similar, so I jotted down the name and, for insurance, snapped a photo of the bird:
Is that a Northwestern Crow or an American Crow?
Crows are one of the most common birds in the Pacific Northwest. There are crows in every tall fir, flying overhead, perching on lamp posts. You can’t miss them. And then, if you happen down to the beach—particularly in Puget Sound—there are hundreds more, picking through the seaweed on intertidal rocks, foraging through the debris left by the receding waters, feasting on dead sea life that has washed up on the sand. But, are those American Crows or Northwestern Crows?
Every 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.
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.
I haven’t been birding in what seems like ages. I won’t go into the list of reasons, but it involves a new job and lots of home organizing. I need a birding fix. Truly, I’m getting desperate.
A couple of years ago I wrote a post titled “15 Birdy Things to Do When You Can’t Go Birding.” I was in a similar situation—I’d sprained my ankle and was propped up on the couch, missing out on a number of local birding trips. One of the items on my list of things to do was to watch live bird cam feeds.
I was happily immersed in a amusing story—a bathtub-reading kind of book, long on entertainment and short on talent—when I was rudely interrupted by a glaring error—at least glaring to me. The heroine was hiking in the Montana wilderness. The author waxed poetic about the deep green evergreens, the sparkling white snow, curious deer peering from the thickets, and the Saker Falcon wheeling overhead. Wait! What? What’s a Eurasian falcon doing in Montana? (more…)
House Sparrows are frequently despised by North American birders. An invasive species, they commandeer nest cavities needed by native birds, hog feeders, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Agricultural pests, they’re the target of various, and usually unsuccessful, “control” strategies, yet I have to admire this species. In spite of all our attempts at thwarting them, House Sparrows continue to thrive.
In case you haven’t heard, we have a new bird on the block. Last summer the familiar Western-Scrub Jay was split into two species—the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).
We’ve given birds some pretty bizarre names. Does the Secretarybird (right) take notes? Who does the Wandering Tattler tattle on? Do chatterers and babblers ever shut up?
Then there are the names that must have come from examining a stuffed specimen in hand. How often do you see the orange crown of an Orange-crowned Warbler?
Heinlein said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.* He must not have been a birder. When the American Ornithological Union met this year, many birders added a new species to their life lists without even leaving their arm chairs. It’s time to update our field guides—even the brand new Sibley’s. The Western Scrub-Jay has now been split into the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica, left) and the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).