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Breaking Up the Hawks

Nine years since we were surprised to see loons and grebes moved down past waterfowl, grouse, and quail on our checklists, we might soon see an even more dramatic revision. Falcons could be uprooted from their traditional place just after other “hawks” and moved far down the list almost to songbirds.

This prospect faces the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds (the “Check-list Committee”) after it recently received a formal proposal for the change. The AOU’s South American Classification Committee unanimously approved the rearrangement in January.

If the North and Middle American panel adds its approval, we should probably realize that it was only a matter of time. Since 2006, three different studies have demonstrated that falcons are much more closely related genetically to parrots and passerines than they are to other raptors.

One of the studies was reported in Birding in January 2009, illustrated by a cladogram, the evolutionary “family tree,” shown below. The branches represent clades—independent but interrelated lineages that diverged from a single ancestor. At the top is a clade that includes falcons (Order Falconiformes), parrots (Order Psittaciformes), and passerines (Order Passeriformes). These three are more closely related to one another than to all other orders.

Cladogram for Hawks blog post
Sequences of taxa represent evolutionary relationships, and the proposed new sequence would begin after the Piciformes (woodpeckers). Starting with woodpeckers, the  sequence would be Piciformes, Falconiformes, Psittaciformes, and Passeriformes. Dismaying as this—or any—major rearrangement of our checklists may be, we have to keep in mind that it reflects a refinement in our understanding of avian evolutionary history.

Details about that and other newly recommended AOU Check-list revisions are available in the AOU committee’s online compilation of pending proposals. Most involve species occurring in North America, although the other recommendations are less drastic than the transfer of the Falconiformes. Here are four of the proposals, three taxonomic and one geographic:

• Reinstate the Yellow-eyed Junco subspecies bairdi in Baja California Sur to full-species status as Baird’s Junco based on song, morphology, and disjunct range from other subspecies. An error in the proposal refers to a 2011 paper by Nathan D. Pieplow and Clinton D. Francis, who describe distinctive vocal characteristics of bairdi. The proposal states that Pieplow and Francis suggested species status. They did not. Rather, they called for genetic studies well as field work to determine whether there is a barrier to interbreeding with other subspecies.

• Revise the sequence of Spizella sparrows to reflect recent genetic research. The new sequence would be American Tree, Chipping, Clay-colored, Black-chinned, Field, Worthen’s, and Brewer’s. This would break up the time-honored trio of Chipping, Clay-colored, and Brewer’s, which have been together in that sequence since the first edition of the AOU Check-list in 1886. 

• Move New World goatsuckers now classified in the genus Caprimulgus, including Chuck-will’s-widow, Buff-collared Nightjar, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Mexican Whip-poor-will, into a long-defunct genus Antrostomus. Our familiar Caprimulgus genus would be maintained only for Old World goatsuckers—one of which, the Gray Nightjar (formerly the Jungle Nightjar), is on the AOU and ABA lists based on a 1977 specimen from the Aleutian Islands.

• Add European Golden-Plover to the AOU’s United States list, based on records from Alaska, Delaware, and Maine. (The ABA Checklist already includes the 2001 Alaska record.)

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Paul Hess

Paul Hess

Paul Hess, the Birding "News and Notes" Department Editor, started watching birds at age 7 in Los Angeles. Now a retired newspaper editor in Pennsylvania, he formerly chaired the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee, has contributed many articles to the journal Pennsylvania Birds, writes an ornithological news column for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology newsletter, edits the Three Rivers Birding Club newsletter in Pittsburgh, and has coauthored several National Geographic books on birds. Paul has received prominent awards for outstanding contributions to Pennsylvania ornithology and for bird conservation efforts in the state.
Paul Hess

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  • Interesting stuff.

    The more changes of this sort are made, the less sense it makes to me to use taxonomic order for field guides. When I started birding, back in the dark ages, birds that looked similar were near each other for the most part. I want to go back to that. I can never remember which guides have the birds in which order now.

  • Jochen

    I agree with Katrina. A field guide is first and foremost an identification tool for the field. It is nice if they convey a basic understanding of taxonomy and relationships amongst bird species, but if this means similar bird groups are scattered throughout the book, taxonomic order gets in the way of field identification. And this is not good.

  • Morgan Churchill

    The pros and cons of field guide taxonomic organization was recently debated on birdforum, for those interested:

  • In Birding magazine, too, we cover this topic from time to time. For example:

  • Evolution is a pretty powerful organizing force in biology.

    Sure, we humans may have our own ideas about which birds look similar, but such ideas are highly personal and subjective.

    Suppose you had no prior information about raptors. What birds might you define as raptors? Well, I, personally, would start off with Peregrine Falcon, Parasitic Jaeger, Merlin, and Northern and Loggerhead shrikes. I can tell you I wouldn’t guess that the graceful, dragonfly-eating, silver-tongued Mississippi Kite is a raptor. Nor the stork-like, carrion-eating Black Vulture. Not the odd Crested Caracara, either.

    Rather, it’s just that we arbitrarily decided, long ago, that vultures, hawks, and falcons are raptors. And we got it wrong. Falcons are, according to our current understanding, the sister taxon to a clade comprising the parrots and passerines.

    So we move them around. Fine with me. I like change. I like the idea that we don’t know everything, and that there’s always more to learn. To me, checklist changes are a breath of fresh air.

  • One more thought, if I may.

    Last fall, Kenn Kaufman tweeted about Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings coming south on their fall migration. As Kenn noted, most of us have been accustomed to thinking of the longspurs and buntings’ fall migration as part of the broader phenomenon of the fall “sparrow” flight.

    But now that we “know” longspurs and buntings aren’t sparrows, do we reassess that mode of thinking?

    Yes, I think so. It takes time–more or less, depending. But I think we get around to it. At some point, we wake up and we realize, “Hey, What business did we have imagining longspurs are sparrows?”

    It’s all so obvious–after the fact.

    I found a few longspurs the other day, and knowing they are not sparrows made it a great experience. I appreciated anew how their flight calls are so different from those of sparrows; I reflected on how they tend to hang out with Horned Larks, which aren’t exactly sparrows; I watched them in flight, and realized how they just don’t look like sparrows at all.

    Are longspurs and Snow Buntings really all that similar to sparrows? My answer: Only because we’ve long believed that.

    I’m glad the longspurs got moved. I cheered when the vireos were placed with the shrikes and crows. I applauded the decision to move the ducks and grouse to the front of the checklist. I hope the AOU moves the falcons to after the woodpeckers. Can’t wait for the grebes to get lumped with the flamingos. And the one I’m most excited about: Hummingbirds and swifts are just a highly specialized lineage within the order Caprimulgiformes (nightjars and such).

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