The Politics of Checklist Instability
by Ted Floyd
One of the letters to the editor in the forthcoming May 2012 issue of Birding decries “checklist instability.” The author’s basic lament will be familiar to many of us: Open up any new field guide, and the birds have new names and new relationships. In just the past decade: the ducks got moved up front; the Canada Goose got split; the Common Gallinule got its old name back; many of the sandpipers and most of the terns were assigned new genera; the beloved warbler genus Dendroica was abolished; the longspurs and Snow Bunting got moved all the way to in front of the warblers; the tanagers were determined to belong with the cardinals; and much more.
The writer of the letter goes beyond mere lamentation, and proposes a definitive course of action: Stop! Stop it with all the name changes and checklist shuffling. Let’s instead come up with a “Birder’s Taxonomy,” and be done with it. Loons and grebes up front, longspurs toward the end, and everything else in its place. Meanwhile, stop messing with the name of the Common Gallinule!
Left: Chestnut-collared Longspur, by © Bill Schmoker.
Others have proposed essentially the same way forward. In an essay in the February 2004 Birding (“The Case for a Stable Potential Life List,” pp. 46–49), biology professor Burton Guttman urged the ABA Checklist Committee to define for North America a list of what Guttman termed “identifiable forms” or “birders’ species.” And in an essay in the November 2009 Birding (“The Purpose of Field Guides: Taxonomy vs. Utility,” pp. 44–49), six top birders—Steve Howell, Michael O’Brien, Brian Sullivan, Chris Wood, Ian Lewington, and Richard Crossley—set forth a stable field guide taxonomy that would start with “swimming water birds” and end up with songbirds. (A generation earlier, Roger Tory Peterson, in the fourth of edition of his famous Field Guide, had formulated a similar taxonomy.)
Yet no progress has been made toward the widely sought objective of checklist stability. Why not? What, or who, is stopping us from achieving that goal?
One of the weirder things I’ve heard—and I have to say, I hear it quite a bit—is that we birders are continually thwarted by a cabal of molecular biologists and field guide publishers. The reason for the constant checklist shuffling is to keep the biologists employed and to keep cranking out a profit for the publishers. Come on, people. No one seriously believes that stuff, right?
Wrong. Was I ever wrong.
Today I received a surprising press announcement from a consortium of publishers and ornithologists. I’d post the link right here, but you’d stop reading my words. So keep on reading, please, and then click on the link at the bottom.
Back to that press announcement. The basic gist of it is a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) among the top field guide publishers (e.g., Princeton University Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the premier centers for ornithological research (e.g., Louisiana State University, American Museum of Natural History), and of course the two definitive checklist committees for North America (ABA and AOU). The MOU formally affirms what apparently had been for several decades a “gentlemen’s agreement” about the timing and nature of checklist changes.
From what I can determine, there are three components to the MOU. First, changes in linear sequence (“checklist order”) can be implemented only in alternate years. Second, the biologists will aggressively tackle a massive backlog in proposed name changes; note that these are name changes which would not affect linear sequence. Third is a lot of legalese about royalties, research grants, and so forth; as far as I can tell, none of the legalese directly affects birders and their life lists.
In a supplemental document, The Consortium outlines some of the changes we may expect in the next few years.
First is a checklist reshuffling retroactive to 2010. In other words, it will take effect this year. As if The Consortium had heard the pleas of birders, this 2012 reshuffling will restore the taxonomy of ca. 1990: loons and grebes will go back up front again; longspurs will rejoin the sparrows; the vireos will sidle up to the warblers, just as in the old days; and so forth.
- Loons become divers.
- Wigeons get a d, and become widgeons.
- Neotropic Cormorant becomes Neotropical Cormorant.
- Common Gallinule goes back to Common Moorhen.
- Wilson’s Snipe becomes Hookum Pate. (It’s an old name, and it has scientific priority.)
Right: Wilson’s Snipe, soon to be known as Hookum Pate, by © Bill Schmoker.
- American Robin retains its “standard English name,” but its scientific name is changed to Nibor nacirema.
- House Finch retains the scientific name Carpodacus mexicanus, but gets a new “standard English name,” namely, Desert Rosefinch.
- The tanagers become cardinals. Thus, Scarlet Cardinal, Summer Cardinal, and so forth. And to keep things straight, Northern Cardinal becomes Redbird. As noted in the supplemental document, this change is intended to appease southerners.
- MacGillivray’s Warbler becomes McGillivary’s Warbler. This one surprised me. I’d heard about changing the species’ name to Tolmie’s Warbler (see Harold Eyster’s article in the January 2011 Birding, “MacGillivray’s Warbler: The Name That Shouldn’t Be,” pp. 38–42). But as Sila Thiew, a spokeswoman for The Consortium writes, “At least half of all birders spell that name wrong. So we decided to go for the path of least resistance, and just adopt the commonest mispeplling [sic].”
The aforementioned changes will be enacted in 2013.
And then in 2014, the real fireworks show. The notorious “Robson Taxonomy” will be adopted at that time. Get ready for ducks lumped with woodpeckers, falcons joined with parrots, and pipits at the very end. Plus a bunch more name changes, including one I can’t help but be cynical about: Neotropical Cormorant reverts to Neotropic Cormorant. Here’s how Thiew explains it: “After two years, birders will want to go back to the old name.” She adds, “As always, we aim to please.”
To see The Consortium’s press release and supplemental document, click here.
Have a great day!