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The Mexican Barred-Owl: A split too far?

Many of you navigating here will have just read Paul Hess’s “News and Notes” column in the May 2012 Birding. If not, I highly recommend taking a look. Within Paul’s article, he notes a recent scientific paper by Barrowclough et al. in which it is recommended that Barred Owl be split into Northern Barred-Owl (Strix varia) and Mexican Barred-Owl (S. sartorii). In light of that article, the IOC went ahead and split Barred Owl. Thankfully, the AOU (and, therefore, the ABA) has taken no action.

Frankly, I was disappointed to see that the IOC went ahead with this split. I believe it shows a poorly-researched approach to bird taxonomy on its part. There are two big problems with this paper that knowledgeable reviewers, beforehand (and a careful committee, afterward) should have caught. Dare I say, it reminds me of the lack of thorough peer review that allowed the now-debunked Ivory-billed Woodpecker article to be published in Science. I sincerely hope that allowing seeming shortsightedness and favoritism to flourish in the place of careful analysis so that a journal can “get the scoop” is the exception with scientific journals. A friend tells me that a “publish and get comments” system is now being used in the field of high-energy physics, whereby papers are initially published online and considered a draft. Comments are received from interested colleagues and the public. They are either debunked, or the paper is altered to reflect valid criticisms. Only after criticisms are addressed is the paper considered finished and published. What an enlightened process! To quote Jon Dunn, “But I digress.”

First, the Barrowclough paper only sampled one of the alleged (more on that later) three allopatric populations of Barred Owl in Mexico–the Jalisco population. Furthermore, it is not the population from which the type specimen of sartorii comes, so who’s to say the birds they sampled even actually are sartorii? (The type specimen is from Veracruz.) One would think that should call for a pretty major mention in the paper. Alas, it didn’t get one.

643nabcoverlgSecond, since being correctly identified by Rich Hoyer in 2010, Fulvous Owls have been being seen, photographed, and recorded easily from at least two locations in the Sierra Madre Oriental of Oaxaca over the last three years–within the alleged range and habitat of Barred Owl. Fulvous Owl was not previously thought to occur “north” of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In North American Birds [64(3): 505] Héctor Gómez de Silva remarked, “it seems likely that the sartorii Barred Owls reported [in Oaxaca] in recent winters may have actually been Fulvous.” This population of Fulvous Owl may well have been misidentified as Barred Owl for the last 140 years…which should initally make one also question the identity of the supposedly adjacent Veracruz population. The presence of Fulvous Owls in Oaxaca was not even mentioned in the Barrowclough paper–a pretty egregious error considering that a Fulvous Owl from Oaxaca was featured on the cover of the Spring 2010 North American Birds!

Mexican Barred-Owl, Cinereous Owl, Sartorus’s Owl, or whatever you call it, is still an enigma, and is certainly one of the least understood avian taxa in North America. I’m not even aware of a photo of a live bird! Certainly, there is much to learn about what’s going on with “Barred Owls” in Mexico, and that is exciting.


For more on the “Barred Owl” in Mexico, check out the references provided here by Paul Hess, in chronological order.

Sclater, P. L., and O. Salvin. 1868. Descriptions of new species of birds of the families Dencrocolaptidae, Strigidae, and Columbidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.<>  [see p. 53 and pp. 58-59]

Baird, S. F., and R. Ridgway. 1873. On some new forms of American birds. Bulletin of the Essex Institute, Vol. 5, No. 12 <>  [see p. 200]

Ridgway,  R. 1874. A History of North American Birds, vol. 3 (Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway eds.) <>.  [see p. 29]

Ridgway, R. 1914. The Birds of North and Middle America, part 6. Bulletin of the U.S. National Museum <>.  [see pp. 647-648]

Cory, C. B. 1918. Catalogue of Birds of the Americas, part 2. Field Museum of Natural History <>.  [see p. 33]

Peters, J. L. Check-list of Birds of the World, vol. 4. 1940. Harvard University Press <>.  [see p. 162]

Binford, L. S. 1989. A distributional survey of the birds of Oaxaca. Ornithological Monographs, No. 43 <>.   [see p. 279]

Enríquez-Rocha et al. 1993. Presence and distribution of Mexican Owls: a review. Journal of Raptor Research 27:154-160 <>.  [see pp. 158-159]

Ramírez-Julián, González-García, and Reyes-Macedo 2011. Registro del búho leonado Strix fulvescens en el estado de Oaxaca, México. Record of the Fulvous Owl Strix fulvescens in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Rev. Mex. Biodivers. 82(2): 727–730. <pdf>



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Michael Retter
Michael L. P. Retter is the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide. He also wears his ABA cap while working as a Technical Reviewer for Birding magazine. When not at home, Michael is often leading tours in Middle America (Mexico through Panama). He currently lives with his fiancé, Matt, in Fort Worth, Texas. In his fleeting free time there, he pursues interests in horticulture (especially orchids), music, cooking, and numismatics. Michael also runs GBNA, the continent's informal club and email list for LGBT birders.
  • Morgan Churchill

    Maybe I am confused on how you are describing it, but the comments and revise system is already in place for all papers, it just that you don’t see the comments before they are accepted. It’s basically the process of peer review.

    While I think it is good that that the ABA follows AOU, I think the IOC is actually a superior world checklist over Clements, which I feel often moves glacially slow and tends to be slow to react to changes that occur in Old World taxonomy. Also, the fact that they have 4 or so updates a year means that they can regularly fix errors and relump taxa. Have you considered emailing them your problems?

    By the way, “jumping the gun” on a split I think occurs with every checklist. Research coming out of University of Wyoming suggests that their is very little genetic differentiation within continental Rosy finches, and that they may be better off lumped back into one species.

  • Morgan, I suspect you are indeed confused, no doubt because my initial comments were confusing. Sorry, I’ll try again.

    For most if not all biology papers, there is no “publish and get comments” system as I outlined above. Papers are published in their finality *before* the public and most peers get a chance to comment. Yes, there is often “peer review”, but this process is restricted to just a small handful of individuals. Though not extensive review, in theory this process sounds great, and it is how much of academia has worked for a long, long time.

    But I’ve spent enough time around academians (both friends and my partner) to know that there’s a dark, selfish, political underbelly to science. Sometimes, that basic, minor peer review doesn’t even happen. If an author is well-known, has close ties with the editor of a journal, or otherwise has some kind of pull, the peer-review process is sometimes eliminated altogether. And that same cachet can also be used AGAINST someone: it sometimes leads to similar papers by other scientists being rejected–not on merit, but because they might “scoop” the person who has the pull and had not yet published his/her paper. Just is case that also wan’t clear, here are some not-so-hypothetical hypotheticals.

    Dr. X wants to publish in Journal A. The editor of Journal A is a friend of Dr. X, so the paper is published in Journal A without peer review. Here is a particularly egregious example of that:

    Another not-so-hypothetical hypothetical: Dr. X wants to publish something in Journal A. The editor of Journal A is a friend of Dr. Y, who is working on the same topic. Journal A rejects Dr. X’s paper, and tells Dr. Y to hurry up, making sure that Dr. Y will finish his/her work before Dr. X finds another journal to publish in, by which time, no one will accept Dr. X’s duplicative paper.

    Here’s another, particularly devious one: Dr. X wants to publish something in Journal A. Little does Dr. X know, the editor of Journal A, Dr. Z, is working on the same project! Journal A, therefore, rejects Dr. X’s paper, and Dr. Z goes into high gear, ultimately publishing his/her own paper is a special edition of Journal A (s/he can do this since s/he’s the editor), so that there’s no way Dr. X can finds another journal to publish in before the special edition comes out. Again, no one will accept Dr. X’s duplicative paper. (I know this sounds ridiculous, but it has actually happened!)

    I agree that the AOU moves more slowly than I would like, but I think it’s better than too fast, which is my current view of the IOC. Though not directly, I have let known a couple of my relatively minor beefs with IOC though an intermediary, the biggest of which is their insistence to use “Sage Grouse” and “Gunnison Grouse”. Though they have changed a bit, you can read my more general (and mainly positive) thoughts on the IOC checklist in the May 2011 Birding: Since then, the decisions have been less researched and more reactionary in my opinion, simply going along with any paper without scrutinizing the paper beforehand.

  • Morgan Churchill

    I kind of thought that might have been what you hinted at, but wasn’t totally sure.

    I acknowledge that their are problems in peer review. Certainly there have been some recent controversies in paleontology, the field I follow more closely. I can’t really comment on this particular issue…I skimmed the paper awhile back but don’t remember it in detail, and I know next to nothing really about Mexican bird distribution.

    I don’t have a problem with the speed of AOU, incidentally (although I prefer the system SACC uses over NACC). I have an issue with Clements, which has been increasingly playing catch up on Old World bird taxonomy, to the point that I see it being increasingly abandoned by those outside the US. Common names I just don’t get upset over, since I just don’t care as long as the scientific name is up to date. They have made a few decisions I didn’t like, like splitting off the Black-fronted Warbler despite evidence showing a substantial amount of inter-gradation between it and Audubon’s, however they later relumped that species back into Audubon’s.

  • Morgan Churchill

    also…no idea what is going on with the italics…

  • Micheal did not use a closing tag on his italics so they will continue until a closing tag is inserted.

  • Thanks to whoever fixed that!

  • Nick Block

    I’m still formulating a full reply in my head, but I just wanted to point out that Enríquez-Rocha et al. (1993) mention two specimens of Fulvous Owl from Oaxaca. Do you know anything about those? I don’t recall those being mentioned in the recent NAB article, but my memory for that kind of thing is awful right now. Perhaps those records have just been overlooked and Fulvous in Oaxaca is not as “new” as people have thought?

  • Nick Block

    Hmmm, I just got around to reading the Binford (1989) monograph and see that del Toro Avi1és collected four Fulvous Owls that he labeled as being from Oaxaca. But Binford points out that the data on his specimens are pretty unreliable, so the records need to be taken with a grain of salt. As yet, I can’t figure out if the two specimens mentioned in Enríquez-Rocha et al. (1993) refer to some of del Toro Avi1és specimens.

  • So at first, I pretty much agreed with you, Michael, but I don’t think I do anymore. A few things:

    1) I can almost guarantee that “getting the scoop” had nothing to do with this article. Barred Owl phylogenetics is not exactly a competitive topic, and I doubt very much that anyone else is working on this or that the authors tried to rush the manuscript.

    2) As currently understood, the Jalisco birds are lumped with sartorii from Veracruz. I don’t see anything wrong with that. No one knows any different, and there’s no reason to think that the Barred Owls in Jalisco are hugely different from the Barred Owls in Veracruz from whence the type came. Yes, the authors should have mentioned that they did not have a sample from the type population, but it wouldn’t have changed their conclusions. They also should have mentioned something like “the general phenotype of the Jalisco birds matches the type specimen from Veracruz, so we group our samples with sartorii.”

    3) Not sequencing a bird from the type population should not stop researchers from coming to reasonable taxonomic conclusions. Many type specimens (or their populations) can be extremely difficult to track down and sample. With no reason to doubt that a different population is significantly different from the type population, I see nothing wrong with making conclusions based only that different population. Science works in increments. Waiting to publish a paper like this until samples from all possible populations are collected would hinder the progress of science, and taxonomic revisions would move at a glacial pace (more so than they already do!). The split recommendation of this paper is perfectly reasonable. The Jalisco Strix are clearly a unique taxon from both Northern Barred-Owls and Fulvous Owls. Their phenotype presumedly matches the type sartorii, so the name seems like the right choice. If someone comes along and sequences the type population of sartorii and discovers that it differs significantly from the Jalisco population, then another revision can be made. Increments…always moving forward, making necessary corrections along the way. I don’t see anything wrong with systematics and taxonomy working this way.

    4) I don’t think the presence of Fulvous Owls in Oaxaca should make you doubt the identity of the Veracruz owls. The Veracruz owls’ (sartorii) identity is based on voucher specimens that clearly are not Fulvous Owls. One benefit of having voucher specimens.

    5) Yes, the authors should have mentioned the Fulvous Owls in Oaxaca somehow.

    6) The AOU only hasn’t acted b/c no one has submitted a proposal for a split. The current lack of action does not at all reflect their leanings on this split.

    So basically, although I agree that the authors should have included more information/background, I think their taxonomic recommendation of a split is sound. If Fulvous Owls and Northern Barred-Owls are different species, then the Mexican Barred-Owls sampled for this paper are also a unique species (b/c the genetic analysis places them more-or-less equidistant between Northern Barred and Fulvous).

  • Joe

    I’ll start by saying that not everyone agrees with Binford’s conclusion that all Toro Aviles’ specimens are completely unreliable and at least a couple of recent publications have addressed the issue.

    The Enriquez-Rocha et al. (1993) Oaxaca specimens are probably Toro Aviles’ specimens. The only reasons I could guess as to why it did not read 4 Oaxaca specimens are: a) 2 specimens could not be identified to (sub)species, such as the (pre)juvenile bird collected; b) 2 specimens were labeled as S. varia and 2 were labeled S. fulvescens; or c) the authors made an error and it should have read 4. Of additional interest, the 4 specimens are in the Moore Laboratory of Zoology (MLZ 33799-33802) where J.T. Marshall was a director/curator.

  • I am currently out of the country and will have limited internet access until 28 May. I may not be able to respond to you before then. If your message is important, please try to resend it after that date to make sure I see it.

    If you have an emergency, please call Matt at 765.337.8661.

    If you have a pressing question about tours with Tropical Birding, please contact the TB office with the contact information found at

    Michael Retter

  • Cool! Thanks for the info, Joe!

  • Sure thing!

  • Thanks for the thorough reply, Nick.

    Agree with you in this case on #1. I was attempting to make a more sweeping generalization about academic papers with that comment, suggesting that as one reason thorough peer review is sometimes bypassed. I didn’t intend to to refer to this particular paper.

    My belief is that given what the authors, or a reviewer, should have known about the Oaxaca Fulvous Owls, at the very least a caveat should have been offered. I think we agree there. You say there is no reason to doubt that the Jalisco and Veracruz/Oaxaca Barred Owls are the same taxon. I think that there is a lot of doubt. Did the authors compare their Jalisco specimens with any from the Veracruz/Oaxaca population? I very much doubt it. That doesn’t mean I think they are not the same taxon; I just don’t think we should be assuming that given how little we know about the taxon as a whole. Making a suggestion to split a bird when you only sampled one of the (supposed) three allopatric populations is not good science, in my opinion. What if the other two turn out to be intermediate? Why not wait to make the split until we know more?

    As for where the “missing” del Toro Aviles Fulvous Owl specimens are, the following may hint at the answer. Rich Hoyer told me that after Binford discredited them, the dTA Fulvous Owls from Oaxaca were relabeled as Barred Owls by someone in the museum where they are housed. I think Joe alluded to that.

  • Ted Floyd

    Fun discussion.

    My problem with peer review (and tenure) is a bit different. For sure, I agree with Michael Retter that there can be “a dark, selfish, political underbelly” to peer review. And tenure, I hasten to add. And politics, business, sports, and pretty much any other human endeavor.

    Here’s my take on peer review and especially tenure. Those two institutions are among the most conservative forces in human history.

    Think for a moment about how academic tenure works. You have all these bright, creative, progressivist 20somethings, 30somethings, and (increasingly, these days) 40somethings all bucking for tenure. And who grants tenure? Well, it’s guys (and a few gals) in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. So, to get tenure, the junior faculty say and do stuff that impresses the senior faculty; and, then, when tenure is finally granted, the torch has been passed, the gate has been kept. In my experience (and I do have some!), a great many senior faculty still work on problems, systems, and ideas that were handed to them way back when they were in grad school.

    It’s not much different with peer review. If a grad student, post-doc, or assistant professor wants to get published, she’d better submit a paper that will meet with the approval of the establishment.

    It’s ironic to me that we in the USA are having a debate about whether universities are too liberal. I realize, of course, that the debate has to do with the political leanings of faculty and administrators. But the real villains, if you ask me, are tenure and peer review, which together are an unstoppable force of intellectual conservatism.

    To bring this back around to birds and birding, I have to say that one of the most gratifying things about being a birder is that our birding community is, on the whole, meritocratic. The academics could learn from us.

    A final thought. Ultimately, if you ask me, it’s all about getting your ideas, your “memes,” out there. In the old days (i.e., in the 1990s), meme-transmission was accomplished by means of the peer-reviewed literature. Today, however, a single blog post can be vastly more influential (i.e., the meme is more powerful) than a technical paper well-placed in the peer-reviewed literature. If you have a great idea, blog about it.

    Love it.

  • Tony Leukering

    Nick, Michael, et al.:

    I agree with Michael’s thoughts on this matter — Mexico, despite that it’s relatively well-known, ornithologically, is still quite poorly known. The country hosts an incredible amount of unrealized (by us) speciation and endemism. If you don’t agree with that, go look at and listen to the “Steller’s Jays” in Chiapas (among a host of other good examples of such). Despite that most people, including many scientists, accept publications at face value, without really pondering the results at any level, much less at as many levels as they ought. However, that’s a failing of people, in general, so I’m not taking that big of a swipe at scientists (though, they’re scientists, they should do better!).

    I would actually be unsurprised if the various populations of Strix in Mexico are not all separate species, so some consideration of the population that Barrowclough et al. sampled should have been made in the paper. I am a bit torn between Nick’s point and Michael’s point about getting the info out there, even if it’s not complete. We have a current problem with “Western Flycatcher” because the sampling was incomplete in the paper that first suggested splitting the taxon. Granted, without that paper and subsequent split, we might have less knowledge about the makeup of the various forms included in Western Flycatcher, because birders have really tried to study that one, due primarily to the split.

    I like the idea that Michael presented from the high-energy physics publishing community, and I don’t see why ornithology could not follow the same tack. It might very well make for better science!

  • Phil Jeffrey

    The reason why many in the scientific community do not support efforts towards open paper review is that anonymous peer reviewers on average put a lot more thought and effort into critique than you will ever get from a more open forum. While the low quality of user comments at the end of any article might be an extrema, this blog is a fairly good example of the problem: “the lack of throrough peer review that allowed the now-debunked Ivory-billed Woodpecker article to be published in Science”. This is opinion and not fact and unless the authors have shared the peer reviews with you, you most certainly do not know what transpired. You’re not going to improve science (or the journal Science, for example) by having to respond to a bunch of glib opinions about the data. If anything it encourages lack of careful review of the manuscript in context.

    The other side of things is that any scientific paper is not expected to be the entire story. Rarely it may be, but frequently it’s an interpretation of new data in light of what is already understood about the field. That’s where the Ivory-billed paper came from: data, interpretation of the data, and the *impact* of the data interpretation warranted publication. Ultimately the hypothesis appears to have been disproven but it is abstractly amusing to watch the mini witch hunt over it. Sibley’s paper is part of that process but understand that it is a process. It also means that professional scientists very carefully parse the data, methods and conclusions of published papers that impact their own research. We don’t agree with all conclusions or methods. Good scientists are not naive in this regard.

    The journal Science (as with Nature) has a habit of publishing “sexier” stories with potentially less supporting data than, say, less bleeding edge journals like the Journal of Molecular Biology. Sometimes the nature of those Science/Nature papers means that what appears to be the case at the time turns out to be an incorrect interpretation of the data. (This is also true of JMB papers). Other times the papers are timely and really good science. It’s the nature of science – not everything that seems to be the case turns out to be as you thought. I’ve published ten papers in Science+Nature and sixty-odd more in various others – the quality of science in the former is not worse than in the latter. I am subject to peer review and I’ve also reviewed multiple papers. I can’t remember a paper of mine accepted without review, although perhaps there could have been one.

    There are politics in science just as in any other form of human endeavor. You get peer reviews from out of left field, and there is potential for abuse of the system. It has occurred. I would be fascinated if you could point out any other domain in which this is not the case. It’s pretty good fuel for paranoia about how broken the peer review process actually is, but things actually working as they should – as it does most of the time – rarely makes good copy. There have been fairly egregious errors in my own field but these are demonstrably rare.

    The Barrowclough et al. paper may or may not be substantiated by further study. I’m not informed enough to want to judge the quality of the research. However it is a very poor precedent to start claiming that peer review and journal publication is broken as a process just because you disagree with a set of conclusions.

  • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Phil. I admit a degree of naïveté on this topic, and as I am not “in the system”, it’s much easier for me to cast stones from the outside. That said, what is the excuse for “publishing ‘sexier’ stories with potentially less supporting data”? Is that good science? Should not all science be held to the same exacting standards? I contend that had the original Science article on the Ivory-bills been thoroughly peer-reviewed, one of three things would have happened. It would either have been rejected outright as speculation, it would have included a huge caveat about the evidence not being complete enough to resurrect a species from the dead, or at the very least it would have been accompanied by a rebuttal in the same issue. This of course assumes not only that there is an adequate team of reviewers, but also that the editor is doing his/her job and free from bias, such as wanting to publish a “sexier” story, truth be damned.

    I do not and have never claimed that “peer review…is broken because [I] disagree with a particular set of conclusions”. I do claim that it’s broken, period, for a couple reasons. First, because the same standards are not used for each paper. While it’s unlikely that politics can ever be totally divorced from the process, I strongly agree with Ted Floyd about the (mostly older) reviewers being responsible for keeping in place one of the “most conservative forces in human history”. An open review process, perhaps in combination with the anonymous process already in place, would potentially solve both of those problems.

  • Tony, you said, “I am a bit torn between Nick’s point and Michael’s point about getting the info out there, even if it’s not complete.”

    I’m all for getting the information out there. I’m glad the Baarrowclough et al. article was published. I just think its conclusions were overly broad and should have been caught by knowledgeable reviewers as such.

  • Vrer

    Nick Block

    well steve howell says that all reports from Oaxaca are herrounous,why nobody point that out.

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