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New AOU Check-list Changes

The 53rd Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds was published this week, with an extensive array of taxonomic changes including a split of the Xantus’s Murrelet and dramatic rearrangements of falcons and parrots to new positions on the list.

The 53rd Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds was published this week, with an extensive array of taxonomic changes including a split of the Xantus’s Murrelet and dramatic rearrangements of falcons and parrots to new positions on the list. By stipulation, the ABA adheres to AOU classification and nomenclature, so we can expect these changes to be made in the ABA Checklist as well.

XAMU picThe bird known until now as Xantus's Murrelet (photo at left from wikipedia) has been split in two. Its former scrippsi and hypoleucus subspecies have been elevated by the AOU to full-species status. The new species are Scripps’s Murrelet (Synthliboramphus scrippsi) and Guadalupe Murrelet (S. hypoleucus). Scripps's breeds on islands off southern California and western Baja California. Guadaulpe breeds on Guadalupe Island and other islands off western Baja—and wanders at least casually north into U.S. waters after the breeding season. The split is based on a combination of factors: lack of evidence of interbreeding where the two taxa are sympatric, and differences in morphology (especially facial pattern and bill shape), vocalizations, and genetics.  

Falcons and parrots are moved far away from their long-standing placements in the official taxonomic sequence. Recent genetic studies found that falcons are much more closely related to songbirds than to other “hawks”—quite a jolt to our traditional belief. According to this research, falcons' closest relatives are a group (or "clade") consisting of the parrots and the passerines. As a result, the new Check-list sequence inserts Falconiformes (caracaras and falcons) and Psittaciformes (parrots) between Piciformes (woodpeckers) and Passeriformes (songbirds). These major revisions show us once again that as scientific knowledge improves, long-standing taxonomic sequences are not sacrosanct.

There are two other splits, which don’t add or subtract ABA Area species:

• Gray Hawk is divided into Gray Hawk (newly named Buteo plagiatus), which is resident from southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas south through Middle America; and Gray-lined Hawk (B. nitidus), which is resident from Costa Rica south through much of South America.

• Galapagos Shearwater (Puffinus subalaris) is classified as a species separate from Audubon’s Shearwater.

A number of ABA Area genera are altered, based on genetic research:

• Chuck-will’s-widow, Buff-collared Nightjar, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Mexican Whip-poor-will   are moved from Caprimulgus back to Antrostomus, their genus until the 19th Supplement to the AOU Check-list in 1944. Old World nightjars remain in Caprimulgus.

• Calliope Hummingbird joins Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Allen’s hummingbirds in the genus Selasphorus.

• Sage Sparrow moves from Amphispiza to its own newly named genus Artemisiospiza (which combines the Latin generic name for sage, Artemisia, with the Greek word for finch, spiza).

• Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, and House Finch were formerly in the genus Carpodacus along with Eurasian rosefinches, including the Common Rosefinch, but are now placed separately in Haemorhous, the resurrected name of an old finch genus.

Many other taxonomic changes are adopted for Mexican, Middle American, and South American species, and birders interested in those regions will want to learn about them as well. The Supplement is 16 pages long, and anyone deeply interested in Western Hemisphere avifauna will find it worth taking a lot of time to study.

The new Supplement will be covered further in articles by Michael L. P. Retter and Peter Pyle in the September 2012 issue of Birding, including an associated Michael-and-Peter "conversation" online. The ABA Checklist Committee will provide further interpretation in its annual report in the December 2012 Birding.  

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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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  • Matt Brady

    Apparently, Guadalupe Murrelets also breed in very small numbers on Santa Barbara and San Clemente Islands. So, it is likely an ABA area breeder, and thus more than a ‘casual wanderer’ north into US waters.

  • Ted Floyd

    I’m wondering how folks are reacting to the falcon shuffle. Note that I’m not asking for reactions to the science per se–but rather to the news itself. Is it pleasing to you that we need to revise our thinking, such that Peregrine Falcons are more like Red-crowned Parrots than Red-tailed Hawks; that Prairie Falcons are more like Budgerigars and even Brown Creepers than Northern Goshawks?

    Again, let’s leave the science out of it. My question is: Do you like this? Does it bother you, delight you, or otherwise affect you that we were so wrong, for so long, about the falcons?

  • Jimmy Warren

    From an entirely unscientific way of looking at it, it doesn’t really bother me. It certainly doesn’t bother me that we were wrong for so long. There are worse things to be entirely incorrect about, and it is nice to see an evolution in the way we are able to understand the relationship about birds. The way I look at it, in order for such an evolution to occur, we’d have to be wrong about it at some point, and it is cool to be present in the time when we are correcting our mistakes.

    We live in exciting times!

  • I was a bit disturbed by the reordering of the falcons, but not surprised. Disturbed because it made me wonder what other groups are crudely misplaced. This, again, goes to show how cladistics is not bounded by morphological similarities, and that’s hard for me to accept sometimes. Now let’s hope they don’t divorce the gulls and terns — then we’re in real trouble! Jimmy makes a good point: this is a work in progress. You have to wonder what our field guides will look like in a few decades.

  • Mark Stevenson

    Re: what will our field guides look like in a few decades:

    Since a “field guide” is a tool for identifying birds in the field, it doesn’t have to rigidly follow taxonomy as far as groupings are concerned. When those group shifts have the potential to make the “field guide” less useful, why should they be made?

    A “taxonomy guide” on the other hand does need to rigidly follow whichver “one true taxonomy” it adheres to in the year it is published.

    While we all are more or less capable of flexibility and of rearranging the order of things in our minds, moving the falcons away from the hawks in a “field guide” would not be a very useful thing to do.

  • To argue ad exemplum, moving the falconids away from the hawks is likely to have a positive effect on identification: birders will come to focus on the differences between those two groups rather than on the similarities, and will be that much less likely to mistake a sharp-shin for a merlin.

  • Right on.

    I feel the same way about the recent longspur move.

    A famous birder grumbled to me, “I don’t see how it helps birders to move the longspurs in front of the warblers.”

    My response: Just as Rick says for the falcons, the longspur move helps us to focus on just how different longspurs are from sparrows–and tanagers, and Red-faced Warblers, and Blue Grosbeaks and all those other things longspurs aren’t related to.

    The only reason we think longspurs are like sparrows is because, well, we used to think longspurs are like sparrows. But if we could wipe the slate clean, would we really think that? Why wouldn’t we say they’re more like pipits or larks?

    The point is, they’re longspurs, we now know, and not sparrows. And I think that helps with field ID.

  • Veering away from the fascinating topic of checklist moves…

    Thanks to Paul Lehman’s expertise, I need to correct a misstatement in my report of the AOU split of Xantus’s Murrelet. For some reason (and I knew better), I wrote that Guadalupe Murrelet was “casual” off the California coast. Maybe I was thinking about Craveri’s Murrelet, or maybe I wasn’t thinking at all.

    Anyhow, here is Paul’s correction—an important one for a birder who wants to add the Guadalupe Murrelet to his/her ABA Area list:

    “I was reading in the ABA blog about the Xantus’s Murrelet split and the ABA Area status of Guadalupe Murrelet. First, it states that Guadalaupe is “casual” in the ABA Area. That isn’t correct. It is regular in small numbers most years between about mid-July and October in waters WELL off southern California. (30+ miles, with most well out closer to the shelf edge) would be better—at least on the basis of what we currently know. And then with probably highly variable numbers even much farther north in late summer and early fall all the way as far as southern BC.

    “Then it is also written [in this intance, not in my post, thank goodness, but in a comment] that the species is a regular breeder on Santa Barbara and San Clemente Islands. If this is true, it is information not yet made public to the birding community. The ONLY possible breeding record I am aware of for the ABA Area is one (perhaps two) likely MIXED pairings at Santa Barbara Island that may have bred, but not absolute evidence of such. It was also somewhat unclear if one of the Guadalupes may have been a hybrid or some sort of “intermediate” bird. (Details published years ago in Western Birds.)

    “In addition to the typical July-Oct birds, we’ve recently had a couple Guadalupes in mid-May at the very, very southern edge of ABA Area shelf waters in that southward bulge in U.S. territorial water that actually are due west of about Ensenada! Heck, those birds could almost have been on foraging runs from Guadalupe Island itself (which the spring Laysans there probably are!).

    “Clearly the true status of Guadalupe Murrelet up and down the Pacific Coast is still being worked out, but its current known status is NOT quite what the ABA blog currently states.”

    The paper Paul mentioned about possible breeding at Santa Barbara Island is worth reading: Winnett, K. A., K. G. Murray, and J. C. Wingfield. 1979. Southern race of Xantus’ Murrelet breeding on Santa Barbara Island, California. (Western Birds 10:81–82).

  • Hi Guys, so bad AOu don’t take in consideration the proposed change of name of Beautiful Hummingbird for Zapotec Hummingbird, I hope in a close future, We have currently two hummingbird Species with the spanish name: Colibir de Oaxaca.. Blue-capped Hummingbird and Beautiful Hummingbird.
    We propose change the name of Beautiful to Zapotec Hummingbird, because, several reasons:
    first: it’s not beautiful and the obs are 80% young or females, so no color.
    2nd: it’s range is mainly in Zapotec Region.
    3th: We can’t have two same name for two different species.
    4th: it’s a good idea (at our sense) to mix bird and ethnics cultures.

  • Manuel, I like the name “Zapotec Hummingbird” a lot, and it makes much more send than the ambiguous and rather insipid “Beautiful Hummingbird”. That said, it (and Lucifer Hummingbird) are really sheartails, so the name “Zapotec Sheartail” would be even better in my opinion.

    I am somewhat confused, however, by your comment. First, the AOU has nothing to do with Spanish-language names, so any change by the AOU in English-language name has no bearing whatsoever on Spanish-language names, for which is there is no accepted authority so far as I’m aware. Secondly, anyone can write a proposal and submit it to the AOU for consideration. The process has become very transparent the last couple years. The AOU will not vote on proposals that have not been formally submitted to them, so if you want to see this name change voted upon, you need to take this important step. Directions are here:

  • *it makes much more sense…

  • Kevin Easley

    Regarding ranges given of Gray Hawk and Gray-lined Hawk in the 53rd Supplement. Gray Hawk also occurs in the Central Valley and Central Caribbean to N Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Their suggestion that it only occurs in NW Costa Rica is not accurate. Gray-lined Hawk occurs only in SW Costa Rica.

  • Chris E

    If you’ve been atop a barren ridge on the South Island of New Zealand and had a Kea fly overhead screaming sharply and twisting on agile wings, displaying that incredible sharp bill, it all makes a lot more sense that they’re cousins of the falcons. (Most readers will know that Keas are one of NZ’s alpine parrots.)

  • Van Truan

    Fine for taxonomists, but for birders it is stupid putting them away from other preadtory birds of prey (talons and bills. Try to tell a new birder that they belong with woodpeckers. I hope writers of the field guides are smart enought not to move them.

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