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2013 AOU Check-list Committee Proposals

The 2012 AOU Check-list proposals are out, with the potential for a couple new species splits in the ABA-Area.

It’s split and lump season already, and the proposals for the most recent taxonomic updates to the AOU North American Check-list, which in turn are incorporated into the ABA Checklist, have been kicking around on the internet for a few weeks now. The AOU is considering 13 proposals that have been submitted in 2012, not all of which involve ABA-Area birds as the AOU’s North American jurisdiction includes Mexico and Central America to Panama’s southern border.

It’s important to note that these are proposals on which the committee has yet to vote, or at least they have yet to make those decisions public, and as always there are some that are unlikely to make the cut formally but are still interesting from a systemics perspective. This post will only mention those changes that affect the ABA-Area, but if you’re interested please refer to the official list of proposals for the whole ball of wax (.pdf).


Recognize Cabot’s Tern Thalasseus acuflavidus as distinct from Sandwich Tern T. sandvicensis

One of those Old World/New World splits that is not entirely unanticipated, a proposal was made to formally split the North American acuflavidus ssp and South American eurygnathus ssp of Sandwich Tern from the nominate Eurasian sandvicensis. The proposal is based on differences in mtDNA which found the New World populations to be closer to Elegant Tern. The New World birds would then be called Cabot’s Tern.

While there are currently no confirmed records of nominate Sandwich Tern in the ABA-Area (an oversight birders in the northeast US and the Atlantic provinces will probably go about remedying in short order), an unusual Sandwich Tern in Illinois in 2010 was as good a candidate as we’ve ever seen and undoubtedly deserves closer scrutiny in light of this proposal. More information on that bird is available at the North American Birding blog.


North America’s first nominate Sandwich Tern? photo by Rick Remington, Chicago, IL, September 2010


Split Barolo Shearwater Puffinus baroli

Splits among the tubenoses have become de rigueur as we learn more about how they segregate themselves on and among the archipelagos where they breed, and the small Puffinus species have been a particularly tough nut to crack. Barolo Shearwater is split from Little Shearwater by voice, morphometrics, and, of course, mtDNA. This affects the ABA-Area as all North American records of Little Shearwater have been identified as this subspecies, which would then replace Little Shearwater on the ABA Checklist.


Revise the classification of sandpipers and turnstones

We’ve become more or less accustomed to the rearrangement of one or more groups of birds every year. This time the genera Arenaria (turnstones) and Calidris draw the short straw.


Split Sage Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli) into two species

This is a cool one that would add a new species to the ABA Checklist. We’ve known for some time that the two populations of Sage Sparrow, nevadensis of the Great Basin and belli of California, differ from each other in significant ways and do not interbreed in areas where both are found. They’ve even been treated as separate species by some authorities, notably sparrow guru James Rising.

The mtDNA of thr two populations looks to confirm what was always suspected, and the two groups differ significantly genetically in addition to the long observed differences in appearance and song for what seems to be a pretty clear cut split. The only question now is what to call the new species. Great Basin Sparrow and California Sparrow? Or will we pull out the dreaded hypens for our two Sage-Sparrows?


Change the generic placement of Otus flammeolus

Turns out our little dark-eyed, migratory, moth-eating Flammulated Owl is not as closely related to the Old World Otus owls as previously suspected, but it’s not really like the New World Megascops Screech-Owls either. The best option then is to defer to noted golden-age ornithologist Elliot Coues, who placed them in their own Psiloscops genus way back in 1899. Everything old is new again.


Recognize Hanson’s new species of White-cheeked Geese, Branta spp.

Undoubtedly the proposal most likely to cause North American birders to tear out their own hair is the one that makes the case for paring off an additional four species from the Canada Goose complex. The proposal is based on a posthumously published work by ornithologist Harold Hanson and, given the fact that Hanson meticulously described over 200 distinct subspecies of Canada and Cackling Goose, perhaps we should be thankful that only four made the cut.

Richard Banks, who reviewed Hanson’s magnum opus in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, urges caution. For that reason and other, perhaps obvious, ones it’s a very unlikely proposal to pass. I don’t know about you all, but I’m pretty relieved about that.


Move the Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) to subfamily Carduelinae

Not in the ABA-Area (at least, not yet), Hawaii’s honeycreepers have been shuffled around the passerines for decades and most recently were slotted into Fringillidae. This most recent analysis of the family’s genetics puts them into subfamily Carduelinae, with Pine Grosbeak and the Carpodacus rosefinches of Asia as sister taxa.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Morgan Churchill

    Should be noted that these are (probably?) only the first batch of proposals for the next update. Typically there are 3-4 batches, so there should be more proposals in the pipeline, unless AOU is cutting back on the number they assess a year.

    Also, are there Little Shearwater records from California? I could have sworn they have shown up off Monterey 1 or 2 times?

  • Good point, Morgan. I expect there may be a few more proposals. 

    And I don't know about the CA shearwaters. Perhaps someone will comment to that effect. 

    Sent from my phone

  • Matt Brady

    There was one record of Little Shearwater from Monterey Bay (29 October, 2003), found by Debi shearwater and Peter Pyle. Initially it was accepted by the CBRC, however, the record was later re-examined and was determined to have been a really weird bird. They decided it was most likely an aberrant Manx Shearwater, but maybe could have also been from a currently-undescribed form within the “Little” complex. I think someone may have even floated the idea that it could have been a Bryan’s Shearwater. In summery, it was a mysterious bird.

  • Just out of curiosity which of the white-cheeked geese subspecies a proposed to be split?

  • From what I’m able to get from the proposal (and subsequent discussion on the ID-Frontiers listserv) it’s Branta maxima (from canadensis), minima (from hutchinsii), leucopareia (from minima)and recognition of ‘lawrencia‘, which is currently undescribed (I could have this wrong?) as a ssp.

  • Sorry about all the parentheses (I can’t help it).

  • Ok thanks.

  • For readers interested in more about the Sage Sparrow split, it was recently covered at

  • Brandon Percival

    What happen to the White-breasted Nuthatch possible split into three species?

  • I think that was one of the proposals up in 2012 that did not make the cut.

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