The shorebirds are the most recent group to see radical realignment due to recent genetic research. It’s fascinating science, but what does it mean for the regular birder?
The American Ornithologists’ Union’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds—the AOU Check-list Committee, for short—sure has been busy of late. Splits (lots) and lumps (not so many), especially those affecting North America north of the U.S.–Mexico border, inevitably elicit the loudest response from birders. But maybe the most substantial changes are the big checklist shuffles, dramatically affecting the linear sequence of bird names across large swaths of the Check-list.
In recent years, the Check-list Committee has massively reorganized such speciose and familiar groups as the gulls, terns, and warblers. Remember all those Larus gulls? Many of them have new scientific names, and new positions on the Check-list. How about the Sterna terns? They were even more drastically overhauled. And, of course, the Dendroica warblers. Birders took that one especially hard, it seems to me. There’s just something really weird, I guess, about seeing the familiar ole Black-throated Green Warbler practically at the bottom of the warblers, with a new name (Setophaga), no less—way, waaay further down the checklist than the Ovenbird, the Northern Waterthrush, and the Connecticut Warbler.
How about a major reorganization of the large sandpiper family, so well represented here in North America.
The AOU has already made inroads here. The genus Tringa (the “shanks”) was recently reorganized, with such surprising results as the placement of the distinctive Willet not only within the shanks, but, in fact, between the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs.
Now, Paul Hess reports in the March/April 2013 Birding (“Sorting Out the Shorebirds,” pp. 27–28), a considerably larger overhaul may be in the works. Check out the figure at right, a distillation of a major new analysis by Rosemary Gibson and Allan Baker. In the Gibson–Baker scheme, the phalaropes would be united with the shanks. The godwits and curlews—which I’d always thought of as pretty close—would be quite far apart. Think about it: The Marbled Godwit, in this configuration, is closer to the Ruff and the Broad-billed Sandpiper than it is to the Long-billed Curlew.
Speaking of Ruffs and Broad-billed Sandpipers, the new research—reported by Gibson and Baker in Molecular Genetics and Evolution 64:66–72—proposes genus-level changes that will surprise almost all of us. Check this out: The Ruff, Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper are closely related to each other, according to the new research. What about the Sharp-tail’s kissing cousin, the Pectoral Sandpiper? In the new arrangement, the Pec goes with Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and—wait for it—Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
I could go on, but you get the point. If the Gibson–Baker findings are evaluated and accepted by the AOU, our checklists will look very, very different. Which brings me to a question:
Do you like all these changes?
I confess, and I think many of you already know: I love these checklist changes! For me, it’s exhilarating to be a birder in an era of such rapidly evolving knowledge and understanding. At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll be seeing Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. And I’ll look at them with eyes wide open, wondering anew about their similarities and differences, their behavior and ecology, their vocalizations and plumages.
Offshore, I’ll see some ducks—they’re related to turkeys and chachalacas. A grebe will swim by—apparently, it’s allied with the flamingos. Then, if I’m lucky, a Peregrine Falcon will put up the shorebirds. And check this out: That Peregrine is more closely related to the pipits and swallows along the shore than it is to the Red-tailed Hawk sitting in the tree a bit farther out.
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Charles Darwin wrote, in the finale to his Origin of Species, “…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
There is grandeur, too, in the view that human learning and understanding are forever advancing. Wouldn’t it be boring if the state of our knowledge suddenly froze in place? Wouldn’t it be disappointing if our checklists suddenly stabilized, never to change again?