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Trust and Obey

Steve N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb’s Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America was groundbreaking on multiple fronts. Nearly 20 years since the book’s publication (can you believe it’s been that long?), the book remains highly useful. I frequently refer to it for basic field ID & S&D info.

H&wHowell and Webb’s greatest legacy, arguably, is not all the great info packed into its 851 pages. Rather, its greatest—if somewhat problematic—legacy is what might be termed “Howell taxonomy.” In species account after species account, Howell and Webb depart from the “official” taxonomy of the day, i.e., that of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). For example, Howell and Webb place the Swainson’s Warbler in the genus Helmitheros, contra the AOU’s Limnothlypis for that species.

I think it’s fair to say that Steve Howell has been at it ever since.

In an influential 2009 essay in Birding, Howell and coauthors make their case for a stable “field guide” taxonomy that
diverges from the taxonomy of the AOU. Writing for The ABA Blog, Howell has cautioned us about “official” taxonomies based on molecular genetics and certain species concepts. And I’m pretty sure he’s had published in Birding
more letters to the editor this past decade than anybody.

Howell’s letter in the May/June 2013 Birding—about the scientific name of the Swainson’s Warbler, among other things—offers a
succinct synopsis a particular worldview:

“We all make errors. Hopefully, we can learn from them. We should also feel free to speak up when decisions appear to have been made without due consideration or prudence, in the wider field of life as well as in birding.”

Small-b birding has its rules. (Capital-B Birding has its rules.) Ornithology has its rules.

Which rules do you like? Which rules would you change? And the real question: Which rules do you disobey?

1. I’ll start off with a rule, or rather a class of rules, that I obey. I obey the AOU’s “linear sequence.” Ducks first, then grouse…hawks, in due course…then a big jump to falcons, then parrots, and then passerines. Within the passerines: flycatchers followed by vireos, shrikes, and crows; longspurs after a while, then Olive Warbler, then “normal” warblers, then whatever the heck tanagers are these days; then finally House Sparrow, Orange Bishop, and Nutmeg Mannikin. (I’ll come back to the bishop and manikin, I promise.)\

I like this “rule,” because it represents the scientific community’s best effort to portray evolutionary relationships among birds. I further believe that the appreciation and identification of birds is best achieved by a biological worldview. And I’m with the great 20th-century scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who famously said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Falcons with parrots, longspurs in front of the Olive Warbler—those things help me make sense of the birds I see and enjoy in the field. Steve Howell disagrees with me, and that’s fine.

2. Another rule I obey, although grudgingly, is AOU nomenclature. I agree with Steve Howell and others that splitting the Winter Wren into the Winter Wren and the Pacific Wren didn’t make a lot of sense. But in my own writings, and in my handling of other people’s writing, I always obey AOU nomenclature, even down to the orthographic details of hyphenation and capitalization. It’s just too confusing to have multiple names out there. Sure, any sane person can see that boreal wren (yes, lower case) is better than Winter Wren, but that’s an argument based on logic. And logic often gets in the way of clarity and good diction. So Winter Wren it is.

Meanwhile, I’m doing my part, behind the scenes, to move us all—all of us—toward boreal wren and Bewick-with-no-apostrophe lower-case-wren.

3. You already know that I’m fine with—more than that, I heartily affirm—the business of separating the hawks and falcons. But what about much closer relationships, for example, species limits within the Red-tailed Hawk complex? Do I obey the AOU (one species), or do I disobey and recognize the Harlan’s Hawk as a species distinct from the Red-tailed Hawk (which, if there were a split, would require a new name, I say)?

It’s complicated. At Birding magazine, we write Harlan’s [Red-tailed] Hawk, with no quotation marks around Harlan’s. So we obey the AOU, but we also emphasize the “worth,” if you will, of taxa currently demoted to subspecies rank. Eliminating the scare-quotes around the name of the subspecies is our not-so-subtle orthographic signal that we take subspecies seriously. \

In my personal life, the bird is the Harlan’s Hawk. If I go out and see a Harlan’s Hawk and a Western Redtail, it’s two “species” (scare-quotes, because I don’t believe in, er, “species”), and I enter them in my field notebook just like that: 1. Harlan’s Hawk; 2. Western Redtail. Check that. I write: 1. Harlan hawk; 2. Western redtail.

4. A quite different matter involves such birds as the Orange Bishop and Nutmeg Mannikin. The “problem” with these birds isn’t their status as full species (although, admittedly, species limits in both are problematic). Rather, the problem is that they’re not on the ABA Checklist. So they
don’t count.

If you say so. But I count them, and so do many others. Check out this screen-capture from eBird:


eBird gives us 1,059 species in the ABA Area, but the latest and greatest ABA Checklist shows only 977 species. And check out the most recent to Bruce Neville’s eBird-compliant ABA Area life list. Yes, it’s an Orange Bishop.

Is eBird’s 1,059 “right”? Is the ABA’s 977 “right”?

What’s right, in you ask me, is that we have multiple authorities, multiple narratives, multiple realities out there. That’s how I like my postmodern utopia, thank you very much—just so long as we all agree on spelling and orthography for the Orange Bishop. Hey, it’s my utopia, and you don’t have to join me there if you don’t want to… 🙂

5. Finally, I have to get a word in, please, about the heard-only rule. It’s been repealed, of course. But here’s a thought. About a year ago, I was with a small group in Peru, and our outstanding local guide stopped us, and said, “Do you smell that? It’s a Hoatzin!”

That was so cool. Light reaching the photoreceptors in our eyes, air moving around the cochleae in our ears, aromatic compounds interacting with our olfactory neurons—those are all different signals that get to our brains and tell us something about reality. None is objectively “better” than another. They’re equally valid. A “smelled-only” bird isn’t inferior to one that’s “heard-only.” A “seen-only” tick isn’t worthier than  one that’s “heard-only.” I hope one day to ID a Crested Auklet by smell.

The most wondrous bird ID experience I’ve ever had: On a still, hot afternoon a few years ago, I lay on the ground, eyes closed, on a bluff by a lakeshore and felt—felt, yes, felt—the rush of air as an immense and glorious American White Pelican zoomed over my body. \

What about the rest of you?

If Steve Howell gets his way with a birder’s taxonomy, are you buying it? Do you keep an ABA life list, an eBird life list, or something else? Would you count a smelled-only auklet or a felt-only pelican?


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • If you hand me an American Goldfinch, I could identify it by its maple syrup smell, but at that point I should have identified it correctly with sight and/or sound.

  • Cool! Thanks, Drew; I didn’t know that. I love learning new stuff. In the off chance that others of you are as ignorant as I was, check this out:

  • No comments on the substance of the article, just pleased as punch to see my town neighbor Brad Carlson at #4 on the list. We’ve frozen our butts off while scanning for Little Gulls at Niagara Falls and he’s managed to attract a Yellow-headed Blackbird to his Rochester, NY-area yard for two years. He’s intense and has a gift.

  • Matt

    What if you can’t tell which red-tail it is, harlan’s or western?. I have trouble telling them apart so I just say “Red-tailed Hawk” because I can’t tell western from eastern either lots of times, so why separate harlan’s as a species? I guess we can just call the obvious harlan’s by name…which is another conundrum in itself!

  • But how would you know it’s not a Rose-breasted Grosbeak? They can also smell like maple syrup. 😉

  • I don’t think I would count a smelled-only bird because I’d have no proof that the bird that left the smell were still alive. If I had proof of life, I think it would be perfectly acceptable to count it, though.

    I wouldn’t count the felt-only pelican in your example because I’d have no way of knowing what bird it was that actually buzzed me. It was possibly a pelican, but how could I know for sure? 🙂

  • Just like a “Mourning Warbler” that sure looks like a Mourning Warbler, but actually has a preponderance of MacGillivray’s Warbler genes.

    It’s good enough for me… 😉

    And, hey, I wonder if a good atmospheric scientist could prove that that amount of atmospheric turbulence could be caused only by a bird as massive as an American White Pelican.

  • Michael Coffey


    I just wanted to say that your field guide to the Birds of North America put out by the Smithsonian Institution is by far the best field guide. The date of publication is 2008. When is the newest version ready to come out? I can’t wait to get my copy. I hope the range maps are updated. Birds change their ranges so much. I would be very interested to see the numerous parrots and other species in Florida added to this guide.

    I especially like the comments whether birds are expanding their range or not. It helps me look for something that may show up in my area. The photographs are great for identifying species and better than drawings.

    Thanks for what you do!

    Michael Coffey

  • Jason

    What about identifiable bird tracks? I see turkey tracks (excuse me Wild Turkey tracks) in my local patch much more often than I see turkeys, shouldn’t tracks be a valuable tool for determining whether a bird is present? (It’s true that it only proves that the bird was present recently, not now.) But even to me that seems different than a “countable” bird.

  • Chris Harbard

    Hey Ted … Don’t forget the smell of storm-petrels (have I spelled that right??) and other tubenoses.

  • James Swanson

    Some brief comments on your principle points (well, re-reading, they turned out to be rather longish comments):
    1. I like the linear sequence because I am used to it (or some sequence close to it) in the field guides I use. I could get used to a different sequence, but my principal interest in evolutionary relationships is primarily practical: in finding birds in a field guide!
    I like Dr. Dobzhansky as much as the next biologist, at one point seeing a whole series of his videos either in my high school or university biology courses (I forget which now). Biology really came together as a discipline for me when I had the insight you mention: That evolution was the principle that tied everything together.

    2. I agree that there needs to be a single set of names. Anything else is too confusing. For most groups, this ends up being the scientific name. We are lucky in birding to have an authority on English names. However, remember that the primary usefulness of names is not as descriptors, but as identifiers. The word ‘swift’ has no value as a descriptor until you know what a swift is – that is, you have reached a certain level of proficiency in the birding field. Steller’s Jay or Steller Jay is just as useful as an identifier as Black-fronted Jay. The latter term has more value as a descriptor. So what you are proposing is that all names should be not only identifiers, but descriptors as well. That argument has a certain merit, and allows easier entry into the field for newbies as you mention, but for experienced birders a wholesale change of names is as attractive as learning a new word processor or switching away from the QWERTY keyboard would be for the expert typist. I may be wrong, but I would think that most ABA members would look at such a proposal with trepidation (although I would personally like to get rid of such barbarisms as Vaux’s Swift and Xantus’s Hummingbird – thank goodness we have been unburdened of the name of Xantus’s Murrelet).

    3. I don’t really get the point here. It seems you believe in the value of ‘subspecies’ but not ‘species’? Forgive me if I’m being thick.

    I read the link to your article about not believing in species and it seems to me that you are just voicing a basic truth about species that Plato understood when he came up with the concept – that a species is just that, a concept. Its existence is not physical, but, shall we say, mental (he might use another word, and contend that it expresses a deeper reality, but that would involve us with the reality of the existence of things beyond the physical which is not where I am interested in going right now – I hope we can proceed by agreeing that species and the like exist only on the mental plane). In the physical world, individuals exist. My mind assigns them to species in an effort to make sense of the world. By discovering relationships between individuals, I am able to deduce things about individuals I have never experienced before, based on seeing their greater or lesser relatedness to individuals I have previously known. This is basic to the working of science. Therefore, I think you are engaging in hyperbole – trying to surprise or shock – when you say you don’t ‘believe’ in species. Do species exist? Not in the physical world, but only mentally. Only individuals exist in the physical world – as I said, not a new idea, but something as old as Plato.

    Species exist as ideas or concepts that help me understand the world. As concepts, they are only as useful as their ability to help me understand the world. The concept of a Red-shouldered Hawk is problematic. The two populations seem to be the same species, but their discontinuity in space makes me wonder. As you say, they would seem to be on the way to being two different kinds of things or ‘species’. At what point do they cross that threshold? I don’t know. Famously there is a salamander in California that lives in the mountains. It is distributed throughout the Coastal Ranges, up into Northern California, then across to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and south through them to where the Transverse Ranges join the Sierra Nevada once again to the Coastal Ranges and then north again. You could say the distribution forms an ‘o’. However, although all the ‘subspecies’ breed with the neighboring ‘subspecies’ throughout its range, there is a point in the Coastal Ranges south of San Francisco where two of the ‘subspecies’ are not capable of interbreeding. Although the salamanders in this area are capable of receiving genes from the salamanders of the neighboring gene pool (the classic gene pool definition of a ‘species’), they cannot do it directly, but only if the genes are propagated through all the other subspecies all the way around the ‘o’ until they reach them. In other words, these two subspecies behave as completely separated species, although they are members of the same gene pool! If the other subspecies were to become extinct tonight, the two remaining subspecies could be declared different species tomorrow.

    Sorry this is getting so long – the curse of having studied philosophy as well as biology.

    4. I think the ABA has lost its relevance as a definer of what is countable and non-countable. While long-time members might still refer to what the ABA considers countable, newer birders are being attracted to eBird and count whatever eBird lets them count. I don’t think the ABA will be able to reverse this. eBird is concerned with capturing data about birds and data about Orange Bishops is just as valuable in the long run as data about birds accepted by the ABA. Personally, I have counted Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin on eBird, although I knew at the time that these three birds, just north of Madison, were from the recovery project at Necedah NWR. I also remember counting a Barnacle Goose of dubious origins and probably there are other birds I don’t remember right now. While I wouldn’t count Red Jungle Fowl and Graylag Geese everytime I pass a farmyard (eBird makes this exceedingly difficult), I don’t have a problem counting what eBird lets me count (although I admit feeling a little guilty about the Barnacle Goose – probably an escapee; I don’t feel at all guilty about the Cranes, living like wild birds practically their entire lives).

    5. A great story about the Hoatzin. I don’t mind counting a bird if a human is capable of detecting its presence with our relatively weak olfactory apparatus. I would have worries that I was detecting a lingering aroma of a bird that wasn’t actually present. Presently, the only animal whose presence I can confirm by smell is a skunk.

    Finally, a curiousity. What are you referring to when you title the article “Trust and Obey”? Is it an injunction as a representative of the ABA?! Just kidding.

  • Claire Baker

    It’s hard to believe that I have had that terrific book by Steve and Sophie for 20 years! I call it the Webb and Howell book now, as it seems only fair after so much time! As a dilettante birder, I get crabby about this evolutionary approach to a field guide. Perhaps it is because I learned my birds in a certain order and I’m just old. I like my raptors together. As for the Red-tailed hawks, Eastern, Western, everything comes together where I live in the LRGV in TX. Come down here in the winter, you are bound to see practically anything. I e-bird and use it as a checklist, which is difficult, I think. Example: during spring migration on SPI, it would spit out need for verification of a warbler if it had not yet been seen by enough people. And you had to remember it, because it sure wasn’t listed as a regular checklist would have been. I personally like the apostrophies on my bird names. And changing the names of birds like Vaux’s would sadden my ringfinger, which seems to enjoy the southern jump to the “x” below! As always, when I hear discussions of subspecies, my mind wanders to the biography of Connie Hager, and the hoops she had to jump through to make Dr. Oberhouser happy! Imagine that! 🙂

  • Well, maybe I wouldn’t be able to conclusively narrow it down that far…I would have to take the banding site into account.

  • Christopher

    Great post! About point #4, I see that as an ebird flaw that can and probably will soon be fixed. A major goal of ebird is to record data and–as James Swanson points out–data about any bird including escapees is just important as data about “countable” birds. I often come across the dilemma of whether or not to submit birds of questionable origin on ebird; one one hand I’d like to record the data, but on the other hand it would suddenly look like I’ve “counted” one more bird than I actually have. There should be some way to edit an observation on ebird so that the sighting is recorded, but not added to your life or year list.

  • I’m totally fine with what Matt is saying. To my eyes and heart, there’s just something whoppingly distinctive about the Harlan’s Hawk. I can see the case for calling an obvious Harlan’s a “Harlan’s,” and all the others just “Red-tailed Hawks.”

    Whatever floats your boat, and that’s the heart and soul of my message.

  • Thanks, Michael, for your kind words.

    We’re hoping to put out a second printing that will, among other things, update the range maps. Also new names and recent splits, and look for more treatment in the guide of such birds as Rosy-faced Lovebird, Nanday and Rose-ringed parakeets, and Purple Swamphen.

    (And, yes, we’ll fix the three typos that so many of you have brought to my attention. Okay, a bit more than three. Seriously, I tremendously appreciate the corrections that folks have told me about.)

  • True story.

    * It started snowing at 3am on the day of a Christmas Bird Count in which I was participating.

    * At around 8am, I saw Wild Turkey tracks in the fresh snow.

    * At least 3 birds, given the patterns of the tracks.

    * I reported 3 Wild Turkeys.

    Anybody got a problem with that? If so, why?

  • “That argument has a certain merit, and allows easier entry into the field for newbies as you mention, but for experienced birders a wholesale change of names is as attractive as learning a new word processor or switching away from the QWERTY keyboard would be for the expert typist.”

    My kids are learning typing now, and I would sign on at the drop of a hat to a scheme to create a better keyboard. Yes, it would cause some pain and suffering for us oldies (although I think we’d adapt), but a new keyboard also would create a much more efficient world in just 10-20 years’ time.

    When it comes down to “What’s good for me right now?” vs. “What’s better for the world 20 years from now?”, I go for the latter, every time.

    I’m not being altruistic. Quite the contrary, the curmudgeonly streak in me delights in fomenting turmoil and upheaval in the lives of people who favor “The Way Things Ought To Be”… 🙂

  • Be glad that we ABA birders don’t also use the BirdLife taxonomy for listing purposes, as they are diverging rapidly from the AOU. For example, they are not following the Xantus’s Murrelet split, for a multitude of potentially valid reasons. While BL’s checklist is mostly of global and conservation concern, it while have implications in regards to how some North American species receive conservation focus, something important to all birders.

  • I would have no problem counting them for the CBC, but I certainly wouldn’t put them on my life list. 🙂

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