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When is a Clapper Rail not a Clapper Rail?

With the five way split of the large North American Rallus looking more and more likely, the question as to what to call this new quintet of closely related species is getting a little bit of attention. When I reported on the proposal as submitted and published by the AOU Check-list Committee (and previously by Paul Hess and Ted Floyd), I noted that the default decision might be to retain the well-known names King and Clapper Rail for those species in the east, while creating a new moniker for the newly split subspecies, notably Ridgway’s Rail for the subspecies of Clapper Rail in southern California and Baja. That subspecies, obsoletus, has been known alternately as “Light-footed” Clapper Rail or “California” Clapper Rail. Neither named seemed to strike the fancy of the AOU committee members.

A King Rail and a Clapper Rails, or a Elegant Rail and a Saltmarsh Rail? photo by Corey Finger

A Clapper Rail and a King Rail, or a Saltmarsh Rail and a Elegant Rail? photo by Robert Ostrowski

While easy for North American birders to adjust to, retaining a common name previously used for the pre-split species for one of the new forms is generally not done so as to avoid confusion. See, for instance, the split of Sage Sparrow into Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows. That’s not to say there’s no precedent for it, of course, and the name Winter Wren still can confuse those who can’t be certain a birder is referring to the formerly Holarctic megaspecies or the new, and much more range-restricted, incarnation of the name. The argument for retaining King and Clapper may be based in ease of use, as with the wren, but one could just as easily see similar confusion sown in Rallus.

So what to do then? The AOU is currently discussion how best to resolve the matter. Will we still explore coastal saltmarshes for Clapper Rail? Or will it be Saltmarsh Rail? And what of the western subspecies? Ridgway’s, Light-footed, California, or something else?

The draft supplement is due soon, but the AOU is still interested in hearing the opinion of birders as to the potential name changes at stake here. So please let us know in the comments how you feel about it.

Questions to consider: Would retaining Clapper Rail to refer to the eastern subspecies be confusing given the long history of the name referring to both eastern and western subspecies? Is Saltmarsh Rail an appropriate alternative for the eastern ssp? What would be a good name for the obsoletus ssp of California and Baja California? Should the name King Rail be retained, given no potential confusion species in the ABA Area?

My own answers are 1) Yes, 2) Yes, 3) Light-footed or California, and 4) No, but I’m curious to hear what others have to say.

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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.
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