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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.
Nate Swick

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  • Rick Wright

    Yes, I have opinions about those English names, but time only to write that that is perhaps the most impressive photograph I’ll see all spring. Well done, Corey!

    • My mistake actually. The photo credit should go to Robert Otrowski. Corey had a different shot at the Ted Floyd piece I reference above, also here:

      • Rick Wright

        Sorry; it’s still an amazing image.

        • Isn’t it? Very cool.

          • Rob Ostrowski

            Thanks, guys. Just got lucky being in the right place at the right time!

  • toddinsf

    My thoughts: 1) Yes, it would be confusing – adopt new names for all split forms; 2) Yes, ‘Salmarsh’ for the eastern ‘clappers’ works well; 3) California – the distribution is mostly within that region (the state + Baja); & 4) No – we shouldn’t be ‘Amerocentric’ when decided whether to retain old names or not – & ‘Elegant’ would certainly be a great descriptor for the bird so wonderfully shown in Robert’s photo above! 🙂

  • David Rankin

    What about the “Yuma” Clapper Rail, found mainly along the Colorado River and the Salton Sea. It’s distribution covers a good deal of Arizona, and I think it’s going to be lumped in with the other west coast Clapper Rails. I don’t like the name California Rail for a bird that ranges into Arizona!

    Also, an awful lot of the range of the proposed California Rail is in Mexico (also not California). Light-footed Rail doesn’t seem that much better, since that doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be a good ID mark.

    I still like Ridgway’s Rail for the west coast species.

  • Tony Leukering

    Presumably the AOU has taken a lot of flak — and deservedly so — for their decisions to retain ‘Canada Goose’ and ‘Winter Wren’ post-split, particularly as there were no existing names in use to use for an undetermined individual of the respective complex. I could just imagine, “Hey, I’ve got a Winter Wren here, I think that it’s a Pacific!” While “White-cheeked Goose” has now seen widespread use as a group name, the little wrens still lack a widely-used moniker (though see

    Oddly enough, despite my strong belief that the AOU screwed the pooch on the geese and the wrens, I don’t have a problem retaining ‘Clapper Rail’ as the moniker for the saltmarsh-loving eastern birds, nor ‘King Rail’ for the rufescent denizen of large cattail marshes in the eastern half of the ABA area. That is because, despite the propensity for rails to wander, it seems unlikely for there to be any confusion. However, I also greatly appreciate systematicism (I know, it’s not a word, but it should be, and you know what I mean!) and if the AOU is going to break its own rule (see text in above link), there ought to be very strong reasons for such, else why have nomenclatural rules at all!

    With that, then, I agree with David Rankin that Ridgway’s Rail seems a more-inclusive fit for that taxon (though I know that there are many eponym-phobes out there — anyone know one with the initials of ‘TF?’). Besides, there is already a surfeit of ‘California’ birds, most of which are not endemic to California (sensu stricto). I also am amenable to ‘Elegant Rail,’ though I tend to dislike common names that are simply translations of the scientific names; it suggests to me a bit of laziness or lack of imagination. Obviously, some such are well-named (Yellow-headed Blackbird being an example). Moth common names are particularly good examples. I mean, ‘Early Zanclognatha Moth?’ Really? That is akin to ‘Tricolored Agelaius Bird!’

    But, I digress. I would prefer to see the AOU look at the nomenclatural problem in the big rails holistically, rather than their blindered actions of the recent past. I strongly encourage the Nomenclature Committee to take into account the entire ranges of each taxon, not focus just on the ABA area. I also encourage the committee to take into account the features of all North American rails if deciding to use a descriptive name. ‘Black-backed Oriole’ is atrocious, as noted by Steve Howell (I forget the actual numbers, but something like seven of the 11 orioles of Mexico have black backs).

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