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2015 AOU Check-list Proposals, Part 2

Here it is, the second document containing the proposed taxonomic updates to the AOU North American Check-list, which in turn are incorporated into the ABA Checklist. This batch contains 13 proposals that have been submitted in 2014, 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.

Our usual caveat, it’s important to note that these are just proposals and the committee has yet to vote on them formally. There are some that are unlikely to make the cut for whatever reason, but in my opinion the proposals are often more interesting than the actual results anyway as we get a peek into the wild world of bird taxonomy as it exists in 2015.

This post will only mention those changes that affect the ABA Area and Hawaii, but if you’re interested in the entirety of this batch of proposals please refer to the official list of proposals at the AOU’s website (.pdf).

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Change the species epithet of Wilson’s Plover Charadrius wilsonia from wilsonia to wilsonius

We begin with a bit of linguistic housekeeping. As it turns out, the species epiphet wilsonia is the wrong gender for  the genus Charadrius, an oversight that has gone without rectification for 143 years since the species was formally described. This proposal would, at long last, rectify it.

Wilson's Plover, finally an -us, not an -a. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj via flickr

Wilson’s Plover, finally an -us, not an -a. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj via flickr

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Revise the generic limits and linear sequence of Hawaiian honeycreepers: (a) divide Hemignathus into four genera,  (b) separate the monotypic genus Manucerthia from Loxops, (c) merge Drepanis and Vestiaria, (d) change the specific epithet of the Akiapolaau from munroi to wilsoni, and (e) revise the linear sequence of Hawaiian  honeycreepers.

Revise species limits in three extinct complexes of Hawaiian honeycreepers: (a) split Nukupuu, Hemignathus lucidus, into three species, (b) split Greater Akialoa Hemignathus [Akialoa] ellisianus into three species, and (c) split Akepa Loxops coccineus into three species.

A pair of massive proposals having to do with native Hawaiian birds. Hawaii has long been considered, with melancholy, to be the extinction capital of North America, and these proposals would make that name all the more appropriate. The second splits three species, two of which are extinct into nine species, eight of which are extinct (The would be Hawai’i Akepa still being extant on the big island).

The first makes a number of taxonomic changes to the Drepanids, all of which are intended to bring the AOU’s treatment of Hawaiian honeycreepers in line with a number of other authorities including the Handbook of Birds of the World, the revised Howard & Moore checklist, and a popular field guide to Hawaiian birds, among others. The author admits that it all could change a bit more, however, as a comprehensive phylogenetic study of Hawaiian honeycreepers is, as yet, not complete.

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Adopt American spelling of words in bird names for which British and American spellings differ

A proposal that will probably make more waves in the neotropics than in the ABA Area, this proposal seeks to standardized the way by which we “Americanize” English common names. We already readily make the gray/grey switch, our sparrow is Clay-colored rather than Clay-coloured, but we retain the British convention for birds like Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Mitred Parakeet. The proposal claims that mispronunciation and confusion are the results of such inconsistencies, and we should seek to minimize those when possible and, no doubt, finally win the last battle of the American Revolution.

The future Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher? Photo by Dominic Sherony via flickr

The future Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher? Photo by Dominic Sherony via flickr

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Split Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis into six species

Finally, the sort of boundary-pushing proposal we’ve come to expect from these documents. At first glance, the prospect of breaking up the cardinals may sound absurd, but the species is made up of 18 recognized subspecies – some obviously more credible than others – and shows a great deal of variation throughout its range. In the ABA Area this is best expressed in the dropped jaws of eastern birders when they finally lay eyes on the hulking technicolor brute that is a bird from the southwestern superbus group.

In addition, there are isolated populations on Cozumel and Tres Marias Islands, and distinct subspecies on the Yucatan and in southwestern Mexico, the latter often called “Long-crested” Cardinal. The case for the split is not as firmly grounded in phylogenetic and vocal differences as other recent proposals that have ultimately failed to make the cut, so I have a hard time seeing this one get through. However, it does bring attention the incredible diversity that we miss, hiding in the midst of a very well-known species.

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Revise the subfamilial classification of the Falconidae

Falconidae is currently divided into three subfamilies, roughly breaking down to caracaras, the forest-falcons, and the rest of them, including the bizarre Laughing Falcon tossed in with the classic Falco birds. Recent genetic analyses suggests that this is wrong however, and Falconidae is better separated into two subfamilies.

These new subfamilies rearrange the old ones a fair bit. The new Falconinae would consist of both caracaras and the Falco species, and the new Herpetotherinae brings together the superficially similar forest-falcons and the Laughing Falcon.

The ABA Area is represented by both groups. Crested Caracara and five breeding Falco species in Falconinae, and Collared Forest-Falcon from Herpetotherinae with a single vagrant record.

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Split Calliphlox lyrura from C. evelynae (Bahama Woodstar)

Bahama Woodstar is a commonly occurring hummingbird throughout the islands of the Bahamas, and it has occurred in the ABA Area a handful of times, most recently an incredible record from Pennsylvania in 2013. On the islands of Great and Little Inagua, at the southern end of the Bahamas, another distinct population of hummingbirds was once considered to be its own species, but was lumped with the similar Bahama Woodstar in the 40’s for reasons that are not clear.

The proposal seeks to elevate that population back to full species status, conditionally called Inagua Sheartail (as the Bahama Woodstar is not actually related to the other hummingbirds called woodstars elsewhere in the neotropics, but that’s a proposal for another time). Because the Inagua islands are on the far southeast side of the Bahamas, it is unlikely that any of the older woodstar records in Florida represent this species.

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Split Stercorarius antarcticus (incl. lonnbergi) from S. skua

Most references already accept this split, as Great Skua, S. skua, is the only member of the “Catharacta” skua group to breed in the Northern Hemisphere and, if truly considered to be conspecific with Brown Skua, S. antarcticus, would be the only vertebrate on earth with non-interbreeding populations on both poles. Brown Skua also regularly hybridizes with other Southern Hemisphere skuas, and has never been known to do so with Great Skua. This is no doubt helped along by their opposing polar preferences, but still.

Brown Skua has never been conclusively recorded in the ABA Area, though there have been some interesting reports from the western Atlantic over the years, and the species has been documented by molecular evidence to occur in the northeastern Atlantic. It’s certainly one to watch out for, assuming you can identify it.

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Revise the composition and linear sequence of the Thraupidae based on comprehensive phylogenetic studies

More from the family formerly known as the tanagers, a name that is increasingly worthless from a taxonomic perspective.  This new study offers a complete phylogeny of the Thraupids and near-Thraupids, putting to rest a lot of our misconceptions about where some of these birds belong. The results are too comprehensive to go into here, but highlights include the movement of various seedeaters, grassquits, flower-piercers, yellow-finches, saltators and the famous Galapagos “Darwin’s” Finches into the tanager family, and the removal of the ABA Area’s previous last remaining “tanager”, Western Spindalis, from the tanager family and into the dreaded incertae sedis category. As mentioned by Tony Leukering in the comments, we do, however, gain White-collared Seedeater, Bananaquit, and Yellow-faced and Black-faced Grassquits, all “tanagers” now.

And just so we don’t forget, Summer Tanager is still not a tanager.

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Once again, the full list, including background information and recommendations, is available here (.pdf). We’ll have a look at subsequent proposals as they’re released.

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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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  • Michael Retter

    “Adopt American spelling of words in bird names for which British and American spellings differ” is the name of the proposal, and one that I believe that shows an inherent bias if not misunderstanding of the English language in North America. Spellings such as “grey”, “colour”, “sulphur”, and “moustache” are indeed standard British English spellings. But they are also standard in Canadian English. So are the “-re” nouns, like “theatre”, “centre”, “sabre”, and (presumably) “ochre”. These spellings are also presumably standard in Belize, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. These are independent nations within the AOU’s North American Checklist Area. And lest we forget, Bermuda, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Montserrat, and the British Virgin Islands are also in the Area, and they are British Overseas Territories. That makes 11 independent countries plus a smattering of British territories for which these spellings is most likely standard. In light of this, this proposal doesn’t make sense to me, UNLESS it is amended to clearly state that alternative spellings are equally valid as “official” NACC names. Then we can spell them the way we want, based on where we are.

    • Michael — you should share this opinion (with which I whole-heartedly agree!) with the NACC. It is a horribly ethnocentric proposal.

      • Michael Retter

        Already been in contact with them and am working on it, Tony. 🙂

        • Tom Ford-Hutchinson

          Sulfur, however, is now the standardized spelling of the chemical name as per IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry for those non-chemists) and is therefore the preferred spelling for all of the science community, Britain & Canada included. As a scientific society it would make sense for the AOU to change Sulphur to Sulfur.

          As for the other spellings, having been born in Canada to British parents and then subsequently moving to the US I can never keep track of which spellings are correct. Some standardization would be useful, albeit it would be more useful if these also matched those used across the pond. Perhaps the AOU and other bird organizations should conform to those names accepted for the IOU world list (i.e. Great Grey Owl vs. Gray Jay)?

  • Regarding ABA-area Thraupidae: Yes, the proposal for realignment and re-assessment of the limits of the “tanager” family would remove the only current Thraupidae representative from the ABA list: Western Spindalis. However, it would add four species to that list that are currently not considered to be tanagers: Bananaquit, White-collared Seedeater, and Yellow-faced and Black-faced grassquits. So, all in all, it seems a fair trade.

    • Ah, you’re so right. With all the birds moving around I missed those. I’ll edit to reflect that.
      Sent from a tablet

  • eg

    The Sulphur-belled flycatcher photo is actually linked to the Wilson’s Plover on Flickr.

  • Adam Winer

    Akepa is – mercifully – not extinct on the Big Island. So the proposal given splits three species, two of which are extinct, into nine species, eight of which are extinct.

  • Ted Floyd

    My vote for the name of the cardinal in the western U.S. and Mexico: Superb Cardinal.

    • Rick Wright

      I was amazed they didn’t go for that; think they just overlooked it?

    • But, like Nate, I doubt that the cardinal split will pass. At least, that’s what a little birdie told me.

  • The possibility that “Brown” Skua has reached the ABA area in the Pacific also exists http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wb/v36n01/p0071-p0073.pdf

  • Tim Brush

    any guesses about the likelihood that the Painted Bunting split will pass? Just curious; not axe to grind (or at least a small one)

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