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2016 AOU Check-list Proposals, Part 2

Here it is, the next batch of proposed taxonomic updates to the AOU North American Check-list, which in turn are incorporated into the ABA Checklist. We’re doing something a little different this time, as the second batch of proposals for 2016 refers almost entirely to species that are not found in the ABA Area, so we’ll we combining it with the third batch this time around. And it’s almost as if the AOU was thinking of all of us too, because they released them simultaneously as well.

Together these two batches contain a whopping 27 proposals that have been submitted in 2015. 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 2016.

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.

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(a) Move Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio from the Appendix to the Main List, (b) Split P. porphyrio into six species, thereby removing P. porphyrio from the Main List and adding Gray-headed Swamphen P. poliocephalus, and (c) Add African Swamphen P. madagascarensis to the Main List.

In the last 20 years, Purple Swamphen has gone from a exotic footnote to a significant and growing part of the south Florida aviculture. The Florida bird records committee added the species as an established exotic in 2012 and the ABA CLC followed suit in 2013. Since that time more attention has been paid to the species in its native range in Central and Southeast Asia, and many Old World authorities have since split the wide-ranging Purple Swamphen into six species. Those individuals in south Florida are mostly of the poliocephalus ssp, called Gray-headed Swamphen, though individuals of some of the “blue-headed” groups are present as well and have been recorded interbreeding with poliocephalus birds. The proposal suggests first that “Purple Swamphen” be added to the main AOU list by virtue of its acceptance to the ABA list, and second, that the AOU accept the six-way split and refer to those Florida birds as Gray-headed Swamphen.

The third part of the proposal refers to a vagrant record from Bermuda, and doesn’t apply to the ABA Area.

"Purple" Swamphen in Florida, a can of worms from an invasive and a taxonomic perspective. Photo: Kenneth Cole Schneider via flickr

“Purple” Swamphen in Florida, a can of worms from both an ecological and a taxonomic perspective. Photo: Kenneth Cole Schneider via flickr

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Revise the subfamilies of Scolopacidae: (a) eliminate Phalaropodinae, and (b) restructure the family into five subfamilies

Another revision of taxonomic order, focusing on subfamilies in the sandpipers. Nothing terribly shocking in here but the proposal does draw some interesting lines between groups, most notably Tringa sandpipers and phalaropes, but also dowitchers and snipes, and Upland Sandpipers and curlews, all of which feel pretty intuitive in addition to being reinforced by what we know about their genetics, too.

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Revise the linear sequence of Vireonidae

Are vireos the new tanagers? Probably not, but there might be some rearranging in order, mostly involving species to the south of the ABA Area.

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Revise the classification of the Apodiformes

The order Apodiformes has long consisted of the Swifts, Hummingbirds, and the Old World Treeswifts. This proposal suggests splitting off the hummingbirds into their own order, Trochiliformes. In the the last batch of proposals I wrote a little about how the goatsucker families diverged from each other much farther in the past than other groups of birds that we traditionally consider to be orders rather than families. The same thing is going on here. Hummingbirds diverged from the swifts (tree and non) between 40 and 50 million years ago, and they’ve been doing their own thing, evolutionary speaking, for a very long time. This is comparable to not only the old Caprimulgiformes families, but also Woodpeckers (Piciformes) and Kingfishers/motmots/Bee-eaters (Coraciiformes). For consistency’s sake alone, that probably means hummingbirds deserve an order of their own, too.

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Change the English name of Alauda arvensis to Eurasian Skylark

Sky Lark is a Code 3 species, known in the ABA Area as a regular vagrant in western Alaska and from an established introduced population in British Columbia. The proposal suggests changing the common name to Eurasian Skylark in order to be consistent with nearly every other authority who already uses the name.

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Recognize Lilian’s Meadowlark Sturnella lilianae as a separate species from S. magna

“Lilian’s” Meadowlark has long been considered a distinct subspecies of the wide-ranging Eastern Meadowlark, found in the ABA Area from west Texas across New Mexico into Arizona, and across the southern US border in northwestern Mexico. Unlike the broadly distributed Eastern Meadowlark, “Lilian’s” is a specialty bird of desert grasslands and tends to be distinctly paler than Eastern Meadowlark, though vocalizations are reported to be similar. Much work has been done exploring the limits between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in areas where the two species overlap, and the new research cited in this proposal suggests that the lilianae group in the southwest, consisting not only of lilianae birds but two additional subspecies found in Mexico, is as genetically distinct from Eastern and Western Meadowlarks as those species are from each other and thus, worthy of consideration as a full species. The name Eastern Meadowlark would be retained for S. magna, and the widely-used Lilian’s Meadowlark would be used for this pale southwestern population.

A Lilian's Meadowlark singing in Arizona. Are they different enough? Photo: Alan Schmeirer via flickr

A Lilian’s Meadowlark singing in Arizona. Definitely different, but different enough? Photo: Alan Schmeirer via flickr

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Change the English name of Euplectes franciscanus to Northern Red Bishop

Euplectes franciscanus, commonly known in the ABA Area and in many field guides as Orange Bishop, is a exotic species with ABA Area populations in California, Texas, and Florida, as well as the islands of Puerto Rico, Martinique, and Guadelupe. Native to sub-saharan Africa, it is not yet included on the ABA Checklist but is considered by many to be a good candidate for future inclusion, particularly by virtue of the well-established California populations. With that in mind, the proposal seeks to bring the common name in line with what the species is referred to in the rest of the world. The African Bird Club, along with many other Old World authorities, refers to the species as Northern Red Bishop.  This proposal calls for the AOU do the same.

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Transfer Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis to Antigone

This proposal is the result of a study that sequenced the mitochondrial DNA for all the world’s crane species, currently 15 species in 4 genera. Most interesting is the way that it rearranged the relationships in genus Grus, which contains all three of the ABA Area’s regularly occurring crane species, Whooping, Common, and Sandhill. Of the three, Sandhill was the odd-bird out, seemingly more closely related to Old World White-naped Crane, Sarus Crane, and Brolga. The new arrangement would place Sandhill Crane, along with those three species, in a resurrected genus, Antigone.

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Add Rufous-necked Wood-Rail Aramides axillaris to the U.S. list

This proposal is a little bit of house-keeping, adding Rufous-necked Wood-Rail to the official US list by virtue of the individual that famously turned up at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico in the summer of 2013.

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Revise our Higher-level Linear sequence as Follows: (a) Move Strigiformes to precede Trogoniformes (b) Move Accipitriformes to precede Strigiformes (c) Move Gaviiformes to precede Procellariiformes (d) Move Eurypygiformes and Phaethontiformes to precede Gaviiformes (e) Reverse the linear sequence of Podicipediformes and Phoenicopteriformes (f) Move Pterocliformes and Columbiformes to follow Podicipediformes (g) Move Cuculiformes, Caprimulgiformes, and Apodiformes to follow Columbiformes (h) Move Charadriiformes and Gruiformes to precede Eurypygiformes

This is a massive proposal, the result of dozens of studies and publications, and it makes up the bulk of packet C this year. It can also basically be summarized as “moving stuff around”. The short of it is that there is finally enough evidence to strongly suggest a lot of these, sometimes not very intuitive, relationships between bird orders. And there’s some weird stuff in here, including moving cuckoos, pigeons, swifts, goatsuckers, and hummingbirds up towards the top of the list ahead of loons, grebes, and herons, subverting the old rule of thumb “water birds before land birds”.

Yes, it means that the next edition of your favorite field guide will probably see birds in new places. Yes, it is equal parts fascinating and annoying. It’s also important to remember that when we talk about bird orders, we’re talking about groups that diverged a very very very long time ago. For the average birder, I’d wager they don’t mean a lot other than being fascinating diversions, bits of information you can keep in your pocket when the new birder on a field trip asks why things are ordered the way they are. But it’s cool that we’re starting to dial down these relationships with some certainty. The last 10 years have seen a lot of big changes, but I’d wager the next 10 will see far less wholesale reorganization.

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(a) Split Ardenna from Puffinus, and (b) revise the linear sequence of species of Ardenna

Most shearwaters that occur in the ABA Area are in the genus Puffinus, historically a bit of a catch-all group consisting both of smaller, black-and-white, warm-water breeding shearwaters and larger, more varied, cold-water breeding ones. Studies looking at the mitochondrial DNA of this genus found a fairly significant genetic separation that more or less mirrors these morphological and biogeographical differences. For the ABA Area, the proposal would place Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Great, Wedge-tailed, Buller’s, Sooty, and Short-tailed Shearwaters in the new Ardenna genus, while Manx, Newell’s, Black-vented, Audubon’s, and Barolo remain in Puffinus.

The smoky Sooty Shearwater is characteristic of the Ardenna group. Photo: Will Pollard via flickr

The smoky, long-winged Sooty Shearwater is characteristic of the Ardenna group. Photo: Will Pollard via flickr

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Separate Cathartiformes from Accipitriformes

There have been a few proposals this year that have sought to apply a more objective standard to where we draw the line between orders and families in the phylogenetic hierarchy, and this is another in that category. New World Vultures in the family Cathartidae have been evolving separately from the rest of the Accipteriformes since at least the Paleocene, between 50 and 60 million years ago. They are morphological and behaviorally different from the rest of the group, and many paleontology authorities already consider them distinct from hawks and eagles. So Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, and California Condor, along with other species elsewhere in the Americas, would be moved to their own order.

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Recognize Colibri cyanotus as a separate species from C. thalassinus

Green Violetear is a wide-ranging hummingbird consisting of several subspecies found from Mexico to central South America. It occurs in the ABA Area as a semi-regular vagrant with records mostly from Texas, but also widely scattered throughout the US and into Canada. All ABA Area records are represented by the partially migratory thallassinus subspecies which ranges from central Mexico through northern Central America. The proposal suggests that the cyanotus group, found from Costa Rica through South America be treated as a separate species based on range, size and plumage differences. These cyanotus birds become Lesser Violetear, while the northern birds, including those records for the ABA Area, would then be known as Mexican Violetear.

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Split Oceanodroma cheimomnestes and O. socorroensis from Leach’s Storm-Petrel O. leucorhoa

Pelagic birders in Southern California have long noted subtle morphological differences in the Leach’s Storm-Petrel group roughly corresponding with populations that breed on islands off the coast of western Mexico. Nominate leucorhoa nests on islands in the northern oceans (both Pacific and Atlantic) as far south as California’s Channel Islands. O. socorroensis (proposed as Townsend’s Storm-Petrel) breeds on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, and is under significant threat from feral cats on the island. It averages smaller and darker than nominate Leach’s and has occurred in the ABA Area with some regularity in late summer. O. cheimonnestes (proposed as Ainley’s Storm-Petrel) nests on three islands south of Guadalupe and has not yet been confirmed to occur in the ABA Area.  Field identification of the Leach’s Storm-Petrel complex is quite difficult, but a potential split would certainly encourage birders to pay much closer attention to the Leach’s they see in southern California. For more information on this group of cryptic populations, see this Steve N.G. Howell, et al, article from North American Birds (.pdf).

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The full list, including background information and recommendations, is available here. We’ll have more once the decisions are published this summer.

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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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  • Tom Ford-Hutchinson

    Finally! Research into the Leach’s Storm Petrel split is long overdue. Many California already use Northern Red Bishop since ebird updated their taxonomy, I’m surprised the AOU still uses Orange Bishop.

    Combining this with part I, the Lillian’s Meadowlark and Scrub-jay changes I’m sure will be well relieved by the birding community once they vote on them. Six years later and we’re almost halfway through voting on things in Sibley’s list of splits (http://www.sibleyguides.com/2010/04/the-next-10-north-american-bird-splits/). I haven’t even heard of any mutterings from the splitters camp on the redpoll lump as many birders just see a spectrum there with lots of overlap.

  • Adam Roesch

    Regarding 2016-C-6 (aka “Moving Stuff Around”), I hope this will lead field guide authors and editors to finally break their reliance on taxonomic ordering. I understand that falcons and hawks are not related, but putting half of the book in between them is contrary to the reason for field guides: identifying birds. Separating morphologically similar but taxonomically distant families unnecessarily complicates things for experienced birders and makes the hobby impenetrable to newcomers and novices.

    Though I have quibbles with some particulars, I find the general scheme used by Richard Crossley in his ID Guide to be much more useful and pedagogically sound: broad morphologic categories (Swimming Birds, Wading Birds, Flying Water Birds, Raptors, Aerial Land Birds, Miscellaneous Land Birds, and Songbirds IIRC), sorted by morphology, with taxonomy as a guide for order within those categories. I often make custom lists for myself with ebird data, and I use a similar scheme to order and group species.

    It helps to have vireos near warblers near each other in the book. It helps to have starlings near blackbirds and swifts near swallows. It helps to have loons, grebes, ducks, and coots near each other. It helps to have herons, cranes, ibises, spoonbills, and flamingos near each other in the book. It helps to have the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers visible on the same spread (even if they’re now in separate genera).

    • Morgan Churchill

      count me as a dissenting voice. I actually prefer a taxonomic approach, since to it seems less arbitrary. There are far too many birds that are sort of “in between” different major groups, plus I think grouping them by taxonomy often helps emphasize distinctive qualities of different families and improves the learning of birds in the long run. Although I don’t have a problem mixing things up at lower taxonomic levels, like putting Downy and Hairy Woopeckers on the same page, which I think most people do.

      • Ted Floyd

        Me too. I dissent. Here’s a commentary by Steve Howell and colleagues:

        http://aba.org/birding/v41n6p44.pdf

        I disagree with the commentary. But it’s good to get dissenting voices out there… 🙂

        And even with Downy/Hairy, I’m not in alignment with (one particular version of) the conventional wisdom. Where I live, Downy and Ladder-backed are confusion species, and then so are Hairy and female American Three-toed. The only reason, if you ask me, for the Downy/Hairy comp is that some authority, long ago, and with an “East Coast bias,” said they’re similar.

        David Sibley has insightful commentary about this on p. 12 of the February 2016 Birding:

        “[Moving longspurs to their own family] is as if pipits had been lumped in the wood-warbler family because of their bill shape, and were now moved into their own family. Those of us who learned longspurs as part of the sparrow family will carry that link as a sort of baggage, but I predict that birders just starting out now and learning longspurs as a separate family will never think of them as sparrows, no more than anyone thinks of pipits as warblers.”

    • Kirk Roth

      I don’t see any reason that an enterprising field guide editor wouldn’t want to publish two versions of a field guide – a taxonomic and a “pedagogical” (or something). That way not only do you have a guide for everyone, but I would expect you could expand sales. For guides with established plates (looking at you, Nat Geo and Sibley), the only main costs would be rearranging plates and redoing the index – and perhaps a distinct cover for each one. If field guides find it profitable to have the luxury of separate Eastern and Western U.S. guides, I don’t see why separate page orderings would not also be in their best interest.

      • Ted Floyd

        The thing is, I see the “taxonomic” (or, more deeply, the “evolutionary” or “scientific”) outlook as the best “pedagogical” outlook. I think it helps us with bird identification when we learn that vireos aren’t all that close to warblers (as they were when I was a kid), that longspurs aren’t all that close to sparrows (as we learned a few years back), and that chats aren’t all that close to warblers (it’s coming…).

        As David Sibley (see comment above) says in the Feb. Birding, p. 12, “Personally I really like these big taxonomic changes that come along. It’s new information, and it rearranges my whole viewpoint. When I look at longspurs now, knowing the latest DNA evidence, it makes sense. The only reason they ever seemed to fit in with the sparrows is that’s where they’ve always been. But their bill shape, flight style, flight calls, song, flocking habits, hind claw, leg length (and other proportions), tertial pattern and shape, et cetera, et cetera, are all very distinct from sparrows.”

        So I don’t see the value in creating a “pedagogical” field guide with diminished, well, pedagogical value. Instead, I favor the “taxonomic” (“evolutionary” or “scientific”) approach, which maximizes the pedagogical value.

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