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The Least-Identified Birds in the ABA Area: Thoughts on the Featured Photo, April 2016 Birding

Fourteen years ago in Birding (April 2002 issue), there appeared a feature on “The Most Misidentified Birds in North America.” Basically, Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley took turns talking about the ID challenges that give us fits: winter loons, dark buteos, and peeps; Short-tailed vs. Sooty shearwaters and Rufous vs. Allen’s hummingbirds; Thayer’s Gull, of course, and jaegers.

And ravens.

Ravens? “Some people don’t have a lot of trouble with [Common vs. Chihuahuan,] and identify ravens with a high level of accuracy simply because the birds segregate themselves,” according to Sibley. “Most ravens are just brushed aside or simply labeled as whatever species is expected…Luckily, since ravens segregate themselves, most of the labels stuck on individual ravens are probably correct, but I would guess that ravens are among the least-identified birds in North America.”

Sibley wasn’t saying in that Birding feature that ravens are misidentified, so much as they are, if you will, under-identified. That idea grabbed me at the time, it’s stuck with me ever since, and it prompts a question: What are other under-identified species-groups in the ABA Area?

The obvious candidates have non-overlapping ranges. Think of Greater and Lesser prairie-chickens. Would you be able to recognize a Lesser–especially a female–that snuck into a a lek of Greaters? Or how about Brown-headed and Pygmy nuthatches? Suppose a Brown-headed wandered to the pine forests of Colorado? Could it pass as a Pygmy? And then there are the scrub-jays: Florida Scrub-Jay if you’re in Florida; Island Scrub-Jay if you’re on that island (Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands off southern California); and Western Scrub-Jay everywhere else.

This scrub-jay is the Featured Photo in the April 2016 Birding. As to which species, geography plays a huge role--perhaps the only role--in the ID process. Are the scrub-jays among the "least-identified" bird species in the ABA Area? Photo by © Brian E. Small.

This scrub-jay is the Featured Photo in the April 2016 Birding [ABA member username required for full online access to Birding]. As to which species of scrub-jay, geography plays a huge role–perhaps the only role–in the ID process. Are the scrub-jays among the “least-identified” bird species in the ABA Area? Photo by © Brian E. Small.


With a possible split of the Western Scrub-Jay looming
, that may be about to change. We may soon add Woodhouse’s vs. California to the list of “hard taxa” every serious birder knows: Alder vs. Willow, Thayer’s vs. Iceland, etc. But, for now, I think it’s reasonable to say that, in general, scrub-jays fall into the category of under-identified birds.

Can we come up with a list–a Top 10 list perhaps–of such species groups? I confess, I already have my personal list. (It helps that I’ve done most of my birding in two regions that are hotbeds for these under-identified taxa: the western Great Basin and the eastern Rockies. Birders in and around Reno actually do have to deal with scrub-jays, and birders in and around Denver actually do have to deal with ravens.) But this exercise is sure to be more thorough, more edifying, and more useful if we do it together.

Just to be clear, and I know I’m repeating myself, I’m not looking for an enumeration of the classic ID problems: jaegers, peeps, “confusing fall warblers,” etc. Instead, I’m wondering about the ABA Area’s least-identified taxa.

Have at it!

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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