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2018 AOS Classification Committee Proposals, Part 2

This is the second batch of bird taxonomy proposals submitted to the American Ornithological Society’s North and Middle America Classification Committee, the volunteer group of ornithologists who make the split, lump, and name-change decisions that influence the ABA Checklist and our field guides.

Per usual, 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 the interests of keeping an eye on the world of bird taxonomy as it exists from year to year we’ll include all of them here regardless of how likely or likely they might be.

This post will only mention those changes that affect the ABA Area, but if you’re interested in the whole list including birds found in Middle America – the committee’s jurisdiction includes all of the North America south to Panama – please refer to the official list of proposals at the AOS’s website (.pdf).

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Split Pacific Swift Apus pacificus into four species

Pacific Swift is a common and highly migratory species found primarily in east Asia. It has occurred in the ABA Area on a handful of occasions, mostly in western Alaska but with a few records from the Gulf of Alaska and one in Yukon Territory. The species consists of four subspecies, considered by some authorities to be separate species. All North American records are presumed to be the nominate subspecies and a split would not, then, result in a new species on the ABA List.

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Restore Canada Jay as the English name of Perisoreus canadensis

One of the more interesting proposals this time around, the proposal claims that “Canada Jay” was listed as a vernacular name of the species known now as Gray Jay, or at least was the name given to the nominate subspecies of Perisoreus canadensis. The impetus for this change is, of course, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society’s two year effort to officially designate Gray Jay as Canada’s national bird, and a return to the name Canada Jay certainly makes that job a little easier from a public relations perspective. The justification for the name change was called into question by Rick Wright in a blog post here, though this proposal does shed some light onto the origin of some of the AOS’s naming convention rules and rightly hits them on some confusing 1950’s typography.

Given the very real possibility that Canada, at least in the official government capacity, may go ahead and call the bird Canada Jay regardless of the AOS’s decision, there seems to be at least some interest in going ahead with the name change to prevent two nations from being divided by whiskyjack–or is it whiskeyjack? That’s another potential can of worms.

The push for national bird status has prompted the proposal of changing Gray Jay to Canada Jay. Photo: Annie Lavoie/Macaulay Library

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Recognize two genera in Stercorariidae

Consisting of Jaegers and Skuas, all members of the family Stercorariidae are currently included in the genus Stercorarius despite the obvious plumage differences between the larger, block-tailed skuas and the smaller, fancy-tailed jaegers. It was not so long ago, however, that the former had their own genus, Catharacta. This proposal resurrects the old Catharacta genus for the brown skuas and Pomarine Jaeger–which is more skua than “jaeger” anyway–with the smallest two, Parasitic and Long-tailed, retained in Stercorarius. 

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Split Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) into two species

Unknown to most North American birders, the familiar Red-eyed Vireo consists of two groups, a migratory population well-known to birders in the eastern part of the continent, and a more or less non-migratory population in South America known as the chivi group. The two groups overlap in the winter when North American breeding birds migrate south. Though previous studies had determined the two groups to be conspecific, new research using more sophisticated tools has found that the chivi birds are more closely related to Black-whiskered Vireo than migratory Red-eyes and thus, the two should be split with the South American birds elevated to Chivi Vireo. This would not result in a new species on the ABA Checklist, but AOS convention necessitates that new names be given to each daughter species. Even so, it seems unlikely that the committee would abandon the descriptive and well-known Red-eyed Vireo for North American birds.

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Add Tadorna tadorna (Common Shelduck) to the Checklist

Add three species to the U.S. list

These represent the expected “housekeeping” proposals that align the AOS Check-list with the ABA Checklist. Common Shelduck was recently added to the ABA Checklist as a naturally occurring species based primarily on a record from Newfoundland, but in subsequent years it has turned out to be a rare, but reliable, vagrant to New England and eastern Canada. The second proposal adds Amethyst-throated Hummingbird, Pine Flycatcher, and Cuban Vireo to the United States list based on records from Texas, Arizona, and Florida, respectively.

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Change the English names of the two species of Gallinula that occur in our area

It certainly seems odd and unnecessarily confusing for Common Gallinule and Common Moorhen to go by such different common names when the two species are nearly identical in appearance and behavior. The former is a common marsh bird in the southern part of the ABA Area through most of South America and the latter is its Eurasian counterpart, represented in North America by a single vagrant record from western Alaska. This proposal suggests, as a way to solve that problem, changing the name Common Gallinule to “American Moorhen” and Common Moorhen to “Eurasian Moorhen”, which not only neatly illustrates the similarities between those two species but also leaves the name “gallinule” for the rather different Porphyrio rails like Purple Gallinule. Though it does beg the question, why would we have moorhens in North America when we don’t have moorlands?

Though we lack moorlands, American Moorhen does seem to be a more appropriate name for Gallinula galeata. Photo: Marky Mutchler/Macaulay Library

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Revise generic assignments of woodpeckers of the genus Picoides

Proposals to the AOS can generally be broken down into three categories–names, splits/lumps and reorganization, with this an example of the last. The pied woodpeckers of genus Picoides are familiar feeder visitors for birders across the continent, and are the latest to come under the genetic knife with only the bizarre Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers coming out unscathed. This research underlying this proposal finds our woodpeckers split into two major groups which are not that closely related. The proposal resurrects two retired genera, Leuconotopicus and Dryobates, with Red-cockaded, Arizona, Hairy, and White-headed in the former and Nuttall’s, Downy, and Ladder-backed in the latter, to deal with it.

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Split the storm-petrels (Hydrobatidae) into two families

It’s probably too generous to say that tubenose taxonomy is confusing; confounding might be a better description. Storm-petrels have long been considered together in one large family, but recent research suggests that short-legged, mostly Northern Hemisphere breeding birds and the long-legged, mostly Southern Hemisphere breeding birds deserve to be considered separately, though the specifics have not yet been agreed upon.  Most storm-petrels in the ABA Area will remain in Hydrobatidae, but three, common Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, the rarer White-faced Storm-Petrel, and the very rare Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, would move to Oceanitidae.

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The full list, including background information and recommendations is available here (.pdf). We’ll look at other proposal packets as they come, and post the results of the voting when we see them 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.
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