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2019 AOS Classification Committee Proposals, Part 1

2019 is a new year, and time for new 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.

We suggest the usual caveat that you are undoubtedly familiar with by now, that 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 from year to year.

This post will only mention those changes that affect the ABA Area, but if you’re interested in the whole ball of wax – 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 Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis into two species

Northern Fulmar is a well-known species of the northern oceans, and it has long been accepted that the populations that breed in the North Atlantic Ocean are slightly different than those in the North Pacific. The differences are subtle, of course, with Atlantic birds averaging larger-bodied and greenish-billed compared to the slighter and pinkish-billed Pacific birds, but this is par for the course with pelagic birds and similar plumage often hides different species in plain sight. A comprehensive 2013 study revealed that the genetic distance between the two populations was comparable to what we would expect to see in different species and the proposal suggest splitting them into, appropriately, Atlantic Fulmar and Pacific Fulmar.

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 Elevate Harlan’s Hawk Buteo (jamaicensis) harlani to species status

That the Red-tailed Hawk is impressively variable over its wide range is undeniable, but the unique Harlan’s Hawk has always occupied a different place even among that diversity. Over the last 200 years, Harlan’s Hawk has been alternately considered both a full species in its own right and a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. It has been the latter since 1973. This proposal suggests splitting them once again, in part because of poor justification for the previous lump, but also because of plumage, morphological, and behavioral differences. Unlike many other proposals this one does not have a significant genetic component, but the author does note that the only study to compare the genetics of Harlan’s Hawk with other subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk did not find any anything conclusive either way, which seems par for the course for this historically vexing population.

The species status of the unique Harlan’s Hawk is once again up for debate. Photo Brian Sullivan Macaulay Library

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Add European Storm-Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus to the U.S. list

This proposal more or less corrects an oversight that saw European Storm-Petrel missing from the AOS’s US list. European Storm-Petrel was first recorded in North America in 1970, when an individual was mist-netted on Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia. Since 2003 or so, it has been seen in low numbers nearly annually in the Gulf Stream off of North Carolina, and recently in Florida as well.

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Change the English name of Saltmarsh Sparrow Ammospiza caudacuta to Peterson’s Sparrow

The practice of assigning common names to North American birds that honor various influential ornithologists has fallen out of favor since the 19th century. As such, influential figures like father of the field guide Roger Tory Peterson missed out on the informal system of patronage that saw names like Cooper’s Hawk and Steller’s Jay enter into common usage. This proposal seeks to rectify that, singling out Saltmarsh Sparrow for this name switch somewhat randomly by virtue of its, well, innocuousness more than anything else, and the fact that the genus Ammospiza already contains two species with honorific common names in LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sparrow. Birders undoubtedly owe a great debt to Roger Tory Peterson, though it is unclear whether the committee will see this as a good way to honor him.

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Change the linear sequence of species in the genus Charadrius

We’ve come to expect these sorts of taxonomic order revisions every year. This one is pretty straight forward and focuses on the banded plovers of the Charadrius genus. The authors of the study informing this change note that there are likely a few minor rearrangements to come, though nothing that will come as any surprise except to the most hard-core Killdeer fans.

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Discontinue use of the possessive (“apostrophe–s”) in patronymic bird names

Our own Ted Floyd has made this issue a personal crusade for some time, and we’ve even discussed it on the American Birding Podcast. The use of the apostrophe’d honorific is a bit of a curious idiosyncrasy of bird names, and a few other organisms. Ted suggests we do away with it, changing Cooper’s Hawk to Cooper Hawk and the various Wilsonian honorifics to Wilson Phalarope, Wilson Warbler, Wilson Snipe, Wilson Pickett, etc. Floyd argues that the apostrophe is a remnant of an unnecessary attempt to “Latinize” English. It’s interesting to note that this is not the first time ornithologists have considered doing away with the possessive. Joseph Grinnell called them useless in the mid-20th Century. Inertia won the day then and may well win the once again now, but it does seem as though ornithology remains the lone hold-out among the sciences on this matter.

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Change the specific/subspecific/morphological group name of the Red-shafted Flicker from cafer to lathami

The Northern Flicker spans the continent from the red-shafted birds in the west to the yellow birds in the east. The scientific name for the birds in the west is cafer, which itself is a historical mistake. John Latham, who described the type specimen of the then Red-shafted Flicker, which he correctly described as a variety of the eastern Yellow-shafted Flicker, mistakenly transcribed the type locality as “Cape of Good Hope” rather than the correct “Bay of Good Hope”, a body of water in British Columbia. The german naturalist Johann Gmelin, using Latham’s notes to describe the Red-shafted Flicker as a full species, named the bird after the Xhosa people of South Africa, then called by Europeans the “kaffir” people. This name was then widely used by Europeans to refer to black South Africans, especially during the apartheid years, and has since become regarded as an extreme ethnic slur. For that reason, and the typographical error, It seems fairly obvious that such a word is not appropriate for a North American species. Unfortunately, the AOS Classification Committee does not have the authority to change scientific names according to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, so it is unclear whether anything can be done about this unfortunate situation.

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Remove hyphens from the English names of species currently called “Ground-Dove”

The common name “Ground-Dove” refers to the small doves of the genus Columbina, two of which, Common Ground-Dove and Ruddy Ground-Dove, are found in the ABA Area. Other members of this genus, notably the Inca Dove, are not, in the strict sense, “ground-doves” and therefore, in order to be consistent across the genus the hyphen should be removed.

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Revise the linear sequence of species in the Fregatidae

This is another revision of taxonomic order, this time in frigatebirds, based on new genetic research. These are pretty uncontroversial, and this one especially so since there are only three species of frigatebird recorded in the ABA Area. Any change in order is going to be be pretty minimal.

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Revise the linear sequence of subfamilies in the Cuculidae

New World Cuckoos get the revision treatment in this proposal, and as the ABA Area only hosts three species there isn’t a ton to look at from our perspective. The Coccyzus genus, containing the three breeding ABA Area cuckoos moves from near the beginning of the sequence to the very end.

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Transfer Erckel’s Francolin from Francolinus to Pternistis

Erckel’s Francolin is an established introduced species on the Hawaiian Islands, an attribute it shares with two other francolin species, Black and Gray. In the past these partridge-like Old World gamebirds were all considered together in the Francolinus genus, but recent research has found that this large group of birds can be roughly broken up into two clades, the traditional francolins and the similar spurfowls and then into several different genera. While the Black and Gray Francolins will stay in Francolinus, the Erckel’s is more closely related to a more cryptically plumaged group of birds placed in the Pternistis genus.

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Split White-winged Scoter Melanitta fusca into two or three species

Old World-New World splits have been pretty common in the last decade or so. The subspecies of White-winged Scoter roughly split down these continental lines, between the nominate European breeding birds, commonly called Velvet Scoter, and the North American breeding birds of the subspecies deglandi. It is a split that is quite similar to a similar split of Black Scoter/Common Scoter not so long ago. The big question seems to be what to do with the East Asian stejnegeri subspecies, which is most similar plumage-wise to the North American populations. If Stejneger’s Scoter is split, that would add a species to the ABA Checklist as that subspecies is fairly regularly seen in western Alaska. Velvet Scoter has been recorded as near as Greenland, and would presumably be a good candidate to turn up in Atlantic Canada or New England.

White-winged Scoter my soon exclusively refer to those birds who breed in North America. Photo Ryan Schain Macaulay Library

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Add Pallas’s Rosefinch Carpodacus roseus to the Main List

Just as the ABA incorporates taxonomic and name changes from the AOS into our list, the AOS incorporates new continental records from the ABA into theirs. This proposal officially adds a Pallas’s Rosefinch, discovered on St Paul Island, Alaska, in 2014 to the main list.

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The full list, including background information and recommendations is available here (.pdf). We’ll cover the next batch of proposals when it comes in.

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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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