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2019 AOS Classification Committee Proposals, Part 2

The second batch of 2019 bird taxonomy proposals submitted to the American Ornithological Society’s North and Middle America Classification Committee is out. For those who might not know, this committee is 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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Change the English name of McCown’s Longspur Rhynchophanes mccownii

Before we get going on the next batch of proposals, I want to return to packet A to cover one I missed the first time around, tucked as it was at the end of a massive Harlan’s Hawk proposal.

Honorific common names are a mixed bag. For every J.J. Audubon or Alexander Wilson there seems to be a Jules Verreaux, whose “contributions” are probably not worth memorializing. When George Lawrence first described a new species of high plains “lark” he named it after his friend and the man who had inadvertently collected it, Captain John Porter McCown. McCown did not intentionally discover the bird, the byproduct of shots fired into a flock of prairie songbirds, nor was he even an ornithologist, but the fairly innocuous name has since been attached to this fairly innocuous bird for about 175 years. But as it turns out, McCown’s Longspur has the distinction of being the only North American bird named after an officer who served in the Confederate Army during the US Civil War. Not only did he fight for a side whose cause has thankfully been relegated to the dustbin of history, but he was a major character in many campaigns in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and elsewhere.

This proposal asserts that such a history doesn’t square with an AOS, and indeed a birding community, that puts a greater emphasis on inclusion and welcoming participants from all backgrounds, and that the name McCown’s Longspur should be replaced with one less problematic and more descriptive, like Prairie Longspur, Banded Longspur, or Black-crowned Longspur.

Might we see a new name for the ghostly McCown’s Longspur? Maybe Banded or Black-crowned Longspur would be more appropriate. Photo: Bill Schmoker

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Recognize the parulid genus Leiothlypis

In the last few years we’ve seen some changes in the way New World Warblers are organized at the genus level, most notably the elimination of the venerable Dendroica genus and the shrinking of Vermivora. This proposal states that some of those former Vermivora, a group of plain colored warblers including Tennessee and Orange-crowned moved not so long ago into the genus Oreothylpis, should instead be moved into a new genus, Leiothlypis, apart from a pair of warblers formerly in the Parula genus, Flame-throated and Crescent-chested. Of those two, Crescent-chested has been recorded in the ABA Area and would be the only member of the Oreothylpis genus to remain on the ABA Checklist.

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Change the linear sequence of the Hirundinidae 

This is another taxonomic order rearrangement, this time featuring the swallows and martins. There’s nothing terribly shocking in this proposal, though the fact that Bank Swallows and martins are not that closely related is different from how they’ve been treated in the past.

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Make changes to the English names of hummingbirds in the genus Lampornis

The hummingbird genus Lampornis consists of seven large and boldly patterned species found throughout Mexico and Central America. It is represented in the ABA Area by one localized breeder, Blue-throated Hummingbird, and one vagrant, Amethyst-throated Hummingbird. These two are anomalous for another reason too, they are called hummingbirds whereas Lampornis hummers elsewhere are given the evocative name “mountain-gem”. This proposal argues that making the names of all Lampornis hummers consistent makes more clear the connection between these two ABA Area species and the rest of the genus and maybe even emphasize the distinction between the female Blue-throated Hummingbird and superficially similar female Rivoli’s Hummingbird in the parts of the ABA Area where they overlap. Further, the proposal suggests eliminating the hyphen in all of the mountain-gems for clarity and brevity. And who doesn’t need fewer hyphens and more mountaingems in their lives?

Is it just me or is Blue-throated Mountaingem an objectively more beautiful species than Blue-throated Hummingbird? Photo: Bryan Calk Macaulay Library

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Split Hwamei Garrulax canorus into two species, recognizing G. taewanus

Hwamei is an East Asian babbler now established on the main Hawaiian Islands and added to the ABA Area checklist when Hawaii was included in 2017. Some authorities consider the Hwamei subspecies on the island of Taiwan to be a separate species from those on the mainland. Hawaiian birds are of this mainland nominate subspecies, G. c. canorus which, if the split were to be accepted, would see their common name changed to Chinese Hwamei.

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Merge the storm-petrel genus Oceanodroma into Hydrobates

The northern hemisphere storm-petrels are made up of two genera, the widely used Oceanodroma and Hydrobates, consisting only of the European Storm-Petrel. Recently phylogenetic work finds that Hydrobates should be placed within the Oceanodroma cluster, and is most closely related to the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel of the north Pacific. Given that finding, it’s appropriate to put them all together in one genus and Hydrobates has priority. Essentially, all the “ocean runners” need to check their speed and become “water walkers”.

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Recognize family Leiothrichidae for Leiothrix and Garrulax

The Babblers have been a taxonomic grab-bag in the Old World for decades, and recent genetic work has begin to unravel their relationships. Fortunately, North American birds don’t have to worry too much about them, but three members of the recently recognized family Timaliidae, the “tree-babblers”, are established exotic species in Hawaii. This includes the aforementioned Hwamei as well as Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush and Red-billed Leiothrix. If this proposal is accepted, then these three will move from the relatively new Timaliidae to the even newer Leiothrichidae. Fortunately for those of us who are novices in the ways of babbler taxonomy, it’s a three for one.

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Modify the linear sequence of genera and species in the Passerellidae

Maybe the New World equivalent to the madness that is babbler taxonomy are the sparrows formerly in Emberizidae, now Passerellidae. This is an expansive piece of work that places the North American sparrows and towhees into the most accurate sequence yet.

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Merge (a) Pselliophorus into Atlapetes, and (b) Melozone into Aimophila 

Only (b) is relevant to ABA Area birders, a proposal that puts the “brown towhees”, Canyon, California, and Abert’s, in a genus with the towhee-esque Rufous-crowned Sparrow into an Aimophila genus that once again resembles its former glory last achieved before Cassin’s, Bachman’s and Botteri’s Sparrow were pared away. I know some Aimophila fans who will undoubtedly applaud this move.

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The full list, including background information and recommendations is available here (.pdf). We’ll cover the last 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.
Nate Swick

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