American Birding Podcast



Trust and Obey

Steve N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb’s Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America was groundbreaking on multiple fronts. Nearly 20 years since the book’s publication (can you believe it’s been that long?), the book remains highly useful. I frequently refer to it for basic field ID & S&D info.

H&wHowell and Webb’s greatest legacy, arguably, is not all the great info packed into its 851 pages. Rather, its greatest—if somewhat problematic—legacy is what might be termed “Howell taxonomy.” In species account after species account, Howell and Webb depart from the “official” taxonomy of the day, i.e., that of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). For example, Howell and Webb place the Swainson’s Warbler in the genus Helmitheros, contra the AOU’s Limnothlypis for that species.

I think it’s fair to say that Steve Howell has been at it ever since.

In an influential 2009 essay in Birding, Howell and coauthors make their case for a stable “field guide” taxonomy that
diverges from the taxonomy of the AOU. Writing for The ABA Blog, Howell has cautioned us about “official” taxonomies based on molecular genetics and certain species concepts. And I’m pretty sure he’s had published in Birding
more letters to the editor this past decade than anybody.

Howell’s letter in the May/June 2013 Birding—about the scientific name of the Swainson’s Warbler, among other things—offers a
succinct synopsis a particular worldview:

“We all make errors. Hopefully, we can learn from them. We should also feel free to speak up when decisions appear to have been made without due consideration or prudence, in the wider field of life as well as in birding.”

Small-b birding has its rules. (Capital-B Birding has its rules.) Ornithology has its rules.

Which rules do you like? Which rules would you change? And the real question: Which rules do you disobey?

1. I’ll start off with a rule, or rather a class of rules, that I obey. I obey the AOU’s “linear sequence.” Ducks first, then grouse…hawks, in due course…then a big jump to falcons, then parrots, and then passerines. Within the passerines: flycatchers followed by vireos, shrikes, and crows; longspurs after a while, then Olive Warbler, then “normal” warblers, then whatever the heck tanagers are these days; then finally House Sparrow, Orange Bishop, and Nutmeg Mannikin. (I’ll come back to the bishop and manikin, I promise.)\

I like this “rule,” because it represents the scientific community’s best effort to portray evolutionary relationships among birds. I further believe that the appreciation and identification of birds is best achieved by a biological worldview. And I’m with the great 20th-century scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who famously said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Falcons with parrots, longspurs in front of the Olive Warbler—those things help me make sense of the birds I see and enjoy in the field. Steve Howell disagrees with me, and that’s fine.

2. Another rule I obey, although grudgingly, is AOU nomenclature. I agree with Steve Howell and others that splitting the Winter Wren into the Winter Wren and the Pacific Wren didn’t make a lot of sense. But in my own writings, and in my handling of other people’s writing, I always obey AOU nomenclature, even down to the orthographic details of hyphenation and capitalization. It’s just too confusing to have multiple names out there. Sure, any sane person can see that boreal wren (yes, lower case) is better than Winter Wren, but that’s an argument based on logic. And logic often gets in the way of clarity and good diction. So Winter Wren it is.

Meanwhile, I’m doing my part, behind the scenes, to move us all—all of us—toward boreal wren and Bewick-with-no-apostrophe lower-case-wren.

3. You already know that I’m fine with—more than that, I heartily affirm—the business of separating the hawks and falcons. But what about much closer relationships, for example, species limits within the Red-tailed Hawk complex? Do I obey the AOU (one species), or do I disobey and recognize the Harlan’s Hawk as a species distinct from the Red-tailed Hawk (which, if there were a split, would require a new name, I say)?

It’s complicated. At Birding magazine, we write Harlan’s [Red-tailed] Hawk, with no quotation marks around Harlan’s. So we obey the AOU, but we also emphasize the “worth,” if you will, of taxa currently demoted to subspecies rank. Eliminating the scare-quotes around the name of the subspecies is our not-so-subtle orthographic signal that we take subspecies seriously. \

In my personal life, the bird is the Harlan’s Hawk. If I go out and see a Harlan’s Hawk and a Western Redtail, it’s two “species” (scare-quotes, because I don’t believe in, er, “species”), and I enter them in my field notebook just like that: 1. Harlan’s Hawk; 2. Western Redtail. Check that. I write: 1. Harlan hawk; 2. Western redtail.

4. A quite different matter involves such birds as the Orange Bishop and Nutmeg Mannikin. The “problem” with these birds isn’t their status as full species (although, admittedly, species limits in both are problematic). Rather, the problem is that they’re not on the ABA Checklist. So they
don’t count.

If you say so. But I count them, and so do many others. Check out this screen-capture from eBird:


eBird gives us 1,059 species in the ABA Area, but the latest and greatest ABA Checklist shows only 977 species. And check out the most recent to Bruce Neville’s eBird-compliant ABA Area life list. Yes, it’s an Orange Bishop.

Is eBird’s 1,059 “right”? Is the ABA’s 977 “right”?

What’s right, in you ask me, is that we have multiple authorities, multiple narratives, multiple realities out there. That’s how I like my postmodern utopia, thank you very much—just so long as we all agree on spelling and orthography for the Orange Bishop. Hey, it’s my utopia, and you don’t have to join me there if you don’t want to… 🙂

5. Finally, I have to get a word in, please, about the heard-only rule. It’s been repealed, of course. But here’s a thought. About a year ago, I was with a small group in Peru, and our outstanding local guide stopped us, and said, “Do you smell that? It’s a Hoatzin!”

That was so cool. Light reaching the photoreceptors in our eyes, air moving around the cochleae in our ears, aromatic compounds interacting with our olfactory neurons—those are all different signals that get to our brains and tell us something about reality. None is objectively “better” than another. They’re equally valid. A “smelled-only” bird isn’t inferior to one that’s “heard-only.” A “seen-only” tick isn’t worthier than  one that’s “heard-only.” I hope one day to ID a Crested Auklet by smell.

The most wondrous bird ID experience I’ve ever had: On a still, hot afternoon a few years ago, I lay on the ground, eyes closed, on a bluff by a lakeshore and felt—felt, yes, felt—the rush of air as an immense and glorious American White Pelican zoomed over my body. \

What about the rest of you?

If Steve Howell gets his way with a birder’s taxonomy, are you buying it? Do you keep an ABA life list, an eBird life list, or something else? Would you count a smelled-only auklet or a felt-only pelican?