American Birding Podcast



Chiffchaffs and Wood-rails and Demoiselle Cranes, Oh My!

If you’re an ABA member, life is good. Even though many organizations are cutting way back on traditional print publications, the ABA is offering more full-color print periodical content than ever before. We’re expanding online, enthusiastically and unapologetically so. Here at the ABA, it’s have your cake and eat it too.

A substantial chunk of the ABA’s print content now comes to you in the form of Birder’s Guide, launched earlier in 2013 and edited by Michael Retter. If you’re an ABA member, you’ve already received in the mail Birder’s Guide, vol. 1, no. 2, the “Listing and Taxonomy” issue. If you’re not a member, or, come to think of it, if you are a member, please check out the Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy online.

That’s right. The whole magazine is online, in an eminently readable and enjoyable format. Life is very good.

13-6-10-03 [Common Moorhen]

Although photographed and collected, North America’s first Common Moorhen was definitively identified only by its DNA. Field observations, photographs, and even the specimen were insufficient for identifying the bird. If you saw the bird in the field, would you count it? Electropherogram by (c) Jack J. Withrow.

Now that you’re there, please click on “Challenges for Checklist Committees.” Or, if you have the print version handy, please turn to “The ABA Checklist Committee in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Era,” starting on p. 36. Let’s now talk about that article, which came to be known during the editing and production process as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

We state at the outset of the article, “Please note that, although we are affiliated with the ABA (Pranty is Chairman of the ABA Checklist Committee, Floyd is Editor of Birding magazine), this commentary does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the ABA. Indeed, we don’t always agree with each other!” And we end our commentary on a note of explicit disagreement: Bill and I harbor different opinions about the “countability” of a remarkable Thick-billed Parrot in New Mexico in 2003.

What’s so great, in my mind, about both listing and taxonomy is the uncertainty, the shades of gray. It gives us stuff to talk about, that’s for sure. But there’s something else: Listing and taxonomy, and in particular the nexus of the two, are fascinating and complicated matters. It’s amazing and gratifying to me how birders so naturally and automatically engage one another about such topics as avian vagrancy, satellite telemetry, and molecular genetics. Don’t sell yourself short on this: If you have opinions on listing and taxonomy, you’ve been exposed to, and you may well be quite knowledgeable about, a wide array of cutting-edge technologies and new paradigms in the biological sciences.

What are your thoughts, then, on some of the highlights that Bill and I hit on in our article? For example:

1. Vagrant (or not?) cranes. What do you think about the Demoiselle Crane in California in February 2002? What about the Hooded Crane or Hooded Cranes in Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Indiana in 2010–2012? Were they naturally occurring vagrants? What’s your reasoning, and what’s your evidence?


Digital photography has revolutionized birding, allowing IDs that would have been impossible as recently as the 1990s. This Chiffchaff, providing the basis for the addition of the species to the ABA Checklist, probably would have gone unidentified two decades ago. Photo by (c) Peter Schoenberger.

2. Genetic Gallinules. A bird in the genus Gallinula on Shemya Island, Alaska, in October 2010 was shown by genetic analysis to be a Common Moorhen, the first documented for the ABA Area. The live bird and even the study skin were not identifiable to species. If you had seen it in the wild, would you have counted it?

3. Digital Chiffchaffs. Twenty years ago, some of the great birds they’re finding on Bering Sea islands would not have been identifiable to species. Like the Chiffchaff at Gambell in June 2012. The bird’s identification was definitively established not in the field, but rather by analysis of digital photographs. Does that affect the bird’s countability? According to the ABA Recording Rules, “Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter.” That would certainly seem to disqualify the Common Moorhen. Does it also disqualify the Chiffchaff?

4. Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Not all megas are created equal. A select few acquire mythic status: the ABA Area’s first Eared Quetzal, in 1977; the Newburyport Ross’s Gull of course; the Martha’s Vineyard Red-footed Falcon; and, no question about it, the July 2013 Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Um, was the wood-rail a naturally occurring vagrant? In matters such as this one, I tend to be a “believer” and a “liberal.” I “believe” in birds’ capacity for vagrancy, and I favor an “innocent until proven guilty” approach in matters of provenance. At the same time, I’m open to opposing viewpoints. If you’re some combination of “atheist” and “conservative” about the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, I’d like to hear from you.

5. Thick-billed Parrot. Let’s end on a simple note. A note of simple disagreement. Bill says you can’t count the bird. I say you can. (Bill and I are friends by the way, and I tremendously respect the rigor and thoroughness that he brings to the ABA Checklist Committee and to his prolific research on the birds of Florida.) What do you think?