Avian taxonomy revisited

A short scientific digression … Some  recent discourses in online birders forums (fora ?) on identification involving very arcane and abstruse detail (I remember at college doing an entomology project which involved separating two otherwise identical species of soil mites by counting the hairs on their legs so it’s not only birds that cause problems) do leave one gasping with admiration at the abilities if some of our colleagues. For those of us who may never aspire to such heights of discrimination remember that this is only a problem if one is too firmly wedded to “old fashioned” concepts of what actually constitutes a species. The scientific world long moved on and left we poor birders behind. It was received wisdom when I was being biologically educated that a species was neither more nor less than a population that bred true with its own kind and did not breed with others, however similar on the face of things. A concept that is still, to a great extent, the bedrock on which the AOU and their overseas equivalents divide up the avian world and which keeps the writers of field guides in business.


Today, though, we have the dissecting powers of DNA barcoding to sort the This from the That with the result that the limpid taxonomic waters of my younger days have become very, very muddy indeed … to quote from a current Wikipedia article “Species is a biological concept that refers to a population of organisms that are in some important ways similar. What constitutes an “important similarity” is, however, a matter of debate” and further “The modern biological species concept defines a species in terms of reproductive isolation. This definition is not considered adequate by all parties. Whether species is a concept, or whether it has reality independent of our classification systems, is also subject to debate. Answers to this question may hinge on one’s understanding of epistemology as much as of biology.” It is a fact that lumping and splitting will increases in the next few years and keeping up to date will become a very hard task for the average birder-in-the-field.Thus, in an epistemological fashion, I would like to propose two alternate, yet simpler and more easily understood systems of avian species categorisation than that to which we are currently beholden:

System 1 – for the minimalist birder, this holds that all anatomically or behaviourally identifiable populations or groups of birds are but points of reference on a continuum of features representing one mega-species hereinafter know as “a bird”. The advantage of this system (which is actually alluded to in the second Wikipedia quotation above and is not the wild and unscientific fancy you may be fearing) is that everybody you meet, birder or not, will instantly know what you are talking about when you confidently answer their question of “wozzat onna branch over there, mate?” You will be able to dispense with field guides and simply enjoy the birds for what they are. A sort of Zen-Taxonomy.

System 2 – this, long the system used and understood by the average man or woman in the street, is for the pragmatic birder who still likes some order to things but wishes to impress others with his erudition. It divides the avian world into:

– Blackbirds = anything mostly black but certainly darkish, regardless of size that makes a lot of noise and often occur in flocks – Starlings, Red-wings, Crows, Ravens, Vultures etc

– Sparrows = small, nondescript brownish birds (includes Chickadees) that flit around a lot. The advanced birder will note that Warblers are merely Sparrows that sing pleasantly.

– Robins = anything at all with a reddish chest and/or which eats worms

– Buzzards (aka Hawks) = big soaring birds at a distance

– Ducks = dark floating birds that eat bread

– Gulls = white floating birds or anything that steals your lunch

– Owls = birds encountered in the dark

– Parrot = bird with exceptionally brightly distinguishable colours, often more than one (thus, to quote an acquaintance of mine, a Painted Bunting becomes in this new system, a small Parrot)

– Bird = those very few feathered animals that cannot be fitted into any of the above categories.

Very few birds cannot be placed in these groups although it should be noted that an acrimonious scientific dispute exists between those ornithologists who hold a male Cardinal to be a sort of super-Robin and those who see it as a mono-coloured Parrot. Female Cardinals are, of course, all large Sparrows.

Life is now simpler, is it not?


After the above was published, a francophone birding colleague posted this addendum:

That will elucidate a problem in French ornithological nomenclature. The Gray Jay,for us, is a mésangeai, not exactly a geai (jay) and not a mésange (chickadee). Wemust understand, from Richard definition, that this is a gull.

I would like to add a category to Richard’s system :

– OSTRICH = bird pushing its head into soil (the Snow Goose is in fact an ostrich, for that reason, but not the Ross’s Goose).