Many a beginning birder, breathless with excitement at finding
yet another new species in the field or at the feeder, has
turned to his brand new field guide only to find himself
befuddled by the seemingly bizarre arrangement of its contents.
But over time, every birder who regularly uses a field
guide learns that there is, indeed, a well thought out scheme
by these guides. With a little practice, he can amaze
his less experienced friends with his ability to flip quickly
to the page showing Yellow-bellied Sapsucker without consulting
In most field guides and checklists, the birds are arranged
(at least loosely) according to some accepted taxonomic order.
While it may seem somewhat arbitrary to a beginner, this
arrangement actually makes a lot of sense. Within a
taxonomy the sequence of bird types remains constant, whether
list is in English or Swahili and whether the field guide
covers the eastern US or outer Mongolia.
There are several major bird taxonomies in use around the
world. In North American publications, the taxonomy
followed is usually the one established by the American Ornithologists'
Union (AOU), which covers primarily North and Central America.
Two others that are commonly used are documented in
Birds of the World, a Checklist by James Clements and Distribution
and Taxonomy of Birds of the World by Charles Sibley
and Burt Monroe, Jr. While The AOU Check-list of
North American Birds contains just over 2,000 species,
the two world lists document almost 10,000.
So what's the big deal about taxonomy? Back in the
early 1700's there was no standard way of classifying different
kinds of plants and animals. An extreme example of
the need for a universal and scientific classification scheme
be found in the quaint but somewhat shocking claim of that
time that the beaver was a fish (which meant that Catholics
were allowed to eat beaver meat during Lent). Carolus
von Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist who recognized the problem,
spent a good part of his life devising and applying a hierarchical
naming system that still serves as the framework for naming
living things today. Each species has a two-word name
consisting of the genus name followed by the species name.
the genus name is always capitalized while the species name
is not, and the entire name is italicized, as in Homo
sapiens or Turdus migratorius (the
first example is you-know-who, and the second is the answer
to a birder's quiz question).
Why all this Latin? Because it serves as the universal
language of science. Look up "wren" in a
European field guide and you will find a picture of a cute
bird. Only by comparing its scientific name (or Latin
Troglodytes troglodytes, with those of our North American
wrens will you discover that a "wren" in England
is the same species as our beloved Winter Wren. As
this example shows, a single species has only one scientific
can have many common names in many different languages. As
an aid to travelers, Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds
of Britain and Europe provides common names in six languages,
and there is even a website that performs the same function
Getting back to taxonomy, the species is, of course, the smallest category
in the Linnaean hierarchy. Moving up from there, we encounter genus,
family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. Since we are bird people,
we have learned
that birds are in the class Aves, which includes almost 10,000 species. Orders
represent major categories of related birds, such as Waterfowl or Woodpeckers.
The largest order of birds is Perching Birds (or "Passerines")
and more than half the birds on the Dutchess County checklist belong to this
Included in the Perching Birds order are many families, from Flycatchers
to Wood-Warblers to Sparrows. Take a look at your checklist to get an
idea of the wide variety of birds that are related closely enough to belong
one huge order.
In fact, you can learn a lot about the way birds are related
to each other by studying the Dutchess County checklist (either
the one-page field checklist or the Reference Guide).
The sequence of species in a taxonomy is based on evolution,
thus reflecting which species are most closely related to
which. The first species on the list are believed to
be the "oldest," while
the ones at the end of the list are believed to have been
flapping around on this planet the shortest amount of time.
But here's the kicker: Loons with their haunting,
primeval calls, long believed to be the oldest of North American
are no longer first on the list! The new checklist
puts Waterfowl at the top of the list, followed by grouse
and turkeys and
then loons. Scientists are constantly devising better
ways to prove who should be on first, and the development
analysis over the last decade has opened a bright new window
on these endeavors. As a result, taxonomies are in
constant flux and new editions of field guides and checklists
published regularly just to accommodate the changes as they
Our own Dutchess County field checklist has been updated
in accordance with the latest changes announced by the AOU
(in July 2003). A copy of the new checklist was published
in the January 2004 issue of Wings Over Dutchess and
on this website. You
can print the checklist from our
Checklist page whenever
you need a copy in the future. Our Reference Guide will
be updated, too, but the modifications will reflect much
more new information
than simply the AOU checklist changes. When it's published,
the new edition of the Reference Guide will include updated
species abundance graphs and will reflect the latest information
on casual and accidental species found in the county.
Amateur ornithology is a natural extension of field birding
because it can enhance one's identification skills as well
as one's understanding of bird behavior and ecology. When you
start to recognize relationships between various birds, and
when you take note of changes in the taxonomy,
you are, in fact, sharpening your birding skills and preparing
yourself for more fulfilling birding experiences. So the
next time a snowstorm hits, curl up with the checklist and
learn a little about who might show up if your favorite bird
species held a family reunion.
Check back next month for Part 2: Taking Our Lumps (and