Every year, the American Ornithologist’s Union updates its list of bird names to reflect the results of the latest DNA studies. Most of these changes have to do with the discovery that some species once believed to be of one group may actually be two or more. The Florida Scrub Jay, once considered one happy family, was revealed to be three separate groups, so birders who had this rare bird on their life lists suddenly went from having one “Scrub Jay” to three: Florida Scrub Jay, Island Scrub Jay and Western Scrub Jay. Love it when that happens!
What usually is the case; however, is when you had several birds on your list, and the Ornithologists determine that a group of different birds actually belong under one roof, as happened when The Gray-headed Junco, Oregon Junco, White-winged Junco and Slate-colored Junco were all lumped together into one: Dark-eyed Junco. Boo hoo for listers.
Now birders have a new challenge. Not only do we have to keep up with name changes, it turns out that entire relationships between species are undergoing major surgery. And it’s more than changing the name from Solitary Vireo to Blue Headed Vireo, or a Baltimore Oriole to a Northern Oriole, only to be put back to the original Baltimore Oriole assignment again.
Researchers from the Field Museum have announced that after a five year study of avian evolutionary relationships, the Peregrine Falcon is more closely related to Parrots than to other raptors, such as hawks and eagles. This is all part of how studies in genetics have changed how ornithologists classify birds. The old methodology of defining groups based upon similar characteristics in appearance and behavior turns out to be mostly all wrong.
It’s about relationships, as it is in families, where you might need a spreadsheet to keep up with who is married to whom, with what kids by a former spouse, and who is aunt or uncle to this one but not to that one in the same blended group.
New birders may be surprised (and a bit frustrated) to discover that the bird guides they hold in their hand do not list birds alphabetically but rather, by family species. Once you get the hang of it, you know to look for the falcons among the hawk and eagle pages (though soon to hang out with the parrots) or hummingbirds back by the pages near the swifts. Now, as science zeroes in on the truth of their relationships, we are all floundering around the index to find the page our bird has been moved to. And as soon as you buy the latest field guide with all the corrections, the results of yet another study is announced, making your version obsolete before the ink dries.
I am reluctant to abandon my comfortable familiarity with the groupings learned long ago. The various shifts between groups in my own family is quite enough to keep up with, and I have to do that without an index, just a seat-of-my-pants guess at where we all are at any given time. On the other hand, discovering that falcons are more closely related to parrots than hawks and eagles gives me pause. What else could I be related to? Does my passion for the solitude of nature indicate a mysterious link to Thoreau? Is there a chance a drop of blood from Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, flows through my veins? Or could I share a distant relationship with less savory characters whose names can be left out of my blog?
Perhaps at the end of the day, we will learn that we are indeed connected to the Ostrich or the Emu; or those of us with related DNA, if not similar behavioral characteristics, might be on the same page with the vultures.
You just never know where the truth will lead you.