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The Changes Are In

The Changes Are In

It’s July, and that means it’s time for the annual update to the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist.  That means the splits I blogged about recently are now official.

Besides the high-profile splits of Winter Wren, Whip-poor-will, and Black Scoter, the checklist committee also did some major rearranging of scientific names, splitting a number of genera and reassigning several species to a new genus.  They do this whenever scientific studies (usually DNA studies these days) make it clear that birds currently classified in the same genus are not, in fact, each other’s closest relatives.  Although most such splits this time around were based on DNA evidence, vocalizations also support most splits.  Below we’ll take a quick survey of what’s changed and how audio was involved.

Species split

  1. Winter Wren is split into three species: Pacific Wren (Troglodytes pacificus) in northwestern North America; Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) in eastern North America; and Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) in the Old World.  Vocal differences were important in this split; see my older posts on how to separate Pacific from Winter Wrens by song and call.
  2. Whip-poor-will is split into Mexican Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus arizonae) and Eastern Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus). Vocal differences were important here as well; see my earlier post on this topic.
  3. Black Scoter is split into Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) in the New World and Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra) in the Old World.  Once again vocal differences were key, and once again you can hear them in an earlier post.

A couple of Latin American trogon species, the Greater Antillean Oriole, and the Elepaio of the Hawaiian islands were also split.

Changes in Genus

“Brown” Towhees Move to Melozone

Abert’s, Canyon, California, and White-throated Towhees will move from the genus Pipilo to Melozone, where they will join the Rusty-crowned, White-eared, and Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows. This genus split makes sense when you listen to the songs: the “brown” towhees sing with unmusical high-pitched trills and squeals that are very different from the rich, musical series of the “true” towhees.

“True” Towhees Remain in Pipilo


These species usually sing songs composed of 2-4 series of fairly musical notes — sometimes highly musical notes.  Some of them can be confused with each other, but rarely would they be confused with any of the “brown” towhee songs.

“Nashville” Warbler complex moves to Oreothlypis

Nashville, Virginia’s, Lucy’s, and Colima Warblers will move to the new genus Oreothlypis, along with the Orange-crowned and Tennessee Warblers.  This group is characterized by songs that are composed of 1-3 rapid (but not buzzy) trills.  The similarities are obvious on the spectrograms and to the ear:

Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers remain in Vermivora

These two species, plus their extinct relative the Bachman’s Warbler, remain in Vermivora.  All three are linked vocally by their very buzzy songs, quite similar to one another but quite different from those of the species leaving the genus.

Bachman’s Warbler songs can be heard at the Macaulay Library: [1 2]

Crescent-chested and Flame-throated Warblers move to Oreothlypis

This is one change that doesn’t seem to be supported by vocalizations.  These two Central American species were formerly in the genus Parula with (surprise) the parulas.  And their songs sound very like those species — high and buzzy — not at all like the songs of the other bird moved to Oreothlypis.

These embedded iframes are great, but they take up a lot of space, so we’ll continue on this theme tomorrow.

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Whip Split!

Whip Split!

"Eastern" Whip-poor-will. Painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from The Birds of New York (1910). Public domain.

According to the grapevine, the AOU Checklist Committee has voted to split Whip-poor-will into two species. This split has been long anticipated, as the eastern and southwestern forms breed a thousand miles apart in different habitats, show slight average differences in size and plumage, and (most importantly for this blog) sing slightly different songs.

One of the primary lines of evidence cited in the split proposal was the recent publication of a molecular phylogeny of the nightjars by Han et al. (2010).  Among many other species, the study looked at the two populations of Whip-poor-will (the eastern vociferus group and the arizonae group of the Mexican highlands), along with their close relative the Dusky Nightjar of Costa Rica (Caprimulgus saturatus).  The study says that the three taxa “form a group… but their inter-relationships remain unresolved. This suggests that these three taxa should be given equivalent taxonomic status.”  In other words, they recommend either splitting the Whip-poor-will, or lumping it with Dusky Nightjar.

Evidently the committee preferred the former option.  No word yet on what they chose for names, so I’ll call them “Eastern” and “Mexican” for now.  Here is a sampling of the songs of both forms, plus the Dusky Nightjar for comparison:

"Eastern" Whip-poor-will, Madison County, AR, 4/26/2009.  Recording by Andrew Spencer.
"Eastern" Whip-poor-will, Madison County, AR, 4/26/2009. Recording by Andrew Spencer.
"Mexican" Whip-poor-will, Cochise County, AZ, date.
"Mexican" Whip-poor-will, Cochise County, AZ, 5/11/2009.
Dusky Nightjar, San Jose province, Costa Rica, March 2010. Recording by Arch McCallum.

The three song samples above progress through the taxa from north to south.  Note how with each successive southward jump, the song elements become longer, more widely spaced (both within and between strophes), and burrier (more squiggly on the spectrogram).  It’s clear that these three taxa are closely related, but it’s also easy to tell them apart, even by ear, primarily by speed and level of burriness.  However, it seems to me that the Dusky Nightjar is more different from the two North American forms than they are from one another; in addition to being much slower, it is also significantly higher-pitched.

Note that if the AOU accepts the recommendations of Han et al. when it comes to splitting genera, then the whole Whip-poor-will group (along with Chuck-will’s-widow, Buff-collared Nightjar, and possibly Common Poorwill) will be moved from the genus Caprimulgus into Antrostomus — but no such proposal is currently before the committee as far as I know.
AOU Checklist News!

AOU Checklist News!

The North American Checklist Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union has published the results of its deliberations on the first round of proposed changes from 2009, and it has updated the slate of proposals currently under consideration.  Here’s a quick summary of the changes that affect species splits north of Mexico.  (I won’t get into all the changes to scientific names, even though those topics are just as interesting in my opinion — you can click through to read about those yourself.)

Proposal accepted

This split will become official once the next checklist supplement is published in the July 2010 issue of the Auk.

  • Split Pacific Wren from Winter Wren. As I reported earlier, this split did indeed pass, and unanimously at that.  However, note that the names “Pacific Wren” and “Winter Wren” are not final.  The committee is considering an addendum to the proposal that would split eastern North American birds from Eurasian birds and change the names of the American species to “Western Winter-Wren” and “Eastern Winter-Wren.”  Stay tuned.

Proposals rejected

In most cases, a 2/3 vote of the committee is required for a proposal to pass.  These proposals failed to muster that level of support:

  • South Hills Crossbill. The proposal to split South Hills Crossbill (Type 9) from Red Crossbill failed on a vote of 6 “yes” votes to 5 “no” votes, with three of the “no” voters indicating that they would be open to changing their minds if presented with more data.  Two of those voters preferred to deal with the North American Red Crossbill complex as a whole, rather than splitting one type at a time, piecemeal.  Thus, most of the committee appears to accept that the different call types of Red Crossbill are likely good species, but I think it may be a while before those species appear in your field guide.
  • The split of Western Scrub-Jay. The proposal to split the interior “Woodhouse’s” Scrub-Jay (woodhousei) from “California” Scrub-Jay (nominate californica) failed on a vote of 7 “yes” votes to 5 “no” votes.  Many members of the committee felt that more data were needed from contact zones.  The tagalong proposal to split the southern Mexican subspecies sumichrasti into yet a third species gained even less committee support.  Vocal differences between woodhousei and californica have been reported, and you can expect those differences to be discussed in a future post on this blog.

New proposals

The checklist committee never sleeps.  The following splits of North American species are now under consideration:

  • Split Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) from Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra).  I wrote about this split recently.  This proposal was originally submitted in 2006 and failed to pass at that time, but the recent publication of Sangster (2009) has revived it.  Personally, I think it’s a clear-cut split, but we’ll see if the committee agrees.
  • Split Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre) into two species: the western palmeri group and eastern curvirostre group.  The proposal makes no recommendation regarding the resulting English names.  The proposal cites various genetic data, which I won’t comment on, but it also cites vocal differences, including differences in calls.  I’m a little skeptical of these differences, but I’ll investigate them in the future and report back on what I find.
  • Split Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferus) into a nominate eastern species and the southwestern arizonae species, on the basis of subtle but easily diagnosable differences in song, differences in egg coloration, and (most importantly) a hot-off-the-presses study demonstrating that the vociferus and arizonae groups may be as genetically distinct from one another as either is from the Dusky Nightjar (C. saturatus) of Costa Rica and Panama.  I haven’t been able to track down the article text yet, so I can’t say what I think of it.

As you can see, vocal differences are playing an ever-more-prominent role in taxonomic decisions.  Look for more on this topic from me in the future.