June 9, 2012

The Order of Things

Diana Sudyka, 
For every beginner bird watcher who first opens a field guide there is immediate confusion regarding the order of birds. Most field guides seem to start at the ocean with loons, herons, and ducks then the middle of the book is filled with woodland birds such as grouse and hawks and the end of the field guide is a collection of the tiny birds that buzz the trees like warblers, sparrows and finches. The confusion comes when the beginner wants to identify a “sparrow sized” yellow and black bird that they saw. The American goldfinch located on page 535 of Sibley’s excellent tome Guide to Birds is separated from the similarly colored Common yellowthroat by roughly eighty pages. Attempts have been made to organize bird books visually or by coloration, however conflicts arise with the less gaudy females as well as juvenile and winter plumages. For anyone who has been puzzled by a female Red-wingedblackbird or an American goldfinch in winter  this is no small matter.

The order of North American birds is based on taxonomy, the genetic relationships between species. The American Ornithological Union and their Classification Committee oversees this process and receives all current research and processes the list. What’s incredible about this process is the constant change. Separate species like the Slate-colored junco and the Oregon junco are combined under a single Dark-eyed junco while the Northern oriole is separated into the Baltimore oriole and the Bullocks oriole. 

This graphic gives you an idea of some of the confusion between bird coloration and taxonomic location in a bird guide.


Cynthia M. said...

Really interesting; I learned much of my birding skills in an Ornithology class, and have never really given much thought to birds that are completely unrelated but look similar - like the Blackburnian Warbler and Baltimore Oriole. I can completely see where that would bring some confusion.

Isn't there a bird guide - Kauffman's maybe? - that sorts birds by color?

Alexander Dunn said...

The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds" is one of the few comprehensive books to use color as an organizer.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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