Sunday, June 29, 2008

Give me Gallinule

This is one of those topics that doesn't really matter a whole lot in the scheme of things, yet seems to bring out the strongest and most fiercely guarded opinions - the names of things.

The species Gallinula chloropus has been a problematic one apparently with regard to its name, although for as long as I've been birding, I've known it as the Common Moorhen. I've been blissfully unaware of the history of the naming of this bird until recently, where I've learned that it used to be known as the Common Gallinule. In fact, on some web pages including the very Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology page that I referenced in the link to Common Moorhen, under Cool Facts, the last bullet item uses the old name 'Common Gallinule' whereas the rest of the page uses Common Moorhen. Obviously the content writer still hears the old name in his or her head.

But change is afoot again! Just last month the South American Classification Committee, a subcommittee of the American Ornithological Union, passed proposal #335 which will return the name Common Gallinule to the species. This will be a reversal of the naming convention adopted in 1983, as stated in the proposal's background section:
Gallinula chloropus was known in the W. Hemisphere as "Common Gallinule" in the 1957 AOU checklist but was changed to "Common Moorhen" in a Supplement sometime in advance of the 1983 AOU checklist. For more than a century prior to the 1983 list, it had been known as either the Florida Gallinule or Common Gallinule, but always a Gallinule. The change was a concession to the BOU to keep the "Moorhen" in the name; the species there had been known "forever" as the Moorhen.

The 'BOU' referred to here is the British Ornithological Union, which oversees among other things the English naming conventions for Old World birds, like those in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Gallinula chloropus is a wide-ranging species with subspecies in the Old World, and those birds have long been called 'moorhens'. There are also several other species of closely-related birds in the genus Gallinula, also commonly called 'moorhens'. Still, as the proposal states:

The breaking point for me came when, at the Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Venezuela this year, even the Spanish-first speakers were ridiculing it and using it as an example of an absurd common name. To make matters worse, the endemic Neotropical species of Gallinula still retains the name Gallinule (Spot-flanked Gallinule, G. melanops). The credibility of NACC as a body capable of governing English name usage was questioned. [Yes, I mentioned to them that this change happened before I was on NACC.]

Although most Old World Gallinula are now called Something Moorhen, two Australian species are called Native-hen, so the genus itself already does not go by a single English name.

The globalizers will go ballistic if we backtrack on this one, and there will be some who say that, heck, we've lived with Moorhen for 25 years and to backtrack now looks bad. I am reasonably certain, however, that the vast majority of our clientele, professional and amateur, will welcome a return to a better and historically traditional name. In fact, many of you may have noticed that many people refuse to use Moorhen in the field anyway except to fill out official checklists, and that many state game agencies retain Gallinule.

Makes good sense to me. Although I do have affinities for some bird names, 'moorhen' is not one of them. It has always struck me as a strange name, and I like that it now shares a common name with the Purple Gallinule, even though the latter species isn't even in the genus Gallinula. It visually makes more sense, given the similarities between the two North American gallinules.

And maybe it's just my naivete, but I am struck by the arguments against changing the name, made by a few of the committee members:

Comments from Stotz: "NO. I voted against this return to Gallinule in the North American committee, and I will vote against it here as well. I didn't like the change in 1983 and it took me a long while not to think of this bird as a Gallinule, but it has been 25 years now, and a large number of birders and ornithologists have never known it as anything other than a Moorhen.

Yes, and I am one of them. And yet, I love this name change, so please don't think you're doing me some kind of favor by voting against the name change in this instance! Honestly, it's this kind of argument that drives me bonkers: "Yes, we made a bad decision a while ago, but it's too late now to do anything about it, so let's ignore it." Good grief! You're the naming committee! That's what you do. I understand about the 'optics' of reversing a name change made only 25 years ago, but if it was a bad decision then, I see no problem of correcting it now. And really, of all the birds that people are likely to get huffy and defensive about, Gallinula chloropus is kinda low on the list. Are there really legions of birders who would 'go ballistic' by changing it back? Really?

NO. We made our bed, and we need to lie in it. Too many have switched to the dark side, but it would give our committee a lot less credibility if we whimsically switch back and forth without any real reason aside from personal opinion.

 This is another variant of the previous argument, but it does raise an interesting question, that of 'committee credibility'. I can at least understand the concern about name changes like this as it pertains to credibility, but again, as the proposal states, there are already state game agencies using the old term anyway, despite AOU official convention to the contrary. I really don't think the SACC is sacrificing any credibility here, because on the issue of Gallinula chloropus, they were being ignored anyway.

I think the worry here is way overstated, and that the gallinule-moorhen question is not going to be generalized and become a slippery-slope into ornithological common-name chaos like it is with botany. I think it is plain to see here that this is a very special case, and although it is a reversal of a position taken a short time ago, I really can't see it as having any significant impact on the seriousness with which the ornithological and birding community at large takes the committee's work. With all the highly technical taxonomic work they do, are there really people out there who would use the gallinule name-change as a reason to ignore, say, the removal of Saltator from Cardinalidae? I dunno.

In any case, this only applies for now to the South American lists - it has no bearing (yet) on the North American committee, until at least someone in the committee proposes changing its name to maintain consistency in the Western Hemisphere. But I would have to think that proposal will come within the next several months to a year, and after that we should start seeing 'Common Gallinule' back on the official state checklists and in bird guides. I'm fine with that, really.

I can understand the reluctance to change common bird names wholesale, for sure. I agree that there needs to be some measure of continuity, even if the current common name isn't fully accurate or sensible. But at the same time, that desire for continuity shouldn't rule out every single name change, especially when the change is actually to set it back to what many people are still using out in the field.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The 5 Stages of Bird List Grief

I got back from a trip to New York City about a week ago. It was a cultural trip with my non-birding wife, and we mostly took in the big tourist sights like the Empire State Building, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge, Katz' Deli on the Lower East Side, the Natural History Museum, and even a couple TV show tapings. Great fun actually.

On the 3rd, we spent a good portion of the day in and around Central Park. I knew going in that there was some decent birding to be had in a few of the areas, so I brought my binos, "just in case". And I'm glad I did - even though I had to do my usual hemming and hawing to my wife about why I had them and why I wanted to go this particular route through the park. Fortunately, she's pretty accommodating, and I don't have to debase myself too much to get what I want.

We took a route through an area called "The Ramble", and just as we started to enter, I heard a sound that I'd never before heard in the field. But it was one that I had heard frequently on my "More Birding By Ear" recordings by the Peterson's Guide. It was an unmistakable thrush song, Bicknell's Thrush! Quickly I scrambled over to the area where the song was coming from, and not long after I got a few views of the bird in question. How exciting! I wasn't at all expecting to find this species on this trip, so what a great bonus to add to my newly-formed New York state list, which would only have a couple dozen species on it, but at least one new life bird!

One thing bugged me though - how did I know it wasn't a Gray-cheeked Thrush? Come to think of it, I had no idea what their song was like. Is it similar? Would either of these species be singing if they weren't on territory? Lots of questions, and few answers to be found in my NYC guidebook. Well, I had to wait until I got home to look this stuff up. I eventually got home and began my investigation.

And if you are a knowledgeable East Coast birder, you can probably imagine my disappointment when I realized that Gray-cheeked Thrush does indeed sound a lot like Bicknell's. In fact, there's only one really helpful sound trait you can use to separate them in the field. And I probably heard it too - the problem is, I didn't remember it! I wasn't even paying attention to those crucial notes at the time, because I hadn't bothered to study the two species before I left for the trip. Who'da thought I'd be hearing any thrush songs in Central Park?

At this point, I should have known that I wasn't going to be able to count this as a Bicknell's. But I wasn't ready for that. I had to go through the
K├╝bler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief first apparently.


Well, I tried ruling one or the other out, based on the likelihood of singing away from their breeding territories. I thought maybe I could just eliminate Gray-cheeked just because it was much further from its usual breeding grounds than the Bicknell's, which breed in upstate New York. If only it were that easy - Birds of North America as well as a couple different comments over email from knowledgeable East Coast birders informed me that either one could well sing during migration. And as far as field appearance goes, as good a look as I got, it wasn't nearly enough for me to see any clearly distinguishing traits. I knew it wasn't a Hermit or Swainson's, or even a Wood. But that's as much as I could say.


I felt annoyed that I may not be able to count this as a life bird after all. (I already have Gray-cheeked in Colorado and Florida.) The supporting evidence I had used so confidently to call this a Bicknell's was falling away, leaving only uncertainly and ambiguity. I had already gone to the trouble of adding it to all my lists! Like hell if I'm going to take it off again!


So, given that Gray-cheeked generally occurs on more days in May and June than Bicknell's, it's likely that I heard the former instead of the latter. Of course it isn't ruled out completely - part of me still thinks I heard a rising note at the end. So maybe it was a Bicknell's! How about if I take off a different species from my life list, like Robin or something? Wouldn't that balance things out?




Well, in the greater scheme of things, I'd rather add a life bird to my list knowing without a doubt that it was that species, instead of scurrilously adding a bird with doubt, just to pump up the list. I'll just have to make a dedicated trip up to the Northeast some day and look and listen for Bicknell's properly. Dang it.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

As always, this is awkward.

It's time for another of my "gosh, I haven't posted anything new in a while, boy do I feel like a schmuck" postings.

Until this morning I wasn't even sure when the last time I posted here was, but I see that it was over a year. I didn't even have anything new for all over 2007! In the back of my mind over this past year, I remembered Feather Weather and knew that I would have to come back sometime. It rankled that I was leaving it unattended and forlorn, and yet I never felt overly compelled to write anything new. As is often the case when I leave the blog, it's not because I have nothing to write about (although there are sometimes 1-2 week spans where I delve into other interests that have little to do with birds and therefore I feel there's nothing to offer in the short term), but because I go through phases where I convince myself that my next blog post ideas are too perfunctory to merit the attention needed to make them interesting. Even if I have other more interesting ideas in the pipeline, sometimes I think the blog has little or nothing to offer me, in lieu of what I'm actually doing or preparing away from the computer. What do I mean by that? I think I mean that if I don't really have a readership (and I realize that a readership comes about only through regularity of posting, and that regularity of posting for me comes through readership), I lose the kind of motivation I usually require to post some of those more perfunctory items, before I get to the other more interesting stuff that doesn't require as much of a kick in the pants for me.

In any case, the past year was plenty full of bird watching, and bird learning. I just didn't write about it. But it was there. And now the pendulum is swinging back again, and I'm feeling the necessity of articulating and recording, because some different and very interesting things are starting to happen now.

If I can just get over the perfectionist streak that often prevents me from posting anything that I don't consider artful or illuminating, I think I can post a lot more often. Perfectionism isn't always bad, but it is often the impediment to progress. As Voltaire once said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."