Many birders are understandably frustrated by changes in bird names and the order of species on checklists. It can be difficult to follow, but each revision usually highlights a significant advance in our understanding of birds and is worth thinking about.
It is important to emphasize that the changes are the result of the judgments of expert ornithologists who base their decisions on published research. There is no “final say” and changes will continue. Any apparent inconsistencies or occasional reversals reflect the difficult and subjective nature of the decisions.
The changes that make the most news in ornithology circles involve either the splitting or grouping of species. Changes in higher-level classifications, the genera and families to which species are assigned, generally receive less attention, and any attention they receive is negative because they often involve confusing rearrangements of species, but these revisions are among the most interesting.
If you started birding in the 1970s, like me, you learned that vireos and warblers were side by side in field guides. This was the order of the families, and the proximity influenced how I perceived them. While wrens, wrens, flycatchers and other small, slender-billed songbirds were clearly distinguishable from wood warblers, vireos occupied a special place near the warblers.
It took me years and a bit of unlearning to understand how distinctive vireos are. When the vireo family was placed in the list next to shrikes and jays, the fundamental differences between vireos and warblers seemed to emerge. Equally important, the similarities between vireos, shrikes and jays were highlighted.
Recent changes, such as separating hawks from hawks, or buntings from sparrows, can be unsettling, but the new arrangement is a clearer expression of true relationships. By thinking about changes with an open mind, you will discover differences and similarities that you might not have considered before. You will begin to think of hawks and falcons as the separate and distinct lineages that they are.
This ID Toolkit article by David Sibley appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of BirdWatching.
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