Sunday, April 9, 2017

Field Guides: What is a "field-friendly" bird sequence?

The American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Checklist Committee is the official body from which the North American bird checklist is derived. This checklist is the basis for both the names of birds and the order they occur in your field guide, wildlife refuge bird lists, and your eBird checklist. It is the basis for the checklist you may use in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count and Christmas Bird Counts. It is updated annually, usually July.

The annual checklist supplement reports the official "splits" and "lumps," deciding (based on published scientific literature) what species exist and what do not. It is the official name-maker/arbiter for both the common and scientific names of birds. It also adds any well-documented first records for North and Middle America. Many birders are excited to find out what "new" birds they may be able to count on their lists each year. This past year Western Scrub-Jay was split into two species: California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, along with many other changes.

Proposals under consideration for 2017 include splitting Willet, Nashville Warbler, Northern Harrier, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper, Northern Shrike, Red Crossbill, Bell's Vireo. Proposals have also been put forth to lump Common and Hoary Redpoll, to lump Thayer's and Iceland Gull, and to lump Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Junco. And, yes, major changes are proposed to the sequence of families of songbirds.

In the recent past, many field guide publishers were usually in a rush to be the first to print revisions using the new names and added species. When the sequence changes however, field guide authors and publishers are a bit more hesitant.

My Sibley guide from 2000 has the loons and grebes first, followed by petrels and pelicans, as does my 1969 Peterson field guide, and so does my 1940 Birds of Oregon by Gabrielson and Jewett. That time-honored sequence was shaken up due to DNA work in recent years.

Thus, my 2014 Sibley has ducks and chickens first, then loons, grebes, petrels, and pelicans. There were some other changes as well, like falcons and parrots following the woodpeckers.

Last summer (2016) the AOU Checklist Committee again approved radically changing the sequence of birds in its official checklist. Now the order is: ducks, chickens, grebes, pigeons, cuckoos, nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, rails. And the loons, petrels, pelicans, herons are moved after gulls. Hawks are back with owls just before woodpeckers. House Sparrow is again moved back after Starling, but finches follow that just before the warblers, and blackbirds are last. The final bird in the current North American checklist is Scott's Oriole! More changes are in store. And yet, where are the new field guides in that sequence?

Surprisingly, eBird, the tremendously popular worldwide real-time birding checklist program by Cornell University, delayed making these sequence changes to their online lists last year. They didn't say why, only that they'd make changes in 2017 (I assume August, after the next AOU list update)--perhaps they simply needed more time for programming to make the changes, or they anticipated major 2017 changes.

With so many disruptive changes to the checklist order we've been hearing more and more rumblings of field guides ordered in a "field-friendly" bird sequence, not strictly dependent upon the order in the checklist.

Sample of how birds might be arranged in a "field-friendly" approach.
What is a field-friendly bird sequence? I discussed this several years ago on another blog (here and here).

The AOU checklist is not field-friendly. It's not supposed to be. It represents supposed relationships, subject to constant re-analysis and interpretation. As an example, in the blog posts above I used the fact that Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes--while visibly similar, and often confused by beginners--are not closely related, and are found far apart in the field guides. The same goes for Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots--birds that appear superficially similar but are found far apart in the checklist. In fact the Coot and the Crane are closely related and found near each other in the field guide, even though they look nothing alike. Having field guides strictly follow the checklist makes it very difficult and confusing for beginning bird watchers.

A field-friendly sequence would put the long-legged and long-necked herons and cranes near each other and near sandpipers and ibis. It would put the swimming coots and grebes near the ducks and loons and alcids. The first grouping might be called "Wading Waterbirds" (not totally correct for every species, but close enough to get the idea). The second group could be called "Swimming Waterbirds." A third group could be called "Flying Waterbirds" and include gulls, petrels, boobies, and skuas. Get the idea? Those three "Waterbird" groupings include almost a third of the birds in the world. "Raptors" would include hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons.

Even the songbirds could be divided up into only a half-dozen major groupings. Altogether, all species in North America could be placed simply and logically into one of only 13 groups--easy enough for beginners and accurate enough for advanced students! This certainly has been discussed before (see this article in Birding magazine by Howell, et al. in 2009). A couple of bird field guides have even attempted it, successfully or not (1997 All the Birds of North America by Griggs, 2000 Birds of North America by Kaufman, 2011 The Crossley ID Guide).

Field guides using the field-friendly sequence would not be re-ordered every time there was a change to the sequence in the checklist. Names could be updated, and a new species inserted, but a book wouldn't have to be re-ordered and laid out from scratch (not that books are long for this world). But however we may view future birding field guides, checklist order is not birder friendly.

Back in 2012 I proposed a field-friendly sequence as thus:
Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Raptors
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

How does it work in practice? Try it for yourself. I combined about 1500 of my pBase bird photos with my annotated checklist to create a Field-Friendly Guide to San Diego Birds. Let me know what you think.