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Birders Take Their Lumps With Their Splits

April 1, 2013

In the past 30 years, about 1300 new avian species have been added to the world’s birdlist. Some were entirely new to science.  Collectors in the Amazon basin keep turning up new antbirds, tapaculos and tyrant flycatchers, for example, but new species keep trickling in from all the world’s under-explored areas. However, the majority of new bird species are the result of “splitting” – raising already known and described subspecies up to full species status.  This comes about from additional research: sometimes field studies, sometimes DNA analysis, sometimes both.

“Lumping” occurs when new research shows -or appears to show – that one or more birds with full species status are more properly considered as subspecies of a variable species. Several decades ago the Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted and Gilded Flickers of North America were “lumped” into the single Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) when found freely interbreeding in areas where their ranges overlapped. A few years later, the Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides) was “re-split” from the Northern Flicker, based on even newer research. Decades earlier, the Spotted and Eastern Towhees had each been “good” species; again, research found them interbreeding and they were lumped into the Rufous-sided Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), only to be re-split in 1995 back into Spotted (P. maculatus) and Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

And so the pendulum swings: splitting to lumping to splitting, with a preponderance of the latter over the past half-century.  But it now swings back to lumping, and with a vengeance utterly unexpected.

Feathered dinosaur, also known
as Secretary-bird

Recently, researchers in molecular genetics at the Carl von Linné Conservatory of Biological Systematics at Uppsala University in Sweden have admitted to an enormous, decades-long error. “We found a glitch in analysis program we used many decades,” says conservatory head Dr. Thorbald Thorbaldson. “Simple, but bringing a catastrophe. Several people resigned. One man became reindeer herder with the Lapps.”

Simply put, a decimal place was off by three orders of magnitude.  DNA samples with a reported variance of – say – 2.7%, were actually only 0.0027% at variance.  Dr. Thorbaldson: “Samples we thought quite different, indicating great evolutionary separation, are – well – not so different after all!  Mildly speaking. With birds, it turns out there are far fewer “good species” and far more subspecies than we thought.”

How few?  Sit down and hold your breath. Keep holding.  Now read on.

“Careful reanalysis, ” reports Dr. Thorbaldson, “indicates there are probably 10 species of birds, with approximately 24,000 subspecies. Give or take a few, of course.”

Ten species? TEN? It makes you want to hang up your binoculars, take off your Tilley and anorak, climb back into bed and pull the blanket up over your head for a long, long while.


Artist’s rendition of the typical bird

Obviously, the name of the ten species needed simplification, resulting in a certain uniformity. They are, alphabetically, with English translations of the scientific name in parentheses:
Hoopoe – Upupa omnimodia (universal hoopoe)
Sapayoa – Sapayoa incertaesedis (uncertain origin sapayoa)
Secretary-bird – Venator terrafirma (solid-ground hunter)
The Budgie – Primosittacus familiaris (social first-parrot)
The Chicken – Gallus assus (roasted chicken)
The Cuckoo – Cuculus horacustodis (time-keeper cuckoo)
The Duck – Anas mundus (world duck)
The Peep – Charadrius tibicinus (piper waterbird)
The Railbird – Erepus palus (marsh creeper)
The Songbird – Passerina cantata (sparrow-like singer)

Many of the water birds – penguins, cormorants, tubenoses, and auks for example – were discovered to not be birds at all, but fish.  Similarly, the swifts and hummingbirds are actually insects, most closely related to damselflies.  The Secretary-bird (pictured above), which as anyone can see looks like a feathered dinosaur, turned out to be ancestral to all the hawks, falcons, owls, nightjars and such. The Hoopoe holds a similar position for many egret and stork-like birds. Finally, that long-term ornithological bugaboo, the Sapayoa (a small manakin-like bird endemic from southern Panama to northwest Ecuador) is still of indecipherable lineage. “We’re pretty sure it is a bird…at least some of us are,” explains Dr. Thorbaldson, “but, as always, it seems completely unrelated to anything else. We don’t know what it is, and frankly we’re (expletive deleted) tired of looking at it.”

For a quick look at how the birds used to be organized, take a look at this chart, courtesy of the University of Sheffield. If you find Crows, Jays or Ravens on the chart, please let me know, because I couldn’t.

Those who found this article plausible, should also read:
2012:   Canyonland Roadrunner Captured on Film
2011:   New Hummingbird Species Discovered in Los Angeles County!
2010:  The Western Roof-Owl: Bird of Mystery
[Chuck Almdale, on behalf of Club 401]

  1. April 1, 2013 6:24 pm

    April Fool’s. I received this 4/1/13.


  2. Aurelio Albaisa permalink
    April 1, 2013 2:18 pm

    Great news! Something I had long suspected all along… Nice try; too bad it’s April 1st and hoax time. The moment I checked your math I knew it was too good to be true…the difference between 2.7 and 0.0027 is not a factor of 3, it is a factor of 1000: 10 to the 3rd power


    • Chukar permalink
      April 1, 2013 2:58 pm

      Good catch, Aurelio. I meant three orders of magnitude, as Edie Gralla kindly points out. I’ve corrected the original text. We strive for 100% accuracy at all times and wish not to lead our readers astray.


  3. Joyce Waterman permalink
    April 1, 2013 12:58 pm

    Very nice Chuck. I’m an April foolee sure! Seriously–very nice piece.

    ~ Joyce

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. April 1, 2013 12:26 pm

    Now I’m really not sure if you are pulling my monkey’s leg; however, I do enjoy reading your blogs. Lynn Bossone

    Sent from my iPad


    • Chukar permalink
      April 1, 2013 2:30 pm

      I try not to fool with monkey legs, monkey hands, mojos, black cat bones or St. John’s Conqueror Root, especially when they belong to someone else.


  5. April 1, 2013 11:59 am

    What about gulls? No mention of them….. we all know that they’re all one species anyway, right?


    • Chukar permalink
      April 1, 2013 2:28 pm

      Gulls are a subspecies of The Peep, and yes, you’re quite right that they are all just morphs and forms of the same bird.


  6. Joyce Waterman permalink
    April 1, 2013 9:59 am

    All I can say is –ugh! Hummingbirds from insects?!? I need to chew on that for some Rome. . .

    Appalled, Joyce

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. April 1, 2013 9:15 am

    An error of 3 orders of magnitude is a lot, but as a new birder, I welcome the reduction in species 🙂 Perhaps, after all, I won’t have to take Cindy’s class several more times!


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