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Reprise 13: Birders Take Their Lumps With Their Splits

May 7, 2020

Editor’s Note: Entry number thirteen in our tenth anniversary honor roll was originally posted 4-1-13 and is thirteenth in overall popularity. It was the fourth installment in our SMBAS Monograph Series – Spring Quarter, and brought unwelcome news to the tickers and twitchers of the world.  [Chuck Almdale]


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 continually turn 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.

Feathered dinosaur, also known as Secretary-bird

“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 (Pipilo maculatus) and Eastern Towhees (P. 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.

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. Not seen since.”


Artist’s rendition of the typical bird

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, crawl back into bed and pull the blanket up over your head for a long, long while. Maybe forever.

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 long-scaled fish.  Similarly, 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 ranging from southern Panama to northwestern 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]

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