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What's in a Bird's name?

The Classification and naming of Birds

Every known bird, and for that matter plant, fish, mammal etc. has two names assigned to it with a scientific method called Classification in addition to it's common name. This label enables an exact identification of each one with its unique scientific name. The first given name that collectively compares it with its close relations is the Genus. The second name is used to distinguish it from others of its genera by a species name. Defining what exactly is a separate species is always being questioned but generally it is organisms that breed together of the same type. A botanist named Carolus Linneaus in the 16th century in order to catalog different plants thought out this two-name system. Scientific names are always properly written in italics to separate them from a block case type, with the genus name capitalized and the species not, for example: Turdus pilaris, the scientific name for a Fieldfare.

In order to have a planned out organization of all of the genera of birds, they are categorized in families. Each scientific family name ends in the letters "idae". The Fieldfare is in the family Turdidae along with its cousin the Eastern Bluebird Scialia scialia and other Thrush type birds, while the wrens are in the family Troglodytidae. Next, the families are categorized in Orders, with the order name always ending in "iformes". This is the first separation of very unrelated groups like the Ostriches, Struthioniformes and the Swifts and Hummingbirds called Apodiformes.

Here's the Fieldfare's Family Tree:

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata - animals with spinal chords
Subphylum Vertebrata - animals with hard backbones
Class Aves- Birds defined by the unique characteristic of having feather
Order Passeriformes-the Songbirds and their relations
Family Turdidae-Thrushes and close relatives
Genus Turdus - Thrush
Species pilaris - Fieldfare

Some scientists have proposed other systems to classify animals especially with the recent ability to test DNA. They have used DNA to determine the finest differences between two organisms considering their genetic makeup in place of anatomical characteristics. So far, these systems have not been as widely accepted for general use and we are sticking to the original classification system. Things may change in the future.

From time to time scientists have changed the name of some birds that we already have identified and memorized well. It is a little inconvenient to call the bird something else after it has been known for a long time by one name. Not only to remember the new name but change all the publications to reflect the change. Why not stick with the first one? Why name it again? It's because we keep learning more about every species. One good example is the Yellow-shafted Flicker and the Red-shafted Flicker. In the middle of the US you can find both birds and they will interbreed. When this was found out, Ornithologists decided to "lump" the two types of birds together and call the species the Northern Flicker. To lump is actually the common term biologists use to merge the classification of what were believed to be animals of the same species into one; the opposite is to split. However, it was decided recently that these were actually two species of Flickers and they were both given their original names back.

So who names all the birds? Using the traditional classification system, the American Ornithologist Union is responsible for avian classification (initials-AOU). It has the last say on who's who in North America. Any new bird or changes to any previous names are scrutinized and decided upon by a group of expert Ornithologists. Their counterpart in the UK is the British Ornithologist's Union. Every few years the AOU publishes the official Checklist of North American Birds with all the name changes and additions. You can download a free copy of the latest 7th edition of the official checklist at http://www.aou.org/aou/birdlist.html

In this latest checklist, the AOU's official count is 2031 species of bird species that are possibly seen in North American, Central America, Hawaii and the West Indies. There were changes in some scientific names of birds like the Snowy Owl and Screech Owl, along with Black-capped Chickadees and Ovenbirds, but their common name stays the same. A notable name change of a common bird that everyone is familiar with is the Rock Pigeon, formerly called the Rock Dove. So get out your field guide and write in what everyone calls a pigeon, a Pigeon!

On the lighter side, those of us who have been birding for awhile may suffer from the pigeon name change. We were able to correct beginner birders and "know it all non-birders" who thought they were id'ing a species, to tell them "No, they are not PIGEONS they are Rock DOVES". What are we to do now? Calling them a pigeon honestly makes them really in the class that they are thought to be - flying rats: the low life of the bird society. By calling them Doves at least there was just a modicum of dignity attached to the bird, but now, they are the very low lives of the bird society just like brown-headed cowbirds. Will they make a Herring Gull officially into a Seagull so that all of us experienced birders cannot correct the first bird the student sees - "No, there is no such thing as a Seagull, this is actually a Herring Gull" Who doesn't want to use that correction? And then there are those Canadian Geese!

-S. French
NOTE - One thing about the internet and websites is that if you make a mistake once, it can get saved and can keep coming back again and again like the taste of a bad meal. Please note: Fieldfare = Turdus pilaris the American Robin which keeps migrating back to this article by mistake is Turdus migratorious

Fieldfare the Bird Identification and Information
Fieldfare Irruption 2010

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