It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU). Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change. Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year. And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.
Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America. Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so. If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page. I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes. Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree. Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom. However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list. It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.
Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes. Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order. Some highlights of the changes for the year:
- Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split! The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance. When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
- Leach’s Storm-Petrel split — The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species. Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
- Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed. Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis.
- Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course. Sigh. A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
- Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”? It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him. For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation. The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!