Black-shouldered or Australian Kites?

To: "'canberrabirds chatline'" <>
Subject: Black-shouldered or Australian Kites?
From: "Geoffrey Dabb" <>
Date: Wed, 30 Jan 2008 17:13:38 +1100

Worldwide, ‘Black-shouldered Kite’ for axillaris is gathering force, if not yet quite incontestable.  Apart from C&B, it is given in Gill & Wright (2006), the latest brave proposal for an internationally consistent set of English names.  G&W give ‘Black-winged’ for caeruleus.  However, many people look to the Handbook of the Birds of the World as the most useful popular encyclopedia on world birds.  This gives ‘Common Black-shouldered Kite’ for caeruleus and ‘Australian Black-shouldered Kite’ for axillaris.  (Generally northern hemisphere watchers, as well, have to get used to an additional adjective as part of the rationalising process.)  HBW’s names are also used in its video library.   Recently its files under ‘caeruleus’ included footage of an Australian bird, rather surprisingly as the footage was taken near Perth.  It turned out that the person submitting had simply used the Australian label ‘Black-shouldered Kite’ and the editors had indexed it under caeruleus.   The submitter had failed to observe the HBW requirement that English names be as in HBW.   The moral is that anyone conversing across borders should be aware of the possibility of confusion.


Many years ago, in fact about 40, I was watching a ‘black-shouldered kite’ on the picturesque island of Daru on the PNG side of Torres Strait.  I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I decided to call it caeruleus.  This was in accordance with Abbott’s Law, under which, in cases of doubt, the identification least likely to give rise to surprise or challenge is to be preferred.  (Abbott’s Law is named for a federal politician noted for his timid and deferential manner.)


From: Julian Robinson [
Sent: Wednesday, 30 January 2008 10:42 AM
To: canberrabirds chatline
Subject: [canberrabirds] Black-shouldered or Australian Kites?


Does anyone know what the latest Christidis & Boles says about Elanus axillaris (Black-shouldered Kites)?  i.e. have they accepted a renaming of our bird to Australian Kite?

My understanding is there are 3 now-accepted distinct look-alike species - axillaris, caeruleus and leucurus.   I think the story is this...

Axillaris is endemic to and the only one found in Australia, majority agreed name is Black-shouldered Kite (if so, hurrah because it's a rare bird for which Oz gets to keep a well-used common name in competition with the old world).

Caeruleus - Africa and Europe - majority agreed name is Black-winged Kite (but formerly Black-shouldered).

Leucurus - Nth and Sth America - majority agreed name is White-tailed Kite (but formerly Black-shouldered also).

I know it has been a source of learned argument for some time but wondered if the world has agreed on the above or whether instead the forces of evil have pushed us to take on "Australian" and given "Black-shouldered" back to one of the others.

I am interested partly because I came upon the issue when posting a photo to a bird identification group, and partly because I've been looking for an example where the Australian species managed to keep the good moniker rather than have to skulk off with the slightly painful and always less descriptive "Australian" or "Australasian" name ("Clamorous" being our greatest loss, I think.  I'm not so worried about "Richard's" bec it wasn't so descriptive).


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