Re: birding-aus Bird Names vs Code numbers: comments from a US birder--

To: Richard Tkachuck <>, Birding-Aus <>
Subject: Re: birding-aus Bird Names vs Code numbers: comments from a US birder--long
From: David James <>
Date: Sat, 06 Mar 1999 18:35:46 +1000

I'm going to leap to the defence of taxonomy and scientific nomenclature,
because I am reading too many short-sighted comments. my apologies to those
who don't like long postings. 

Taxonomy is a scientific discipline that comes under frequent (and often
justified) attack. "I don't know why they lumped them" or "why do they keep
changing the names". The main goals of taxonomy is to develop a
classification system that (1) allows all taxa (ie subspecies, spescies,
genus etc.) to be uniquely and unambiguously identified and (2) closely
reflects contemporary concepts of phylogeny (or relatedness). Some
taxonomists consider end users like birdwatchers more than others do, but
always taxonomy comes first to them. 

scientific nomenclature is a system used to acheive goal (1). The rules are
complicated, and they need to be to meet the goal. Names are "changed" when
it is found that the name that has been in use is the wrong name. Each name
is (or rather should) be tied to a particular specimen (or picture or
locality) referred to as the "type". The name is validly applied to
anything that is the same as the "type". Thus for instance the Type
specimen for the name Tyto multipunctata is a skin in the American Museum
of Natural History with the reg. no. 629490, which came from the Johnstone
River in NE Qld. Thus the "species" name multipunctata applies to all the
animals that are of the same "species" as specimen 629490. The scientific
name of the species popularly referred to as Australain Owlet-Nightjar (but
also known as fairy owl, moth owl, little owl, owlet-nightjar, banded
goatsucker, crested owlet-nightjar, AUON, OWNJ, 412, and 317, to name but a
few) is currently considered by most authorities to be Aegotheles
cristatus. The species name (but not the genus name) was first proposed by
Shaw in 1790 when he described a specimen as Caprimulgus cristatus. The
type specimen is now lost but the original plate that accompanied Shaw's
description in White's (1790) "Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales"
survives in the British Museum of Hatural History. Shaw's name has PRIORITY
over Caprimulgus vittaus which was proposed by Latham in 1801 and a host of
other names (lunulatus, australis, leucogaster, rufescens, rufus,
murchisonianus, olivei, centralia, melvillensis) because it was the first
name (that is known) to be proposed for the beast in question. The other
names all have their own TYPE details which (in theory) allow them to be
referred to a particular animal (that is how it's known that they are other
names for good ol' 317). There is more than one little owl, more than one
Owlet-Nightjar and more than one 317 but only one Aegotheles cristatus
(well, that's not always the case, but its a long story). The short of it
is that scientific nomenclature is the only system that comes close to
unambiguously and uniquely naming animals. This system is complex and
inconvenient, but it works.    

Because the laws of nomenclature are very precise and prescriptive it is
possible to trace name changes if you care to search through EVERYTHING
that has been published on the subject. Some people do this, and in this
way it is possible to keep track of the several hundred thousand species
names that have been applied to the nine or ten thousand species of birds
currently recognised around the world. How could a system of common names
or numbers do this? How do you track changes in common names and database
numbers across centuries? The RAOU atlas numbering system was designed for
the purpose of databasing in an era past when there were very different
views on phylogeny and taxonomy and different scientific nomenclature was
in use. Not much thought went into it. It should be ditched, not revived. 

At 09:19 5/03/99 -0500, Richard Tkachuck wrote:
>Other problems arise when the Australian authorities do not accept a name
>others do. Take your Darter. Presently RAOU lumps this with the darters found
>off the continent as Anhinga melanogaster. Clemants and Sibley/Monroe have
>chosen to accept a split into two species and list it as Anhinga
>with Anhinga melanogaster for a bird farther north. 
>The main point of this extensive email, is to say: It would be nice to
have an
>easy standard taxonomy, especially for the visitor so that they can know
>to visit when they have a limited amount of time. Also nice would be a cross
>reference this taxonomy with a couple standard field guides.

I'm not sure if I interpret you correctly, but....

Taxonomy has a purpose other than being easy for birders to understand. In
fact I would say that easy and unambiguous are mutually exclusive. 

When the RAOU checklist was being prepared I was working extensively on the
bird collection at the Museum of Victoria and had a bit of input into the
checlist. If you can get your hands on a copy of the publication (rather
than just the list) you will find that every single taxonomic decision is
backed up by an analysis of arguments on the subject that have been
published in the literature since the previous checklist was published in
1975. Every change of name that was adopted in that list can be traced to
original publication in the literature and to the old names. Try doing that
with Sibley and Monroe, Clements, Peters, AOU checklist or any other
checklist in the world. To my knowledge it is a world first - a checklist
that doesn't make arbitrary changes, that objectively considers all
published arguments, and that explains the reasoning behind each decision. 

The case of Anhinga shows this well, and I quote (loosley) from Christidis
& Boles 1994 p. 41. 

"Anhinga was originally regarded as comprising four species (e.g. peters
1931; Vaurie 1965)... Though this treatment was adopted by Sibley & Monroe
(1990), the recent trend has been to reduce the number of Old World
species. On osteological characters, Harrison (1978) recognised only A.
anhinga and A. melanogaster..... Most recent authors treat rufa and
hovaehollandiae as subspecies of A. melanogaster (Cramp & Simmons 1977;
Schodde & Tideman 1986; White & Bruce 1986; [etc.]) and this is followed
here until further studies are conducted" 

A. melanogaster and A. (m.) novaehollandiae both exist as separate taxa.
what's the difeerence between subspecies and species anyway? and who cares,
apart from taxonomists and twitchers? 

The taxonomy of Sibley & Monroe is rife with unjustified and subjective
decisions. Many people consider Sibley and Monroe to be convenient, but I
consider it to be substandard. It is an example of fashionable rather than
of scientific taxonomy (at the species level). 

It is not the job of taxonomists and checklist compilers to keep track of
changes in common names, and no-one would thank them if they tried for they
would have to develop complicated rules to do it. It is not the job of
field guides to keep track of nomenclatural changes, which if done properly
would convert them to field bricks. All this information is in the public
domain but not in one source and not on the internet. If you want to access
it you need to go to the library. 

>By combining all the
>local Australian lists that I have  standardized (I now have about 5,500
>of the location of Australian species.) I can start to predict where the best
>places to visit will be.

Call me old-fashioned, but I do this by flipping through a field guide and
looking at the range maps. 

David James
PO BOX 5225
Townsville Mail Centre 4810

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