It is to be hoped that the boobook studies under way will take into
account other factors along with genetics. Including calls is probably a
good indication. I am afraid I can have no confidence in some of the
findings of geneticists where determination of species is based on DNA
evidence alone. While some of these decision are OK and useful, a few
are ridiculous. The classic example of this has to be the very
conservative lumping of the Lesser Sooty Owl with the other two races of
greater Sooty Owl by Norman et al. (on DNA evidence alone), completely
disregarding other factors which by themselves strongly point to the
fact that the Lesser Sooty has already evolved into a very distinct
species. Unfortunately, while Konig later regarded the Lesser Sooty as a
distinct species in his study, the IOC opted to follow Norman et al.
The lumping was apparently done on the grounds that the three Sooty Owl
taxa have similar/identical DNA. But so apparently do birds (species
pairs) such as Grey and Chestnut Teal, White-browed and Masked
Woodswallows, the two black-cockatoos in SW WA. Where is the consistency?
There are a number of important differences between these two Australian
owls – e.g. the larger Sooty (/tenebricosa/) has a home range of from
about 350 to 800 hectares, sometimes as much as 3,000 hectares with
nests far apart and well out of earshot of each other (Hollands).
Conversely, the Lesser Sooty comes close to being a communal breeder.
Territories can be as small as (and often are) 50 hectares or less in
extent with nests as close as 400 metres, sometimes less, and well
within earshot of each other. Of all the other territorial Australian
Owls, only the Southern Boobook approaches this sort of breeding
density. There are other differences.
In the early 1970s, the late David Fleay attempted to interbreed a male
Lesser Sooty with a female southern Sooty in captivity. After two torrid
years of reluctant and fiery courtship, the female finally nested and
hatched two young whereupon she immediately set upon the male, killed
him and fed him to the nestlings!
I think we have to get well past declaring species or subspecies on
genetics alone, especially in the more complicated cases. While it is a
great tool, surely it should be corroborated by other lines of evidence,
balanced by good field research, emphasis on plumage, behaviour,
territory, song, calls and many other things. Surely field work still
has a critical role. Unfortunately, one gets the feeling in some
instances that the science seems to overshadow a good dose of common sense!
Mt Molloy, Nth Qld
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