Splits, lumps, taxonomies, check-lists, whatever.

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: Splits, lumps, taxonomies, check-lists, whatever.
From: "Robert Inglis" <>
Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 20:39:55 +1000
“Thank you” to everyone who responded to my query, even to those whose 
responses I didn’t really understand.

It is interesting that the concept of species as a base element of taxonomy is 
widely accepted but when a definition of “species” is asked for the response is 
usually that it cannot be defined. I beg to differ. 
A simple and acceptable (to me at least) definition of “species” could be “a 
group subordinate to a genus and containing individuals agreeing in some common 
attributes and called by a common name”. Thus “a species” can be defined as a 
member of such a group.
Unfortunately, that explains in logical terms what a species is but it doesn’t 
explain in biological terms how any of those ‘individuals’ were assessed to be 
eligible for inclusion as a ‘species’ belonging in one particular or, indeed, 
in any genus.

In retrospect and after considering the above definition I realise I asked the 
wrong question.
What my question should have been is “Is there a viable, scientifically based 
and universally accepted process (or set of criteria) by which individual 
creatures are assessed for the purpose of including them as a ‘species’ in a 
particular genus?”. 
The fact that there are several taxonomies being used for the birds of 
Australia makes it obvious that there is no such universally accepted process 
or criteria set. It also seems apparent to me that none of the touted 
taxonomies is entirely science based but all depend to some degree on 
subjective assessments. It also seems to me that some birdwatchers are 
dissatisfied with all of the extant taxonomies and are prepared to devise their 
own modified versions of those taxonomies based on their own concepts.

Now, before anyone becomes overly excited and starts to think I am being 
hypercritical of anyone or any taxonomy, I think I should clarify (or at least 
try to clarify) a few things about my question and why I asked it.

I must point out that I readily, happily and enthusiastically accept the 
concept of “species” and all of the other stages of taxonomy so I am not 
wishing to critisise anyone who is involved in examining the 
species/sub-species status of particular birds. I believe in the “origin of 
species by means of natural selection” and thus the evolution of ‘new’ species 
as ‘splits’ from ‘old’ species.
In the field of ornithology I am strictly a lay-person observing from the 
sideline; I certainly have no qualifications in taxonomy and am quite happy to 
accept what the ‘experts’ determine to be the true situation regarding the 
status of a particular species or sub-species. However, in Australia at the 
moment, there appears to be at least three ‘expertly devised’ taxonomies for 
the birds of Australia in use. More precisely, there is one taxonomy 
exclusively dedicated to the birds of Australia and another two ‘world’ 
taxonomies which include the birds of Australia. There also appears to be some 
not so expertly devised variations of those three taxonomies devised by 
individual birdwatchers to suit there own needs.

To be quite frank, I don’t really care which taxonomy is considered to be the 
‘best’ but at the moment I am happy to stick with C&B 2008 as this is the one 
which is used (with some licence) in the most recent editions of the most 
popular Australian bird field guides. It also appears to be the taxonomy which 
Birdlife Australia requires for its Atlas project and also appears to be the 
taxonomy required for contributions to Birdlife Photography. 
However, no taxonomy stands still and nor should it, so no doubt there will 
come a time when Birdlife Australia converts to another taxonomy as will future 
editions of the Australian bird field guides and when that time comes I also 
will convert even though I am not a member of Birdlife Australia (or any other 
‘birdwatching’ club/association/group/collective for that matter) and it would 
likely mean some extra work to ‘adjust’ my website. (Sorry about that very long 
I would, of course, hope that such a conversion would be done according to good 
scientific reasons and not just to obtain a ‘checklist’ which makes more 
‘ticks’ available.
I also accept that any new taxonomy accepted by Birdlife Australia will not be 
a new C&B.

I could go on for ever on this but I probably would only get myself into 
severely turbulent air.

Of the responses so far........

Helen Larson’s response was very incitant (my word for the day) and also 
contained a great deal of insight. Thank you Helen. Unfortunately your last 
statement does seem to be a commonly held attitude towards what a ‘species’ is.

The detailed contribution from Nikolas Haass sums up pretty much my attitude. 
To choose to follow a particular taxonomy simply because that one gives a 
desired outcome, e.g., a certain list, doesn’t appeal to me. However, I 
certainly don’t deny the right of any other birdwatcher to have a different 
approach to birdwatching and taxonomy to the one I have.

My principle (but not obsessive) birding interest is in photographing birds and 
I do like to put species names (common and scientific) to those birds but, 
unfortunately, it is becoming difficult to be sure that the names I am using 
are ones that other birdwatchers are also using.
It would be so much easier if we were all “singing from the same songbook”.

Bob Inglis
Sandstone Point


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