Unplanned Obsolescence: Keeping Up With the AOU

Those who author and publish printed field guides must await reports from the American Ornithological Union (AOU) Checklist Committee with some degree of anxiety. In most years the reshuffling of the taxonomic deck is relatively minor, a common name change here, a species split/lump there, perhaps slight modifications to a few scientific names. While most of these changes in nomenclature and classification are low-impact to rank and file birders, they render our field guides instantly and irrevocably out of date.  

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Nashville Warbler is one of several North American species formerly assigned to the genus "Vermivora." (Photo by Glenn Bartley)

We don't mind so much when a species is split (i.e. Pacific and Winter wrens), allowing us to add a life bird without getting out of the chair at our computer desk. Conversely, we don't take kindly to losing one of the few Latin words that we can readily pronounce, then seeing it replaced by a word that leaves us sounding like the lisping "Winthrop Paroo" (played by a very young Ronnie Howard) in the 1962 film version of "The Music Man."

Vermivora, the former genus for common North American warblers like Tennessee, Orange-crowned, and Nashville, rolls off the lips. It may be decades before I can say Oreothlypis without getting my tongue stuck between my teeth. I'm betting that North American birders will adopt a handy abbreviation (i.e. "Empids" instead of Empidonax) when dealing with this difficult to pronounce genus. Are the birds assigned to Oreothlypis destined to become simply "Oreos?"

While Vermivora persists as the genus for two extant North American species (Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers) and the presumed extinct Bachman's Warbler, the 52nd Supplement to the AOU Checklist (AOU Checklist Committee. 2011) was not so kind to Dendroica, which at 21 species was the most populous genus of  birds in the U.S. and Canada. It has been "deleted." The assortment of highly colorful and beloved warblers that formerly fell under this heading have been moved to Setophaga, which may not be as the tough to say as Oreothlypis, but is far less pleasant to the ear than Dendroica. I'm guessing that more than a few of us will find it difficult to eliminate the newly declassified "Dendroica" from our vernacular. 

As the content editor for this website and more specifically our online "social" bird guide, I've come to appreciate how these changes impact the works we publish. One of the beauties of online publishing is that all manner of updates and changes can be implemented quickly and painlessly. My occasional typos in this journal are usually discovered within an hour or so by either my mother or David Fix and are thus fixed within a few hours of publication. We are committed to making sure that the BirdFellow Bird Guide will be among the first resources to be updated when AOU revisions are released. The changes mandated by the 52nd Supplement have already been made to our guide, whereas, ironically, Black-throated Blue Warbler is still listed as Dendroica caerulescens on the AOU's own website.

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I can only imagine how exasperating it must be for David Sibley, Don and Lillian Stokes, and the editors of the National Geographic Society series to see years of work and attention to every detail undone by revisions to the AOU Checklist. If you go out to buy a printed field guide today you will not  find a single one on the shelves that is current with these changes. How long will we have to wait to before a book that includes these nomenclature changes is available and how soon after will that volume be dated?

Literature Cited:

AOU Checklist Committe. R. Terry Chesser (chair) et al. 2011. Fifty-second Supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. The Auk 128(3):600-613.

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Oreos, for sure! :-)

I wholeheartedly agree with all you’ve said here, David. The order of birds in field guides is difficult enough for beginning birders, and challenging for leaders of birding courses and field trips. We’re still dealing with people who can’t find Spotted Towhee in their guides. Now, in addition to the paper resources and web sites, we’re also going to be dealing with smartphone apps. Hmmmm… is someone profitting from the changes?

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