I recently saw a documentary in my graduate school class about human racial classifications. While some people are consistently categorized the same way (I would definitely be considered “White” under any classification scheme, for example), others officially “change” races when they move across state lines, or in the ten years from one census to another. Because of the confusion, some sociologists (my professor among them) believe that there is really only one race of people: the human race.
I won’t get into political issues like that in this forum, but it’s interesting to point out that these controversies are not limited only to human beings. Birds are also being reclassified all the time, leading to some confusion for birders.
Since I began birding in the early 90’s, four birds on my life list have changed names. The Oldsquaw was changed to the Long Tailed Duck in 2000, due to the negative connotations of the word “squaw.” However, the ducks are the same, just the name has changed. The other three cases are a bit more complex.
In the 1980 version of my field guide, there are birds called the Northern Junco, the Northern Oriole and the Rufous-Sided Towhee. Today, those names are gone. The bird I knew as the Rufous-Sided Towhee is now the Eastern Towhee, the Northern Oriole is the Baltimore Oriole and the Northern Junco is the Dark-Eyed Junco.
So why all the changes? It’s because of lumping and splitting.
Lumping basically means that two formerly different species are now lumped together as one. Splitting means that a species is split into two species.
The bird I knew as the Northern Oriole consisted of two races: the Baltimore Oriole and the Bullock’s Oriole. Because they produced fertile young and interbred in the midwest, they were considered the same species, at least for a while. However, “molecular studies” were done on the birds recently, and they were split again into two separate species, based on, I guess, their DNA. The birds don’t look that much alike. The Baltimore Oriole has black cheeks and neck, and the Bullock’s has orange cheeks and a black eye-stripe.
The Rufous-Sided Towhee species was also split. The Eastern Towhee is found in the East and the Spotted Towhee in the West. Like the Orioles, both Towhees interbreed but look somewhat different (although the differences are not as dramatic as with the Orioles). Spotted Towhees have white spots on their wings, and Eastern Towhees do not.
The Juncos appear to have been lumped. According to Wikipedia, there are about seven subspecies, some of which look nothing alike to me. The bird I’m familiar with in the Northeastern US is gray with a white breast and white tail stripes (giving it it’s new subspecies name, “Slate Colored Junco”). However, other birds of the same species can have completely different feather colors and patterns. The Gray-Headed Race is almost blue, with a rufous spot on its back. No novice birder would ever think that this was the same species as the slate-colored.
What’s especially interesting (and frustrating to birders) is that a lot of birds look almost exactly the same, but are considered different species. Open your field guide to the page of the “peep” sandpipers if you don’t know what I mean.
It seems almost trivial to worry about bird races, species and subspecies, but the correct classification could affect endangered species lists, for example. If one race is in danger, but others are not, should the whole species be on the list? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that classification issues for all species (including my own) will continue to be hot topics in the years to come.