Birders Need to More Actively Embrace Evolution

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People who watch birds identify them, and that process is integral to what makes birding interesting. But the best practices for identifying birds appear on the face of it to conflict with evolutionary concepts of birds, and this can lead to both sloppy thinking and missed opportunities

People who watch birds identify them, and that process is integral to what makes birding interesting. But the best practices for identifying birds appear on the face of it to conflict with evolutionary concepts of birds, and this can lead to both sloppy thinking and missed opportunities.

You need to know what to look for. Every now and then Amanda or I take a picture of an insect and show it to our private entomologist for identification, and I’m always surprised at which features she identifies as relevant to the process of placing the creature in a proper taxonomic category. “Oh, this barb at the end of the third leg indicates it’s a member of the Whatseveromorph group, but I can’t narrow it down to family without inspecting the doohickies on the inside of it’s mandible and your photograph sucks so I can’t” or whatever.

I quickly ad that I’m not surprised by this at all. I myself am a trained expert on the identification of certain things, and I know, for instance, that if you want to properly identify the various species of baboons, you might need to get up close and personal with their sex organs to do it right. Well, in truth, field ID of monkeys is never hard because there are so few species, but if you were looking at museum specimens, say.

The original large scale DNA-based reassessments of phylogeny … of any kind … were done with birds, and right away everyone knew that the new DNA-Truth was better than the old Morphology-Truth. Interestingly, some of those original neo-Truths turn out to have been wrong, but these re-evaluations of those reassessments were only sometimes prenumberated by the birds’ morphology, and mainly came to light with further and more refined DNA work.

By now we know that certain things are true, and that these things could be reflected in the field guides that birders use. Mainly, the falcons, which are obviously a kind of hawk, need to be placed with the parrots, which are obviously not hawks, and this group is linked to the now (fortunately) extinct terror-birds.

David Ringer, blogging at 10,000 Birds, summarizes these findings and discusses the idea of changing the field guides. The way I read it, the established birdologists are resisting changing the official bird phylogenies because they want more evidence, but the evidence is by now clear enough that NOT changing it is more wrong than changing it could possibly be. And I attribute this conservatism to the fact (which I imagine but can not prove) that most people who get into birds as a science started out as bird watchers and thus have a harder time imagining restructuring of the phylogeny, reified as it is in all those bird guides one knows and loves, compared say to a person who studies rodents which are all small and brown and look essentially identical to each other. Compared to birds.

David notes:

The problem is that we can’t tell what the physical characteristics actually indicate about these relationships (yet). “No morphological characters are known that convincingly support a Passeriformes / Psittaciformes clade,” wrote Gerald Mayr in a recent review, not suggesting that the hypothesized relationship is necessarily incorrect but simply that so far at least, no known physical characteristics back up what genetics work is telling us.

I suspect, but again, do not know, that this isn’t really true. I mean really, look at this parrot and this Seriema (one of the newly proposed group) and this terror bird (thankfully extinct) and the falcon in David’s post and tell me that they do not share characteristics!

OK, maybe it’s hard to see from the photos. But they all do have that hungry look. In any event, who cares. I want a bird guide to have the falcon, the parrot, the seriema and the terror bird all on one page so the birder, in the field looking at the falcon, can say, “Holy crap, these guyz are all related like that? And WTF with this terror bird!”

Because that is how evolution makes birding more interesting.

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21 thoughts on “Birders Need to More Actively Embrace Evolution

  1. I am not a birder, but I can see there might be a certain advantage, identification-wise, in grouping all the birds that look the same together, even if they are not closely related. That way you can just turn to one section and flip through it to try to find the thing you just saw rather than having to flitter all over the book looking everywhere for it.

    That said, I also have a certain enthusiasm for Doing Things Right, and I love the idea of making serendipitous discoveries of unexpected relationships, as you describe. Consequently, I also find the idea of a more evolutionarily correct guide to be awesome. Can’t we have both, somehow?

  2. You’re thankful Terror Birds are extinct? I’m not. Imagine a world where you could go on safari and get awesome photos of a giant parrot fighting a lion for the right to eat a wildebeest. That is far more awesome than the world in which we currently live.

  3. I am also not a birder, but have a couple of field guides and want to know which birds I am looking at. If I have to start flipping lots of pages back and forth, the bird will fly away before I’m done. Is there a way to incorporate all the identification in the field guide without moving one little green sparrow looking thing here and the other there?

  4. Hmmm. Does that clad explain the similarity between the falcon’s tomial tooth and a parrot’s crenelated upper bill? I agree with the previous comment, that birding guides likely will continue to group birds by what is most perceptible in the field. But. I suspect most birders would be interested in evolutionary relationships, especially if these can be tied to observable traits.

  5. The conservatism you mention, Greg, isn’t just established birdologists (great word, btw), but is the conservatism you find in science in general. Before you change things, you want lots of evidence. I don’t see bird phylogenies as being any more conservative and resistant to change as other disciplines and I could probably argue–okay, I will argue–that bird folks are actually less conservative than other groups (did you catch the uproar over Drosophila?).

    Field guides have shuffled groups around–loons are no longer at the front of the guides. Ducks have shifted places. I keep losing the vireos, swans and pelicans. Hawks are playing hopscotch with the ducks, gulls and grebes.

    Last summer I had to take our taxonomic spreadsheet and replace a whole bunch of scientific names with the new scientific names due to the 51st AOU checklist supplement 2010 changes–in addition to new species and new species names, there were changes to the higher-level taxonomic groups as well. I’ve given up on trying to reorganize my own Excel bird family, genus, name spreadsheet/checklist because there’s been so many changes since I first made it in the mid-1990s, it’ll be easier to start over.

    I have field guides/bird books going back to the 30s and 40s (no, I wasn’t alive then); and I have every edition of Peterson, National Geographic bird guides since the early 1980s (east and west), most of the newer guides like Sibleys, and seldom an addition comes out that hasn’t shuffled something major around (and every addition has renamed something). I’m half expecting sparrows to disappear from the end and hide somewhere in the beginning next.

    Anyone interested in how bird names (and groupings) have changed, this link below is an extremely useful resource.

    Is isn’t up-to-date (till 1998), but you can copy it into Excel and add the 2010 info in a new separate column.

    And I too am sorry the Terror Bird no longer exists. In fact, there are many things which are extinct which leaves our world depauperate.

    Oohhh…what timing…a small flock of warblers in their tricky fall plumage moving through the trees outside…this requires a closer look….

  6. Susan Silberstein. To identify birds you don’t want to flip through the pages of the field guide looking for it. Spend as much time as you can watching the bird and making a mental note of characteristics.

    Most bird guides, at the front, will give you a list of things to look for. How long is the bill, what shape? Are there wing bars on the wings? Is the chest streaked or clear? How does it sit, move, feed–like a woodpecker, horizontal, sitting upright on a branch? Does the bird have an eyeline, an eyering, an eyebrow or plain face? Does it wag its tail when sitting, flick its wings habitually?

    Once it flies away, then look it up. If you’re brand new at watching birds, you still might not be sure of identification, but you will have catalogued a range of things to look for, and you will have studied the bird more carefully than if you’d seen it and tried to look it up right away. That pays big dividends later.

    Even expert birders, when confronted with something tricky, will start rhyming off what the bird has or does not have–kind of fun, and educational, watching two or three birders calling out field marks or asking each other, “Is that an eye-ring? Is that yellow wash on the vent or the light? That’s white, not yellow, clean your binos”.

    –Dan J. Andrews (also posted on bird taxonomy above but forgot my name doesn’t appear automatically now)

  7. thebat137, we can probably have both but not in the same guide.

    The situation with plants is much more extreme, and there we can learn some lessons. Many wildflower books group their plants by color of flower, which is totally insane from a taxonomic point of view. Tree book, on the other and, tend to group their trees by family which are eacily gotten to by keys that anyone can easily use.

    I’m all for similarity-based bird guides, but just like bird guides manage to get other things in them that aren’t just the pictures of birds, they should be able to deal with phylogeny as well somehow.

  8. I’ve gotta say, Greg, most birders I know, at least the halfway serious ones, pay WAY more attention to evolution than the general public. As someone pointed out above, the names of birds (both English and scientific) and their placement in field guides changes all the time on the basis of new findings in phylogenetics. Really, I don’t see ornithological taxonomy as particularly conservative. If there is some reluctance to change the placement of falcons at this time, it may be due to the radical repositioning of the new world vultures (Cathartidae) as part of the stork clade (Ciconiiformes) about a decade ago, a big-ticket change that had to be reversed in 2007 on the basis of better evidence. If the AOU checklist committee feels the evidence supports a taxonomic reshuffle, they reshuffle. Put me in the camp who says that starting off as a birder/naturalist makes one a better scientist, not a worse one!

  9. I think much of the conservatism comes from those early errors you mentioned. In my own field (orchid taxonomy) the early work has been continually revised and changed as we get more info. Yet at every stage of this process (including the earliest work), geneticists were absolutely sure that the new groups (including those which later proved to be wrong) were right, and that the people sticking up for the traditional groups were old-fashioned. Maybe it is true that even the wrong early work was less wrong than the traditional approach, but the misplaced hubris of geneticists has not helped the acceptance of these new insights.
    We now know that different genetic regions can give different phylogenies, and we also are now more aware of the fallibility of genetic algorithms (e. g. long-branch attraction), and we also now are more honest about the possibility that hypotheses like parsimony are not necessarily correct in any particular case. There are certainly other systematic errors we are not aware of. In the long run, it pays to be humble and go slow.

  10. The Bird checklist for Wisconsin Birds as just been revised and all the warblers are re-arranged due to genetic evidence. I don’t see any bigger pushback than usual. I agree with the previous poster that the =multiple times= that classification errors were made yet each called perfect has made some people skittish.

    I do think morphology (i.e. shape and color), habitat and behavior should rule in Bird Guides. Genetic relationships are interesting, but mean nothing relating to identification or look up.

  11. Thanks for this response, Greg.

    I’m completely infatuated with the idea of a seriema-falcon-parrot-passerine clade. I imagine parrot ancestors gradually giving up their savage raptorial lifestyle for a fabulous, fashionable life among fruits and flowers – but never quite losing that “hungry” (as you put it) gleam about the face. The terror birds went the other direction, ballooning their raptorial tendencies into madness, but giving up their wings, while falcons claimed the skies. Many of the other birders I’ve talked to find this whole idea pretty fascinating too.

    But of course, we also let our imaginations run away with us when we were told (on the basis of both molecular work and morphological reassessment) that cathartid vultures were short-legged, short-billed storks. I remember thinking how cool that was, how much sense it made … until it wasn’t, and it didn’t.

    I think that this is one of the reasons for hesitation on the part of some — not a lack of imagination but a sense that imagination, fueled by fragments of information, can produce very powerful and convincing mistakes.

    In this case, though, it does look like the dominoes are starting to fall, and that’s pretty exciting. I’m eager to see corroborating molecular work, morphological reassessments (what are the synapomorphies — beyond hunger — of the clade?), and some biogeographical exposition (Gondwana, anyone?) emerge, but I think we’re going to start seeing changes based on what we already know, for, as you and Barker both point out, it’s less accurate to leave things as they are than to take a stab at redrawing the lines now.

    Somehow as all this happens, we’ve got to keep from further alienating people who don’t know birds well — the people who already can’t find coot in their field guide because it’s not with ducks — and yet give them the opportunity to have those WOW moments that you describe so, erm, eloquently at the end of the post.

  12. If birders took the idea of evolution serious, it would be the end of our hobby. Birding as it’s practiced today is utterly dependent on a species concept that has been outmoded since 1859; it’s not about the arrangement of field guides, it’s about whether the object of our hobby really exists at all.

  13. Rick what parts of the species concept are being misunderstood or misused by birders?

    I’ve gotta say, Greg, most birders I know, at least the halfway serious ones, pay WAY more attention to evolution than the general public.

    Since we are both speaking from experience, we are both unreliable sources. Personally, I have no idea. I do know that the word “evolution” does not appear in many places it should in the dozens of birder-oriented books on my shelf. This may be a matter of what publishers are concerned with more than the actual birders’ view.

  14. cathartid vultures were short-legged, short-billed storks. I remember thinking how cool that was, how much sense it made … until it wasn’t, and it didn’t.

    I had to throw out a whole lecture, dammit.

  15. The notion that there is such a thing as a species, understood as an identifiable fixity, is wrong. But without it, birders would have to be the most extreme of nominalists, unable to attach any label to an individual bird.

  16. David @ 11: oh, parrots are still pretty raptorial. You ain’t heard nothing until you’ve heard my significant other’s African Grey chew up a chicken drumstick!

  17. Rick, well, that’s sort of my point but at a somewhat different scale. There are still people with a pre-Darwinian view. (He wrote some powerful stuff about it too!)

  18. Pete: Yikes. And not to mention Keas, which rip apart hapless shearwater chicks, tear pieces off cars, and feast on carrion. They’re basal in the Psittaciformes, which makes the whole thing even more interesting. New Guinea’s highly derived Pygmy Lorikeets, on the other hand, are even less raptorial than similarly sized wood-warblers in North America.

  19. There you go, David.

    As to what I think of as the “Great Field Guide Controversy,” my own preference in an actual field guide–one that really is intended for use in the field, that is–is for one where the similar-looking birds are grouped together for ready reference, as opposed to one where similarly-appearing species might be widely separated because of their taxonomy. The reason for this is simple: the people who regularly use field guides in the field are typically comparatively new to birding, and are much more concerned about naming a species correctly in the first place than they are about the nuances of its taxonomic position.

    Roger Tory Peterson knew this very well, and his plate of the White-throated Swift and Violet-green Swallow is a prime example. These birds aren’t closely related, of course, but for a new birder who sees them only briefly and possibly imperfectly they can be confusing, and Peterson wanted a direct comparison to facilitate separation. Once a new birder gains some ID experience, and can relinquish the security blanket of constant reference to a field guide, there’ll be plenty of time to look into the birds’ actual taxonomy and evolution.

  20. You need 2 books: A compact, effective field guide for identification, and a more complete volume(s) for in-depth descriptions of relationships, behavior, and so on. Read the second book at leisure so that when you do go birding, you have the deeper understanding, but bring the field guide so so know you’re understanding the correct bird.

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