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.
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.