Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Part Two

In Part One we discussed how bird field guides traditionally have been arranged in taxonomic order--birds are ordered by presumed relationships, even if they don't necessarily look much alike. This order changes as scientists discover new relationships. Thus, the order birds appear in bird books constantly changes.

Veteran bird watchers memorize the taxonomic ordering of birds and keep up with the annual changes. But for beginners this just doesn't make sense.

In the "How to Identify Birds" section of his 1980 A Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson identified "Eight main visual categories" to separate birds. These categories were:
Long-legged waders
Smaller waders
Birds of prey
Non-passerine land birds
Passerine (perching) birds

An article in Birding magazine in November 2009 basically repeated Peterson's list as a proposed "field-friendly sequence" (The Purpose of Field Guides: Taxonomy vs. Utility? Birding 41(6):44-49, November 2009 by Steve N.G. Howell, Michael O'Brien, Brian L. Sullivan, Christopher L. Wood, Ian Lewington, and Richard Crossley). Richard Crossley used this sequence in his 2011 bird book, The Crossley ID Guide.

The shortfall of the sequence above is that half the birds in the world are Passerines. The proposed sequence does a decent job of categorizing half the birds--the non-Passerines--but doesn't really help with our familiar backyard birds.

Two other bird books took up the challenge of categorizing the Passerines. The 1997 book by Jack L. Griggs, All the Birds of North America, divided up the Passerines based on bill size and shape. It was an interesting concept, but a little complicated. Kenn Kaufman's 2000 Birds of North America did a better job, I think.

Kaufman had the basic categories of Peterson: Aerial waterbirds, Swimming waterbirds, Waders, Fowl, and Raptors. Then he used the following sequence:
Medium-sized Land Birds
Hummingbirds, Swifts, and Swallows
Typical Songbirds
Tanagers and Blackbirds
Finches and Buntings

Of course, there are always some birds that don't seem to fit neatly. I thought Kaufman's "Typical Songbirds" category included too many different-appearing birds. I also felt that most beginners (those for whom this sequence would be most beneficial) could not tell many streaky female finches and buntings from streaked sparrows.

So I propose the following sequence of categories of North American birds:
Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

A beginner should be able to quickly place a bird they see into one of these categories, and more quickly identify an unknown bird.

Future posts will discuss each category individually.