The Science behind Bird Names: Taxonomy & Nomenclature

If you as a birdwatcher flip through many of the excellent, indispensable- but older- field guides and compare bird species names with newer, Neotropical avifauna, inevitably you will stumble across several unfamiliar names! This is beacuse Taxonomy and Nomenclature. 

You must also consider that the sequence of orders and families – and within families, the genera – have changes, in some cases quite drastically. In comparing these references, you will see that many concepts have simply been given a new name.

To complicate matters, formerly single species are now believed to consist of two distinct species or vice versa (follow this link for an example).

Taxonomy, Nomenclature & the Species Concepts

Birdwatchers and species names: Confusion at all levels! However, this is not because there have been major problems since the first guides were printed, nor because the authors assigned bird names at random.

Authors from any time period face the same difficulties in choosing these names, but there is a science behind it. A Science that is in constant state of change known as Taxonomy & Nomenclature.

First of all, you need to know there is adifference between Taxonomy and Nomenclature. Taxonomy is an artificial agreement to classify biological diversity. On the othe hand, nomenclature is an artificial agreement to name biological diversity. 

The Swedish botanist Carl von Linné is considered the founder of the current system of classification of biological diversity (i.e. taxonomy), since he developed a classification system known as Linné’s taxonomy to categorize organisms, and the binomial nomenclature to name the organisms.

Carl von Linné

Systema Naturae by Carl von Linné
Systema Naturae by Carl von Linné

Let’s go back to mid-18th century when Swedish biologist Carl von Linné introduced the binary nomenclature system for taxa (life forms and organisms) to science.

His general belief was that all life forms on this planet were unchangeable and created by God. Linné was convinced that God’s presence materializes through natural diversity.

In order to prove God’s existence or at least get closer to him, Linné started to collect as many different life forms as he could gather and with these, he developed a classification system.

The Classification System

Linné standardized the description processes and categorized the life forms in hierarchical orders: family, genera, and species (taxonomy).

Additionally, he gave all species a Latin generic and species name and stored those specimens in large collections- which nowadays is undertaken by museums (nomenclature).

With this system, the basis for modern zoological and botanical taxonomy and nomenclature was created.

The nomenclatural system and process to describe new species remains very much the same as back in the days of early scientists!

Carl von Linné

The Origin of Species

In subsequent years, scientists & naturalist continued collecting, describing and discovering data that led them to begin doubting Linnés’ and others’ views regarding the origins of species.

This doubt peaked with Charles Darwin’s (and Alfred R. Wallace’s among others) discoveries and publication of the Evolutionary Theory in 1859.

The publication by Darwin bares the Victorian title: On the origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation, of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Many of the observations for these publications were made in the Neotropics!

Darwin’s work had tremendous impact on society far beyond natural history and science. Moreover, Darwin’s theory is still the backbone of modern evolutionary biology.

The Discovery of DNA

The discovery of DNA in mid-20th century  opened new possibilities to science, revealing some big surprises in taxonomy and systematics at all levels.

The fact that all modern genetic analyses and recent findings support Darwin’s theory is even more remarkable, as DNA and genetics were totally unknown to him!

DNA analyses are mostly used to define independent evolutionary lineages. 

For various reasons, birds remain the most studied animal organism, especially for evolutionary biology and taxonomy.

Bird Taxonomy

In bird taxonomy, there are two leading methodologies: the traditional Biological Species Concept (BSC) and the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC).

To make it easy to understand, I will give you a extremely simplified versions of the species concepts: biological and phylogenetic.

The Species Concept

Firstly, the Biological Species Concept considers groups of interbreeding populations that are reproductively isolated from other groups.

On the other hand, the Phylogenetic Species Concept considers species as diagnosable and divergent evolutionary lineages which share a parental pattern of ancestry and descent.

Scientists expect more changes in taxonomy and nomenclature because of the increasing knowledge given by different species concepts and DNA discoveries. 

Bird Nomenclature

At Sula we decided to follow nomenclature of the South American Classification Committee (SACC). This was a decision based on convenience! Most contemporary field guides about Neotropical avifauna are using this nomenclature.

The SACC is one of two Comities (the other is the North American Classification Committee, NACC) of the American Ornithologist Union (AOU), which deals with all taxonomic issues based on the Universal Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World.

This universal checklist follows regional authorities and is usually updated annually by the AOU in August, see here!

If you are starting or already keep a bird list, you might very well use other authorities than the above-mentioned, as for example:

  1. International Ornithological Committee (IOC) Bird checklist  or
  2. Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the birds of the World, 4th edition or
  3. HBW Alive/Birdlife International.

You can find a detailed comparison of all the major checklists on Avibase website.

Conclusion on Bird Names

  • With whatever book you consult or whatever list you follow, all species concepts and taxonomic traits are man-made constructs and decisions.
  • They differ in various degree in their primary goals, philosophy, and attempts to investigate complex and overlapping fields.
  • Scientists are constantly publishing new results in highly technical articles.
  • It is in the nature of the matter that there is going to be disagreement and inconsistency on this subject now and in the future.
  • Therefore, as this understandably causes some annoyance to the average birdwatchers and bird species names, it is at the same time nothing more than progress in Ornithology and Biology!
  • You just might be able to contribute to that by simply observing and enjoying birds.
  • Also by identifying them carefully & correctly, recording vocalizations, noting hybrids and variations in species/populations, mating pairs, and documenting extra limital records well! Is that not what birding is all about?

Aboout the authors

Jérôme Fischer

Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. Jérôme has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries,  starting in Switzerland. Then he traveled exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.

Note by the author: I would like to thank my friend, Dr. Manuel Schweizer, Curator of Ornithology at the Natural History Museum Bern in Switzerland for many long discussions about these topics, decades of birding (we’re getting old buddy…come visit), and giving some input for this  Blog-entry!

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.