A Name by any other name
Sometime in 1957, the Fifth Edition of the American Ornithologists’ Check-list of North American Birds made it to the west coast and into the hands of Tom McCamant. When on field trips with Tom and Jimmy Hicks (I generally dropped the General epithet), I overheard grumbling concerning changes of English names of birds. Jimmy, with bluster, said how ridiculous it was to change Spotted Towhee to Rufous-sided Towhee and Green-backed Goldfinch to Lesser Goldfinch. Today, in the Twenty-first Century, I occasionally hear similar complaints when English names are changed. You can please some of the birders all the time, and a few, well, almost never.
As the new person on the block, the new Rogue Birder, that my use of a name not sanctioned by the AOU would certainly mean going rogue. Going against the wisdom of bird names chosen by the AOU would not get me any votes. It seemed important that we all speak the same language, even if a name challenged logic. Besides, I wanted know what English names had changed since the printing of my coveted Peterson that used names in the earlier, Fourth Edition of the AOU Check-list. That edition was published in 1931, years before I was a was. The names in the new edition are what we all should be using to help avoid creating the birds of babble. Going through all the pages of Tom’s new AOU checklist was daunting, but I gratefully compared the big blue book, the fifth edition, to my Peterson and wrote in the new names in my field guide. Even though I updated the English name, I was not terribly unlike other birders since I inadvertently continued to confuse towhees and other birds by occasionally using the wrong name. Luckily, I had not been around the old names so much and it was relatively easy to notice the new lingo. If only I could say that now, when sparrows loose their sharp-tailed names, Sparrow Hawks are Kestrels and three-toed woodpeckers confuse the English vernacular.
Turkey Vulture or Turkey Buzzard?
As well as emending the names in my Peterson, I reread each species account in the field guide and highlighted the English name with a red pencil for species that might occur in Oregon. I further customized my trusty tome by using a blue pencil to highlight the scientific name if the species breeds in Oregon. In the early editions, Peterson also provided information on subspecies and I highlighted the subspecific names accordingly. I loved that Peterson. I gently varnished the cover to help keep it clean and to help repel Oregon’s frequent drizzles. Decades later, the same volume, my original bible, sits on a bookshelf.
Eventually, I acquired my very own AOU Check-list. It was an eye-opener, but despite Peterson’s early listings of subspecies and the big blue AOU giving such details, I still did not grasp the concept of trinomials, the third name trailing the binomial, the name of a species. What should one expect of a person just reaching into teenage life when self-identification is still an issue? I now realize that many people do not understand the concept of subspecies and others do not grasp the fundamentals of the species concept. Of course, that is something that has changed over time.
Subspecies are units of a species. Subspecies may interbreed, but species usually do not. Basically, subspecies are geographic populations that in some way are different from different geographic populations of the same species. Subspecies differ from each other usually morphologically, such as color, pattern and size. These differences or characters may overlap to varying degrees with other subspecies of the same species. On the other hand, some subspecies are so distinct that they are identifiable in the field. For example, subspecies of Orange-crowned Warbler are often identifiable as birds in the bush. There are many such examples including northern and southern Western Gull, Northern Flicker, Bewick’s Wren and Fox Sparrow. What? Once an example of the dark mantled Western Gull wymani visited Jackson County. The flickers, in the big blue AOU, are listed as two species, but now, several woodpecker generations later, are one species. The wrens present some interesting problems. East of the Rogue watershed, in the Klamath Basin, Bewick’s Wrens are grayish-brown backed, but those in western Oregon are dorsally rich brown. It appears the grayish and the brownish backed birds interbreed in the Rogue watershed, making them well-behaved subspecies. Presently, all of the several subspecies of Fox Sparrow, with many easily identified in the field, remain, as they are in the big blue book, subspecies. Many people believe some of these subspecies represent distinct species, but the jury is still out on the great Fox Sparrow spar.
Most other subspecies differ more subtly, and are usually identifiable only in the hand. Historically, differences between geographic populations might be easily discernable from one another, but many are not so easy to identify, even by experts. In the late 60’s, I became interested in the subspecific variation in Red-footed Booby, a species not found in the Rogue watershed, yet. During that time, I found myself at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and eye to eye with Dean Amadon. Although we discussed many topics, we did not talk about his important 75% rule for identifying subspecies that he set to paper in 1949. Many taxonomists proposing new subspecies have followed the conservative 75% rule. Simply put, 75% of a population (or 75% of specimens representing that population) have to be separable from 99% of members of an overlapping population. A member of the AOU check-list committee predicted that more that 75% of subspecies diagnosed solely based on measurements would not stand the use of the test of the 75% rule. Some advocate using a higher standard, such as 95% separation suggested around the turn of this century. Many subspecies of birds rest solely on plumage coloration and or pattern. Color can be measurable using a color spectrophotometer. That gets tricky when characterizing patterns such as spots, bars, variegations, and anything else nature throws into the mix. Often, a well-trained eye is the best tool in discriminating color, but such an analysis is, by definition, subjective. However, objectively obtained numbers from a spectrophotometer are frequently “subjectively” part of taxonomic conclusions. Where to draw the line can be problematic. My fifth grade teacher might have told me numbers do not lie, or do they? Numbers can be generated and statistics crunched. It gets complicated. That is one reason the term usually is such a good one. There is yin and yang here and there is plenty of ground wood pulp devoted to the utility of subspecies.
In addition, speaking of Fox Sparrows, defining species is not clear-cut either. First, there are different kinds of species. There are biological species. That concept, the one used when I was a young Rogue Birder, simply put, are birds that look or sound alike are conspecifics and those that don‘t are separate species. That is, as I warned, the simple answer, and a better explanation is out there, somewhere. Although my spell checker abhors the word conspecific, the word is in a few dictionaries and means to belong to the same species. Again, species do not usually interbreed, but that depends on the species. Drake Mallards will breed with anything that moves. Be careful out there. There are also phylogenetic species. For example, phylogenetic species A is genetically distinct from phylogenetic species B. The AOU likes to recognize species with considerations of both biology and genetics.
Wait. Wait. Determining birds using genetics was science fiction back in the day, the day of any wet behind the ears Danny McSkunk, including me, the Rogue Birder wanna-be. Watson and Crick had already announced their discovery, but the utility of those findings concerning birds would be years in the making. At the edge of my realization that birds were the cat‘s meow, in 1957, I’m content just to see birds. Seeing relationships among and between species was not in my vision. Understanding anything about the genesis of birds was beyond my scope. All I knew was any checklist worth its salt began the list with loons and ended with sparrows and finches. Even though I am checking off species and subspecies, I do so matter of factually. I am not into growing my life list. If something new comes along, great, but I do not yet have the fever to hunt for new species. After all, everything is new.
The early years were time to learn. It is always time to learn. In 1957, almost every place presented new habitats and new birds. Most of Barnett Road traveled through a rural landscape. My parent’s house, perhaps one of the first along the road, was just the beginning of change. It was luck to witness Western Kingbirds nesting on atop a transformer on a pole within earshot of their bickering calls. They owned the pole, the power lines and a considerable airspace above. My first Say’s Phoebe sat on a roof of a house across from our driveway. Few trees grew in my immediate neighborhood, but occasionally a warbler might light on the spindly maple trying to grow in the back yard. In spring, I was able to get close enough to one or two of the many sparrows that seemed to be traveling through. These were my first Savannah Sparrows.
By mid-summer, Barneburg Hill behind my parents Barnett Road house beckoned. It stood like a bump, 300 feet above Bear Creek. It is a remnant of sandstone forming an island of oak groves and open grassy areas. I reasoned Great Horned Owls might be there among the rocks on the west side. Despite walking all over the slopes of the hill, I never found any owls or much to write home about. I did see nighthawks, as I usually did every day from my back yard in the summer. Now, almost 60 years later, Common Nighthawks are not always that easy to find.
Now, topping the hill, the bump behind the house, are buildings housing the elderly in above average retirement apartments of the multi-story high-rises. Houses cover the remaining upper slopes. Further down, the pre-retired live-in houses on the sides of Barneburg Hill, completing the hierarchy from good health to maybe not so wonderful. Failing health seems to mean going from low to high, from the houses on the slope of the hill to the full service structures at the summit. It seems almost symbolic. Now known as Manor Hill after the name of the retirement home complex, the hill, my beloved South Creek, with another retirement place taking on the name of Larson Creek, the field where I fed Ring-necked Pheasants and the house I once lived are gone. The site of the colony of Burrowing Owls is sealed by streets and houses. Anything natural is, naturally, paved over, dug up, water redirected, covered by wasteful lawns producing the usual shellacking of once bird worth real estate.
Exposure to Rogue birds also exposed me to a few unfriendly environmental factors. Fields of foxtails in late summer and fall found their way through my jeans, the vicious seeds matting exposed socks, even poking into lace holes of boots and shoes, were like wild aliens trying to get inside your body. During the rainy season, from fall to spring, mud reared its ugly head. Certain places in the valley, especially as it seemed to work out, places I birded, are covered with a rich black earth that is beyond sticky when wet. Layer upon layer, sometimes mixed with foxtail stems in a kind of wet adobe, made difficult walking. It was like being on Jupiter as I worked to overcome gravity. There was one positive aspect of the black mud; it put me at least a couple of inches higher. Perhaps I saw more birds with muddy boots. In addition to seasonal mud and foxtails, poison oak was a scourge year round. Poison oak grows almost anywhere in the foothills of Rogue Country. In many places it towers over children and grown men. It was impossible to avoid and impossible to not scratch.
The remainder of my first summer as a Rogue Birder was filled with weekly trips to either South or North Creek and sometimes Bear Creek about a mile west of home. Each trip would reveal 20 to 25 species, which is not bad without binoculars. Years later, I learned that South Creek is properly called Larson Creek and North Creek is really Lazy Creek, Both creeks flow into Bear Creek, a subspecies of the Rogue River.
This region was essentially my birding world, but a foray to strange lands, without the help of my mentor, Tom McCamant was possible by bike. A favorite and really long bike trip to see birds was to a place known as Hoover’s Lakes; a series of shallow ponds east of what was called Camp White. Incidentally, Camp White, named for a WWII general, changed its name to something equally, well, white, to White City in 1960. Meanwhile, back to the adventure. I had heard Hoover’s Lakes was great for shorebirds. That trip was 9 November 1957, a date allowing careful avoidance from probable identification hurdles offered by pesky peeps. I manipulated a friend, Ralph Gysin (he lives up Larson Creek), to travel the seven or so miles to the lakes where I saw a whopping 35 species. All of the birds were species relatively easy to identify without binoculars. Today, I’m lucky to see 35 species at Hoover‘s Lakes and that is with binoculars and a scope. Years after departing eastward, the habitat of Hoover’s Lakes were transformed to put it nicely. Keep in mind that I am getting ahead of myself and will revisit those waters.
In the spring of 1958, I acquired my first binoculars. Rogue birding became an even more gratifying experience. Now I could be sure the warbler was a Myrtle or Audubon’s Warbler, even the females were possible to identify. I could not believe it. On 26 April 1958, I went to North Creek, really Lazy Creek, to check on the Burrowing Owls. I counted only three, but my grand excitement was McGillivray’s Warbler and Pileolated Warbler, oops, I mean Wilson’s Warbler. By the end of the year, I had racked up all the usual warbler suspects. I still had sandpipers and more to learn, but the binoculars would help, and so would the 1957 under the Christmas tree three-speed Raleigh bike. Decades later, that surprise brings warmth. The bike helped me to swell my 1957-year list of 114 to a total of 133 in 1958. Progress sometimes begins slowly.
Actually, seeing fewer than 150 species of Rogue birds is nothing to crow about; it is almost shameful. Witnessing less than 150 in a year almost anywhere in the lower 48 is dishonorable. My folks drove to Brookings on the Oregon coast in September 1957. That was pre-binoc time, but I did see phalaropes of some species and a couple of gulls most likely misidentified. Perhaps my list would have more respectable had I not tried swimming in the ocean. Identifying coastal birds does not mix well with sand in your shorts.
In 1958, I went on a southern Cascade Mountain trip with Tom and days later biked up into the Siskiyou Mountains. Actually, I carried the bike toward Anderson Butte. I never made it to the fire lookout, almost stepped on a rattlesnake and did not get home until after dark. During the early 1970’s, I drove to the summit of Anderson Butte. It was too late; the fire lookout I could not get to in 1958 was gone. The lookout, built in 1935, was gone thirty years later. Other lookouts such as the one on Chimney Rock, were it not for the terrible road, would have had its surrounding birds counted one Christmas count. About 40 other lookouts have been decommissioned, wiped from their commanding perches, replaced by air patrols. I wonder how many fires have been missed by lack of lookouts. I also wonder how many rosy-finches the lookout on Mt. McLoughlin came in view? What kinds of owls were below the lookout on Huckleberry Mountain? I wish I’d made it to the Mt. Anderson lookout in the late 50‘s. I might have asked about Wrentits; they are heard frequently on the slopes today. Were they when the lookout was watching?
My arrival home from that 1958 birding trip toward the summit of
Anderson Butte was late and on my daily trips, I still sometimes do not make it home until after dark.