At the onset of this post, let me firmly state that I love taxonomy. I even attended taxonomy classes at university. Biogeography, speciation, splitting, lumping, all that jazz really sets my boat afloat (well, the lumping not so much). I also love bird identification. And I believe there’s a place for taxonomy, and there’s a place for bird identification. And since April this year, I strongly believe that these places should be mutually exclusive:
- The place for taxonomy is a magazine and an armchair.
- The place for bird identification is a field guide and a field.
But … let me quickly take a deep breath here …
THERE IS NO ROOM FOR TAXONOMY IN A FIELD GUIDE! NONE WHATSOEVER!
Let me explain.
I’ve been birding for 30 years now, and for the last 20 year, I’ve mostly birded in the same geographic regions. This means I know my birds quite well. I also know the field guides I use very well, and I know where to find which bird species in the book. More importantly, I know which groups/families occur in these regions, which ones resemble each other, and where to find them in my books even in cases where similar groups are found in different segments of my field guide because they are not closely related to each other. You see, the species in my field guides, as in the vast majority of field guides everywhere, are in taxonomic order.
I never gave this last aspect much thought, and I never felt it had any impact whatsoever on my ability to identify birds. Then came April, and with it my first ever trip to South-East Asia.
The fact that this was my first visit to this very diverse and exciting region meant that I basically knew nothing about its birds, which – I felt – turned me into a complete novice to birds and birding:
I did not know a single species during the first few days and had to look up every single bird I saw in my field guides. I knew nothing about their vocalizations. I knew nothing about the vast majority of bird families occurring in the region. Heck, I didn’t know that these bird families even existed in the first place, as they have no representative in my neck of the globe. I had no idea about the taxonomic order of families occurring in South-East Asia. I was completely reliant on my field guides, they were the masters and I was their hostage and slave.
All I knew was how to walk around, find birds and get them into my binocular view. The rest, I felt and hoped, was the job of my field guide: allow me to make a definite identification of what I was seeing out in the field as quickly as possible and with the least mistakes possible. This, I thought, was the process field guides were designed for, their raison d’etre: to allow the identification of birds one sees outside in the field.
Oh boy, was I mistaken. And boy, did I make mistakes.
Is this a Greater Green Leafbird in leaves or is this a leaf in Greater Green Leafbirds? You see, that’s what you need field guides for. It does not matter much in such a situation whether the Leafbird is more closely related to a Flowerpecker than the leaves are to a Leafbird.
Working with field guides and without background knowledge was a horrible experience. I suffered, I lost birding time, and I made the most stupid mistakes imaginable. Not the kind of mistakes one makes when trying to differentiate between Willow and Alder Flycatcher or Acrocephalus-warblers purely on the basis of visual field marks. No, we are talking about truly embarrassing stuff.
And I soon found out that the main source of these mistakes was … well, my inexperience in that particular region, of course, but beyond that … the taxonomic order of species within my field guides! Yes, not the content of the guides themselves, simply the order in which the species are arranged within the book made my life so much harder there than it could have been.
Why? Well, for the following reasons:
- Similar bird species are scattered throughout the book and not next to each other
If you see an unknown bird in the field, you will quickly flip through your guide until you find a bird that is a reasonable fit. Once you have found such a “reasonable fit”, you will likely not flip through the entire remainder of your field guide to make sure there isn’t a similar species in an entirely unrelated group. No, you’re out in the field where time spent not looking at the field but at a book will mean potential lifers could sneak by you undetected! If much later you realize that there are other similar species, just not on the same page but somewhere else in your field guide, it is likely much too late to get back onto the bird and verify which one it really was you were seeing. This was probably the most severe and most common mistake.
- You will miss species because you don’t know they even exist and are similar to others you are seeing often
Okay, the point above sounds a bit abstract but actually happened to me. I was seeing all sorts of small to very small songbirds with yellow bellies and a greenish back in the dense foliage of Indonesia’s trees. It was difficult to get good looks at them and they therefore consumed a good portion of my birding time. Soon I learned that all the birds I was seeing were either some female-type Sunbirds or a species called Common Iora. After a while I had seen all the female-type sunbird species there were in the area and plenty of Ioras and stopped looking at small yellow birds in dense foliage. There just didn’t seem to be a potential for additional lifers anymore. Until I accidentally stumbled upon the Golden-bellied Gerygone one evening while browsing through my field guide. I was shocked! “In failure lies opportunity”, and luckily I noticed this while still being in Indonesia. In the next couple of days, I specifically searched for this species and lo and behold: It turned out I had been seeing and (mostly) hearing the Gerygone for more than 10 days already, and commonly so, but never noticed it as I thought all birds of this general kind were either female sunbirds or Ioras.
This is not a Common Iora. This is not an Olive-backed, or Plain, or Plain-throated, or Purpel-throated Sunbird. This is Gerygone, Golden-bellied Gerygone !
- There is no visual structure behind the order of bird families as you can’t compare genetic codes in the field
Let’s say you’ve gotten to the point where you know an unidentified species you are looking at is from a certain group – say – a tailorbird. The bird is moving fast in dense vegetation and you know there are several species of tailorbird in your area, but you just don’t know on which features to focus. No problem, you think, as you just have to open the page with tailorbirds in your guide and have a quick glance at the plate, then get another quick view of the bird to verify the crucial field marks. But where within your field guide are the tailorbirds? You open it anywhere and find that you are at the Munias. Now, do you flip forward from here or backward? You jump backwards and land at the larks. Same question: where do you go from here? Eventually you consult the index, go to the relevant page, check the plate and … the bird is gone. Ciao, lifer! This situation is plain torture - hear me? – torture when you have walked through a silent forest for an hour with scarcely a bird and suddenly find yourself within a big, moving mixed-species flock of 10+ species, half of which you’ve never seen before. Time is of the essence, and the taxonomic order in field guides is the worst time-suck after Facebook.
- Taxonomic order is a-changin’
Even if you’ve learned the general order of families in your field guide by heart, you’re not safe. Taxonomy is changing fast, and no matter where you bird, you’ll want to use at least two field guides. Well, good luck because the books were likely published in different years when a different taxonomic order was considered the norm, and thus the order of families will vary considerably between the different books. So it is not enough to memorize the general taxonomic order of things, you have to memorize it for every single book you are using!
- Bird genera and common names are a-changin’
Due to the frequent changes in bird taxonomy and the ever-changing and differing common (English) names of species, birds may vanish if you are using different references, like two or three different guides or online resources like xeno-canto. An example: you are seeing a nice blue bird on Java and easily identify it as a Sunda Blue Robin Cinclidium diana with you field guide. Now you want to know its song and go to xeno-canto. Typing in “Sunda Blue Robin” will get you no results. Then you try the genus Cinclidium and get … no results. Then you start browsing and surfing and squeezing the web until you find out that the Sunda Blue Robin of your field guide is also known by the common name “Sunda Robin” (without the “blue”), and that it was recently moved to another genus, Myiomela. Again, this means you are losing time when you try to cross-reference an identification. At home this isn’t much of a problem. But if this time-loss happens in the field because you can’t find one species you’ve identified with field guide A in field guide B even by using B’s index, let alone by flipping through the pages because the families are in a completely different order, you’re … you know … not as happy a birder as you’d like to be in Indonesia.
Scarlet-headed Flowerpeckers offer much-needed eye candy when you are mostly busy sorting out the Ioras from the Gerygones or the Leafbirds from the leaves.
These are just a few of the reasons why I think sorting bird species according to their genetic relationship in a field guide (essentially a tool for identifying birds in the field) is so fundamentally flawed that it hurts. Not only does it hurt the brain’s common-sense areas, it also hurts the birding by making it much harder than it ought to be.
I am fully aware that others may have an entirely different opinion, and I’d love to hear and hotly debate it in the comments section.
Fire away merrily.