How Birds Get Named
Birds & Blooms|October/November 2020
Meet the committee in charge of naming and organizing birds.
By Ken Keffer

Think about the last time you saw a northern oriole or rufous-sided towhee. Technically, nobody has seen either of these birds for 25 years. That’s because in 1995, these species were reclassified by a committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which has been the keeper of the Checklist of North and Middle American Birds since 1886. Now northern orioles are classified as Bullock’s in the West and Baltimore orioles in the East. Similarly, rufous-sided towhees were also split into two species: the spotted towhee in the West and the eastern towhee east of the Great Plains.

These changes aren’t simply taxonomic trickery. Instead, when making these decisions, the committee weighs evidence including plumage variations, differences in songs, DNA, and the amount of hybridization between closely related species.

While many birders celebrate the splits because they can add species to their life lists, the committee is more concerned with getting the science correct. According to birding expert Kenn Kaufman, “The committee doesn’t make changes without a specific reason.”

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