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David Sibley: How to make peace with changes to your checklist

Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel by David Sibley
A SPECIAL PLACE: Red-tailed Hawk (left, in the hawk family) and American Kestrel (right, falcon family) show fundamental differences in shape, behavior, voice, and more. Until recently, the two families appeared side by side in field guides. Art by David Allen Sibley.

Many birders are understandably frustrated by changes in birds’ names, and in the sequence of species on checklists. It can be hard to keep up, but each revision generally highlights a significant advance in our understanding of birds and is worth some reflection.

It is important to point out that the changes are the judgments of expert ornithologists who base their decisions on published research. There is no “last word,” and modifications will continue. Any apparent inconsistencies or occasional reversals reflect the difficult and subjective nature of the decisions.

The changes that make the most news in birding circles involve either splitting or lumping species. Changes in the higher-level classifications, the genera and families to which species are assigned, usually get less attention, and any attention they do get is negative because they often involve confusing reshufflings of species, but these revisions are among the most interesting.

If you started birding in the 1970s, as I did, you learned that vireos and warblers were side by side in field guides. That was the sequence of families, and the proximity influenced how I thought about them. While kinglets, wrens, flycatchers, and other small thin-billed songbirds were clearly distinct from wood-warblers, the vireos occupied a special place close to warblers.

It took years, and a bit of unlearning, for me to understand how distinctive vireos are. When the vireo family was moved to a position in the list next to shrikes and jays, the fundamental differences between vireos and warblers seemed to come into focus. Just as important, the similarities between vireos, shrikes, and jays were highlighted.

Recent changes, such as the separation of falcons from hawks, or longspurs from sparrows, can be unsettling, but the new arrangement is a clearer expression of true relationships. Thinking about the changes with an open mind will reveal differences and similarities that you might not have considered before. You will begin to think about hawks and falcons as the separate and distinctive lineages that they are.


This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of BirdWatching.


See photos of Red-tailed Hawk

See photos of American Kestrel

Latest supplement splits Western Scrub-Jay into two species

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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