“Keep your taxonomy out of my field guide” – revisited
Way back in the days when blog posts still got a lot of comments, I wrote a piece on why field guides that arrange species in a more or less strict taxonomic order regularly frustrate me. I gave a number of reasons in a great number of paragraphs and got an enormous amount of comments, many of which were highly critical of what I had said. The original post is here, and if you have some left-over time, spending it on going through the comments is time well spent. My reasons for not liking a strict taxonomic order were essentially twofold:
- Similar species are not grouped together making identification harder than it should be
- Taxonomy is constantly changing and so does the order of species in field guides
I was recently reminded of how heavy (in my mind and heart) that second reason weighs when I got a copy of “Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago” by J. A. Eaton, B. van Balen, N. W. Brickle & F. E. Rheindt (review here). Since 2012, I was fortunate to spend a considerable amount of time birding through southern Borneo almost each year, and this new book meant that I now have four field guides for Borneo at my service. This is very neat since birders not only don’t wear white, they also use different field guides. Here are the four field guides with a few short comments on their respective order of species:
- MacKinnon J. & K. Phillipps: A field guide to the birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali (1993): based on taxonomic order from 1975 with some changes on colour plates for practical reasons
- Myers, S.: Birds of Borneo (2009): based on taxonomic order from 2008, with some changes due to practical reasons, review here. Susan has a brand new edition of her field guide out (she managed to improve her first edition, which is saying something!) where she is also using a different taxonomic oder than in her first edition – see her comment below. However, I am using the different Borneo guides simply as an example of how publication date affects the order of species in field guides in general, and her 2009 field guide gave me a very fitting overall time line.
- Phillipps, Q. & K. Phillipps: Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan, Third Edition (2014): I couldn’t find anything in the introduction, but it appears to be generally a combination of traditional (1993) and newer (2009) taxonomy, review here
- Eaton, J. A., B. van Balen, N. W. Brickle & F. E. Rheindt: Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago (2016): based on current taxonomy (see above)
The new field guide had me going through a few of my mystery photographs and ID challenges again to see if I could find out more than I had been able to squeeze out of the three other books. And of course I did a whole lot of cross-referencing and going back and forth between the different books.
It was a nightmarish thing to do.
The order of species in each field guide was different to such an extend that my thumb started to hurt flipping through the pages. Eventually I gave up and decided that I had to re-visit my old post and publish something on the subject again. Since those comments from my original 2012 post are still ringing in my ear (“you simply should have prepared better”) , I decided to clearly illustrate my point in the following two figures. The figures show the order of bird families in the four field guides mentioned above. For easier reference, I have given the order of families in the oldest field guide (on the left) a spectral colour pattern and used the same colour for the respective families in the other guides. The first figure shows non-songbirds and the second one songbirds. Take your time – text continues below.
Order of bird families, non-songbirds
Order of bird families, songbirds
Do you see a problem? I see a problem. And so do you even if you might not be willing to admit it. Things aren’t too bad for the non-passerines, where a general pattern is still discernible. However, the songbirds are a veritable mess. Take the Alaudidae, the larks, as an example. The larks are represented by only two species taking up less than half a page in each field guide. You won’t find them by just flipping through your different field guides, you’ll have to consult the index. However, even if you have looked up where they are in one book, this is no indication as to where they are in the others. In the book from 1993 they are at the beginning of the songbirds, in 2009 three quarters towards the end, in 2014 almost on the last pages and in the most recent 2016 guide they are right in the middle. You need to refer to the index for all four books.
No amount of getting prepared prior to a trip will make birders know exactly where in their different field guides those species are. You definitely need to make heavy use of the index, and this is not something birders are very keen on doing out in the field while they are trying to sort out the identification of a tricky bird they had just seen. The only thing untouched in the songbird tree is the position of the pittas at the very start of the songbirds. I am quite sure though that this does not reflect taxonomic opinion. The pittas (Garnet Pitta seen above) are just such a sacred group of birds that even taxonomists dare not screw them over.
Look, I am definitely not part of the reason scientists were forced to march the streets recently. I love taxonomic research, speciation in birds was one of my primary subjects during my university days. But this is not about the value and meaning of taxonomy. This is about field identification tools. And I just want my field guide to allow me to identify birds, and do it fast and efficient. Using several field guides is quintessential, but using several books that were published in different years and thus have a vastly different order of species is the very definition of inconvenience and inefficiency. And what, please, do inconvenience and inefficiency have to do in a field guide?
I don’t know – maybe you can tell me?