The name of this humble website is based on a round number, a very round one indeed considering the shape of all those zeroes.  10,000 is the approximate number of bird species in the world but certainly not the actual number. If I understand correctly, the known number of avian species lies somewhere south of 10,000, yet scientists believe that when all is said and done, once the lumping, splitting, and searching is complete, we may have named 12,000, 13,000, or even more. Of course this calculus does not consider how many species are teetering on the brink of extinction or how global warming promises to make survival difficult for ecological specialists of any and every stripe.

10,000 is ultimately a useful estimate that ignores the ebb and flow of conditions on the ground. The truth is that, as far as the actual number of bird species living in our wide world right now, sometimes we have bad days when we lose a bird forever and sometimes we have good days where we discover a long-lost friend or a brand-new one. With the recent discovery of a whole bushel of species in a remote part of Papua New Guinea in eastern Indonesia, we’ve just enjoyed an extremely good day.

“It’s as close to the Garden of Eden as you’re going to find on Earth,” marveled Bruce Beehler, vice president of CI’s Melanesia Center for Biodiversity Conservation and a co-leader of the expedition.

The intrepid scientists found all kinds of wondrous critters from rare tree kangaroos to lace-eyed frogs on the upper slopes of the Foja Mountains. The bounty of birds was especially exciting:

The scientists discovered a new species – the red faced, wattled honeyeater – and found the breeding grounds of two birds of almost mythical status – the golden- fronted bowerbird and Berlepsch’s six-wired bird of paradise, long believed to have disappeared as a separate species. The expedition also came across exotic giant-crowned pigeons and giant cassowaries – a huge flightless bird – which are among more than 225 species which breed in the area, including 13 species of birds of paradise. One scientist said that the dawn chorus was the most fantastic he had ever heard.

The delight we all share in the discovery of new species makes me think about how closely birding is tied to evolutionary theory. Whether we realize it or not, those of us who track changes in avian taxonomy for year to year, who care about splits in scrub-jays or Empidonax flycatchers, are end-users of the very biological processes that inspire so much controversy and confusion.

Speciation is an evolutionary process.  The biologist David Haig explains, “Speciation comes about when there is recombination and isolation between different groups of genes, so that no longer can genes in one group be recombined with genes in another group.” What this means is that one species, for example a Stripe-headed Tanager, exists at a point in time as a distinct set of interbreeding organisms. Every member of this gene pool is recognized as a stripe-headed tanager. These tanagers breed only with each other, eschewing the company of parrots, warblers, and even other groups of tanagers, some of which are really, really beautiful. (Let’s not get into hybridization, which only complicates the point!)

Now, imagine that some genetic variant, say a longer beak, spreads through part of the pool as a result of factors like natural selection and that birds possessing this variant mate only with other birds with the variant. This can happen for a number of reasons. In the case of our tanager, groups of birds found themselves separated over time on different Caribbean islands. Distinct species evolved out of these geographically isolated populations. Through the process of allopatric speciation, one stripe-headed tanager became four different species: Western Spindalis, Puerto Rican Spindalis, Jamaican Spindalis, and Hispaniolan Spindalis.  Now that they’re different species, it is assumed that, even if, say, the Puerto-rican and Jamiacan spindalis came together, they wouldn’t interbreed.  (If the likelihood was that if these distinct populations ever occupied the same territory again and would interbreed, resulting down the road in a single homogeneous population, they would only be considered subspecies, not species.)

New species may also develop in the same geographic area at points where ecosystems diverge or possibly even in the same ecosystems.  Distinct gene pools form and one species becomes two, three, or many, many more.  Where once we recognized the Solitary Vireo, we now acknowledge Blue-headed, Plumbeous, and Cassin’s Vireos. Good news for champions of biodiversity as well as those of us eager to inflate our life lists.

There is obviously a whole lot more to the story of speciation, though even the brief overview above might be more scientific than many nature lovers would like. But the basic premise is worth understanding. Birders are consumers of the fruits of evolution, celebrants of the processes of natural selection and genetic drift.  The mechanics of how and why thirteen species of birds-of-paradise evolved in a remote section of New Guinea might not matter to a birder; the fact that those species are out there to be seen and savored most certainly does. Keep those new birds coming!

February 12 is Darwin Day, the birthday of the brilliant author of On The Origin of Species, as well as the anniversary of that eminent tome’s publication.  A fitting way for anyone to celebrate the contributions of Charles Darwin would be to go out and count a bunch of bird (tree, fish, etc.) species. Judgments of fitness are not necessary!  

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.