Everyone, the Painted Bunting needs your help. There’s a new proposal before the American Ornithologists’ Union’s North American Classification Committee to split Painted Bunting into two species (yay! — maybe, more later) and to name the new species “Eastern Painted Bunting” and “Western Painted Bunting” (no!). And given the AOU’s hyphenation policy, it’s not hard to imagine that “Eastern Painted-Bunting” and “Western Painted-Bunting” might also be considered. Did you just choke on your coffee? Good, because I think the situation is obscene. (Photo: Andy Morffew)

So clutch your pearls if you must, academics, because somebody’s got to wave a flag for wonder and decency in the world, and today that fool’s going to be me.

First, a little background.

Four Passerina buntings

(l-r) Orange-breasted Bunting (Passerina leclancherii), Rose-bellied Bunting (P. rositae), Varied Bunting (P. versicolor), Painted Bunting (P. ciris)

The Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris, belongs to a genus of beautiful blue cardinals that also includes the Blue Grosbeak and the Indigo Bunting. But the Painted Bunting and its three closest relatives within Passerina (pictured above) also mix and match red, orange, and yellow pigments with their blue structural colors to spectacular effect.

Here’s what we knew about the Painted Bunting up until about 2010:

1. There are two Painted Bunting populations, one that breeds along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida and one that breeds in the interior United States and northern Mexico from southeastern New Mexico to western Mississippi. For reasons no one fully understands, much of Mississippi, Alabama, and inland Georgia lack Painted Buntings during the breeding season, a gap of several hundred miles. You can see the two disjunct populations mapped in this animated occurrence model from eBird.

2. The Atlantic Coast population lingers on the breeding grounds after nesting to molt. The interior population migrates after nesting to stopover areas in Mexico and Arizona, molts, and then continues on to its wintering grounds. Eastern birds are thought to winter in Florida and the Caribbean; western birds, in Mexico and Central America, but winter distributions are not yet fully understood.

These two points are discussed thoroughly in Tom Schulenberg’s 2009 account for Neotropical Birds Online: Painted Bunting: Distribution.

So, what have we learned since 2010, and why is a Painted Bunting split up for discussion now?

Female Painted Bunting cc-by-nd Andy Morffew

Photo by Andy Morffew

In 2011, Connie Herr completed a dissertation and a peer-reviewed paper on the first genetic study of Painted Bunting diversity across its range, using mitochondrial DNA. Genetic divergence between the eastern (coastal) and western populations had been hypothesized but not tested until her study. Sure enough, the study found that “significant genetic structuring is apparent between the allopatric Atlantic Coast and interior breeding populations of the Painted Bunting” and that “Painted Buntings are genetically partitioned into interior and coastal populations.”

Herr describes the two populations as “incipient species” that “should be recognized as separate management units” from a conservation perspective.

With genetic data now in hand, Robert C. Tweit formally proposed that the AOU split the Painted Bunting into two species.

We’ll know next July whether the AOU thinks there’s sufficient justification to accept the split. It’s certainly an interesting situation — most recent passerine splits have had to try to argue that hybrid zones aren’t necessarily an indicator of widespread gene flow; in this case, there’s a geographic gap hundreds of miles wide between the populations.

And now I climb up on my soapbox: What if we didn’t call the new species Eastern and Western anything (hyphenated or otherwise) if the split passes? What if we chose new English names for both species, names that capture the wonder and appreciation that these birds inspire in us humans? Why should the birds be saddled with horrendously boring adjectives like “eastern” or sullied by humorless battles over hyphenation?

Stability, stability! I hear the cries. “Proposals to modify English names are nearly always contentious and involve weighing competing factors to determine whether the changes proposed improve accuracy and clarity sufficiently to outweigh the cost of the instability they would cause,” says the AOU. Using “Eastern Painted(-)Bunting” and “Western Painted(-)Bunting” would serve to maintain a connection to the last 150 years or so of ornithological and popular literature, but wouldn’t it also barricade one (or rather, two) of our most charismatic and awe-inspiring songbirds behind the bars of pedantry and elitism? How do we capture the joy, the excitement, even the devotion and sense of identity that are needed to inspire conservation? By using names that match our feelings, that’s how.

Here are some ideas:

  • Rainbow Bunting
  • Magnificent Bunting
  • Many-colored Bunting
  • Jewel-like Bunting
  • Scrub-gem Bunting
  • Brilliant Bunting
  • Bling Bunting
  • Resplendent Bunting
  • Tye-dye Bunting
  • Legendary Bunting
  • Marvelous Bunting
  • Fly Bunting
  • Gorgeous Bunting

Go ahead, tell me all the reasons this is silly — or better yet, dream up some names of your own and submit a formal proposal to the AOU. Keep wonder alive!

Written by David
David J. Ringer is exploring the world one bird at a time. His fascination with birds and nature began at the age of four or five, and he now works full time in conservation. He is a writer and communicator whose day jobs have taken him to six continents and more than 25 countries, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Kenya, and Cameroon. Follow him on Twitter at @RealDJRinger.