In a shocking development, some European birders have finally admitted what some clued-in American birders have suspected for quite some time; the Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla does not actually exist. Apparently, the entire idea of the heretofore presumed (by Americans) extant species was developed during a drunken weekend sometime late in the 19th century,* when ornithologists from across Europe convened and only managed to agree that American ornithologists were conceited blowhards who couldn’t tell a primary feather from an undertail covert. An idea to expose the ignorance of one particular American ornithologist by showing him a nonexistant species got way out of hand when he excitedly published a paper comparing Short-toed Treecreepers with ordinary (Eurasian) Treecreepers Certhia familiaris, and the joke has been on ever since.
The conspiracy was given a great boost by the infamous Richard Meinertzhagen, no stranger to altering specimen labels, who actually physically altered museum specimens all over Europe to give the appearance of two different species. It will take years to figure out exactly what what damage he did to what specimens now that the secret is out. But it shows just how low the conspirators were willing to sink when one realizes that they included Meinertzhagen in their diabolical scheme.
If you are an American birder and you have birded in Europe you have undoubtedly studied the book sold in the United States as Birds of Europe but sold on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean as The Collins Guide. In this fine field guide’s first edition there was a monumental slip-up that provided the first clue to this intercontinental, multi-decade conspiracy. You see, the treecreepers are side-by-side on one plate in the book, as are their range maps. But the range map of the Short-toed Treecreeper is blank! Apparently there was no data about where Short-toed Treecreepers occur because they don’t exist! Of course, in the more recent second edition the treecreeper conspiracy invented a map, but the man behind the curtain was already shown to not be wearing the emperor’s clothes. Or something.
To just how absurd a level has the Short-toed Treecreeper conspiracy been taken? Well, check out the identification information from the bird’s Wikipedia entry:
This species shares much of its range with the Common Treecreeper. Compared to Short-toed, that bird is whiter below, warmer and more spotted above, and has a whiter supercilium and slightly shorter bill. However, identification by sight may be impossible for poorly-marked birds. Vocal birds are usually identifiable, since Common has a distinctive song composed of twitters, ripples and a final whistle and a shree’ call rarely given by Short-toed; however, both species have been known to sing the other’s song. Even in the hand, although Short-toed usually has a longer bill and shorter toes, 5% of birds are not safely identifiable.
The vast conspiracy had been taken far enough that without a great deal of sleuthing no one could possibly have brought it to light! Not only does the entry say that “identification by sight may be impossible” but even if a very prepared North American notices that the bird his European buddy said is a Short-toed Treecreeper is singing a Treecreeper‘s song, well, “both species have been known to sing each other’s song.” No wonder it took over a century before the lie was exposed! Just take a look at this video of “both species” side-by-side to see how absurd it is to claim that they are different.
Charlie Moores, one of we three 10,000 Birds bloggers, is glad the secret is finally out:
I twitched my first ‘Short-toed Treecreeper’ at Dungeness in Kent in the eighties. There were hundreds of us there – and I don’t think any of us could separate the ‘rarity’ from a ‘common’ Treecreeper at the same site. I began to think then that something wasn’t right but like everyone else I grew up believing there were two species and who was I to suggest otherwise? Looking back now at how obviously there was just one species at Dunge that day, I’m actually surprised how long this conspiracy has lasted. Now that the news is out though I’m actually glad we here at 10,000 Birds are setting the record straight and admitting that two of us at least were fooled in the field! Hopefully once the shock of this announcement has subsided birders everywhere will see the joke for what it was and we can all get back to normal, though I guess the next move is to look more closely at the so-called ‘Brown Creeper.’**
Unfortunately, some birders based in Europe refuse to admit to the obvious. Dale Forbes, a renowned ornitholigist and all-around nice guy,*** had this to say:
Oh, trust an American to come up with a wild, hot-headed, conspiracy theory: Elvis never really died, no-one was ever on the moon, global warming does not exist, and the aristocracy are really lizard-people. I mean, if the Short-toed Treecreeper really did not exist and it was all just a hoax, then why would we make bird books complete with contradictory information and impossible to recognise field characteristics? Really, come on! Like who couldn’t tell the difference between ‘faint brown tinge’ and ‘distinct brown tinge?’ Trottel!
Some people just can’t let go of their delusions…sadly, Dale still has both treecreepers on his life list and is, according to recent reports, lobbying for the International Ornithological Congress to add Long-toed Treecreeper Certhia ridiculous to the checklist.
So, what lesson should we take away from this conspiracy exposed? Well, make sure you look carefully at the birds you are watching; sometimes birders make stuff up in order to make other birders look silly. Also, fellow American birders, make sure to never tell the Europeans about our little Empidonax prank. We do, after all, want them to keep thinking that there is more than one empid so we can keep laughing behind their backs!
*Jochen Roeder, German birding partisan and occasional blogger, has an alternative explanation for the origin of the conspiracy that he was kind enough to share with me via email. However, it was so long that I promptly forgot most of what he wrote. The basic idea, if I remember it correctly, is that some German guy started the joke in 1820 to mock the British. Sounds good to me, even though my research didn’t show this to be true. Sometimes ornithological history is just meant to stay hidden by the fog of time and good booze (of which I imbibed some quantities while writing this). I tried contacting another German birder, Hendrik Herlyn, for more input as to the “German origin theory” of the creeper conspiracy but he was too ashamed of the fact that he helped Jochen mislead me about creepers when I was in Germany to answer my email.
**The fact that Charlie fell for the creeper conspiracy might seem to be evidence that Jochen’s theory is, in fact, the correct theory. I think, however, that it just shows that Charlie is a wee bit slower than the average European birder…which still makes him much quicker than the average American birder.
***Dale wouldn’t let me quote him without referring to him this way. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true, of course, but I could also have truthfully called him “the latest result of an evolutionary history that includes slime molds, prehistoric walking fish, and monkeys.”