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.
plate showing “both” treecreepers from the first edition of Birds of Europe (note the dates next to my first sightings…I was certainly fooled by Hendrik and Jochen)
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.”
But, but, I have it on my list! they told me it was a real species and the other one wasn’t here and I went along with it because I couldn’t tell the difference
This prank was one of many great Victorian era bird pranks. My personal favourite was renaming several birds things like tits, boobies, woodcocks, woodpeckers, woodswallows and cock-of-the-rocks.It is unfortunate that Americans were such prudes and that cockgobbler, an alternative name for turkeys, didn’t catch on (these same Americans ensured that the tits were changed to the more sedate chickadees, not realising that this was a Iroquois word for a lady of ill repute)
Corey, you had been warned. I strongly detest your treason and the fact that you didn’t even have the guts to cite my entire email conversation with you in this “exposing” post.
Yes, apparently American birders not only have no clue whatsoever when it comes to Treecreeper identification, they can’t even get their science right.
To those few interested in the truth, the entire truth and nothing but the truth behind the Treecreeper secret, I have posted my email to Corey here:
Shame on you, Corey, may all of your reports get rejected from now on.
Another interesting story released today
Storks – a symbol of fertilty…or who will win the world cup?
BirdLife South Africa have received numerous reports of White Stork Ciconia ciconia nesting on top of newly-built football stadiums in the country. This is seen as an omen of good luck and is fuelling hopes that an African country is destined to win this year’s 2010 FIFA World Cup.
@tai haku: It really is unfortunate how may of us were fooled.
@Duncan: Cockgobbler? Now that is a bird name!
@Jochen: You’re angry because of the “occasional blogger” crack, aren’t you? 🙂
Has anyone taken a look at the date on this post? Coincidence…. Hmmm…….
Don’t be silly, Jason. It’s on the Internet, it must be true.
@Corey: no, I am making a diversion to cover Hendrik’s escape to Mexico.
I think it’s a bit unfair to call this a hoax. Like the Chase Vault of Barbados, the Short-toed Treecreeper is clearly a Masonic allegory about the pursuit of true wisdom.
The Treecreeper uses its toes to cling. The shorter toes of the Short-toed Treecreeper represent a less firm attachment to earthly things, and a willingness to let go of safe, comfortable preconceptions in order to enter the “the ancient mysteries, symbolic of death, where alone Divine Truth is to be found”, as Joe Nickell puts it. Likewise, the fact that the bird is a “purer” white below and a “warmer” brown above than the commonplace Treecreeper of mundane reality is suggestive…
No doubt the whole process of taking an American, or British, or merely noobish birder in pursuit of the Short-toed Treecreeper is a form of initiation rite that contains elements of both hazing and the Campbellian Hero’s Journey. When you look at a ‘common’ Treecreeper and truly see the Divine Truth of the Short-toed Treecreeper within, you achieve a level of wisdom and become a Secret Master.
Of course we must ask, why the Treecreeper? Shouldn’t Masons have chosen the Wallcreeper? I suspect that this may point to Meinertzhagen’s involvement with the Bavarian Illuminati, but the subject clearly demands more research.
I’m shocked. SHOCKED!
Yup, Carrie just won the internet.
@Nate: yeah, hands down, clear win.
I disavow this post and freely admit that there are at least five species of treecreeper living in Europe right now.
This disavowal has nothing to do with the scary masons gathering outside of my office…
Corey, just be quiet, will you?
For goodness’ sake, what do you mean by admitting there are at least five species of treecreeper living in Europe right now?!
If you are hinting at also uncovering our good ol’ Acrocephalus hoax, the scary masons will be the least of your problems.
Remember, I know where you live and worse still: where the Raven nests in Queens!
Jochen, the Queen is not a Raven. The Queen is a lizard person. Everyone knows this.
(Certain surviving members of Queen might be Ravens I suppose.)
They exist and they are really easy to ID. South of the Pyrenees Short-toed and North of the Pyrenees Common. In the Pyrenees you can safaly call them out randomly. Out of range only twitch those called in by some one else.
Happy April 1st. Can I share this now without making a fool out of myself.
I think we need to go further back into the fossil record. This could be a missing link: xhttp://matthewwills.com/2010/04/01/natural-object-paleontological-find/
Carrie, genius, I want to have your babies…
@ Corey – do I look like a monkey or slime to you?
@ Gunnar – that is exactly how it is done in the Alps: see/hear a treecreeper and randomly call out a name. Nobody is going to call you on it anyway
@ Jochen – I really think you have made some good points. Good job standing up for German birders. The three of you have something to be proud of!
Be one with the treecreeper.
Thanks for the Internets and offers of genetic legacy, everyone, but I’m just a fearless reporter of the truth…
Seriously, I am a not-so-proud owner of the “blank map” edition, and I remember having seen my first eurasian creeper without even trying to ID the bird, since it was the “only one” in the range
But Corey and Jochen, thanks, I had a good laugh