When it’s a Piranga species tanager, obviously.
Have you heard the news? The Fiftieth Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds, published in the July 2009 issue of The Auk, is bursting with taxonomic and nomenclatural changes that will wreak havoc on your life lists and possibly knock your birding world right off its axis. Can you get your head around the transfer of Piranga, Habia, and Chlorothraupis to Cardinalidae?
David Ringer deftly delineates all the new changes. I strongly recommend this post not just for cogent summary of taxonomical trickery but for a fascinating discussion in the comments as well. Reading them brought me back to the last time I wrote about a change to tanager taxonomy titled When Is A Tanager A Spindalis? The split of the Stripe-headed Tanager in the forty-second supplement to the AOU check-list didn’t affect me at the time. By the time I even learned of spindalises, the title change was a fait accompli.
This change is different on a number of levels. First of all, the four spindalises are still tanagers whereas familiar and beloved North American species like Scarlet, Summer, and Western Tanagers will now be grouped in with cardinals and grosbeaks, leaving the ABA region mostly bereft of true tanagers. Second, no name change accompanies this alteration. We can still call Piranga flava the Summer Tanager (though it probably won’t respond… it never did anyway). The question is, “Should we?”
This very point was debated with remarkable insight on David’s blog. I hope he doesn’t mind my sharing some salient points in order to encourage further discussion either here or there.
When Stripe-headed Tanager was moved out of Thraupidae the English name was changed to Spindalis (that of the genus). It seems most folks didn’t have problems with that. I wouldn’t have any problems with Western Piranga, Summer Piranga, etc. or Olive Chlorothraupis either for that matter. …if we don’t change the English names then names such as Finch, Tanager, Cardinal will really lose their meanings.
I’m opposed to “Scarlet Piranga,” etc. I’m not convinced that English names need to reflect phylogenetic relationships (isn’t that why we have scientific names?) — and in fact, for the most part, they already don’t. Finch, flycatcher, chat, sparrow, robin, oriole, grosbeak, and lots of other names are completely meaningless phylogenetically and instead refer to some sort of general body plan, anatomical feature, or lifestyle.
Most birdwatchers don’t follow scientific names, so there is a real benefit to having common names follow taxonomy. In most cases it’s the only way they’ll have any idea how birds are related to one another. Knowing that Piranga and Pheucticus are related, for instance, will helps make sense of their similar-sounding songs. It’s challenging sometimes when one is fully engrossed in one of the particular disciplines, but I think we should strive to see things through the prisms of both birdwatching and ornithology.
For most English speakers Piranga “tanagers” are *the* tanagers. I’m not a huge fan of making a name change along that line. After all, we seem to manage with grosbeaks, buntings & sparrows in different families without difficulty.
Interesting dialogue, right? You may not be as engrossed in the taxonomy as some of us are but what are your thoughts on the (strictly hypothetical at this point) possibility of renaming our Piranga tanagers?
your (American) sparrows aren’t sparrows, your robins aren’t robins, your finches aren’t finches, your buntings aren’t buntings and your warblers are as far from warblers as can be.
(gnahahahahaaar, echoing all the way from Europe across the Atlantic)
On this subject, I fully subscribe to David’s view.
The English names are the ones commonly used amongst “ordinary folks” (aka non-professional-taxonomists) in ordinary nature and bird related conversations and I think they simply ought to make people curious about its bearer by sounding nice, beautiful, interesting, exciting, worthy of the bearer’s beauty etc.
People who venture so far into birding as to get interested in bird taxonomy will by then know the scientific names anyway.
And why would one want to use the scientific name as a common name?
Summer Piranga?!? Why, oh why?
“Hey look, there’s a nice male Lark Calamospiza! Much nicer than a Clay-colored Spizella, isn’t it? And quite a rare sight around here, unlike the trash-White-crowned Zonotrichias that are swarming all over the place. Mind you, I also haven’t seen a Dickspiza around here for quite some time”
Nope, not working for me.
So, I hope the Pirangas will still be called “tanagers” next time I am in North America.
Whatever you do, don’t – really don’t – change their common name to something like “Summer Tanager-Cardinal”. If you do this, I promise to divert my birding holidays to other continents.
When I hiked Saturday on Sister Grove Trail in north Texas, I trained my binoculars on what looked like (one of our ubiquitous) cardinals atop a huge cedar tree, only to find,to my delight, I was looking at a Summer Tanager. Yet, now, it seems I was looking at a cardinal after all :).
Well said, gurdonark.
Jochen, I think you’ve outdone yourself with Dickspiza. In fact, I almost regret that I’ve already named my children now that you’ve introduced this new term. Perhaps soon we’ll be introduced to Dickspiza Chung Finger…
Jochen, Mike, I would be careful there. Remember that Daisy will soon be a lawyer and could easily sue you for the pain and suffering you propose to inflict on her innocent offspring.
After all, “Dickspiza” might tempt people to shorten the name to Dick. And I can’t think of anything crueler than naming a child after the ex-vice-president!
I don’t think the common names need to change. It’s very confusing to everyone when they do. Change the scientific names if needs be. As long as eBird keeps up with the changes, my lists will be fine. And, I’ll muddle along somehow with all the rest. But, sheesh, I’ve just gotten to where I can spout off quite a few common names as I’m out watching birds now and changing all those would be frustrating, to say the least.
@Carrie: I’ll be rich! Rich beyond my wildest dreams!
In a lot of ways this makes sense. The North American Tanagers are different from those of Middle America, for the most part Summer, Scarlet and Western Tanagers all breed well north of nearly all other tanagers and in the case of Scarlet and Western, well into Northern Canada.
In many ways Scarlet Tanager is very similar to Rose-breasted Grosbeak, they sound similar in song, have similar migration patterns and generally live in the same habitat and feed similarly. So if you that Scarlet Tanager has more in common with Rose-breasted Grosbeak then other Tanagers in the tropics, then this move makes a lot of sense.
Dickspiza Finger-Chung does have a nice ring to it.
““Hey look, there’s a nice male Lark Calamospiza! Much nicer than a Clay-colored Spizella, isn’t it? And quite a rare sight around here, unlike the trash-White-crowned Zonotrichias that are swarming all over the place. Mind you, I also haven’t seen a Dickspiza around here for quite some time”
Hah. Yeah, okay David gets some great comments on his blog BUT he doesn’t get comments like THIS… 🙂
I think the English names that appear in regional checklists like the AOU’s should reflect common usage as much as possible. If this requires some comprises with strictly matching generic names to taxonomic families, so be it. We don’t seem to have problems as a result of “sparrow,” “grosbeak,” and “bunting” being used for multiple families. Why would this suddenly be a problem for “tanagers”? Switching the common names around would be needlessly confusing to the birding public, especially since printed field guides typically take time to catch up with checklist changes.
Also, since our knowledge of taxonomy is constantly evolving, it is possible that future research could place Piranga back within the Thraupidae. If that happened, then we would be having a debate about whether to change Scarlet Piranga back to Scarlet Tanager. As I understand it, the placement and composition of families at the bottom end of the Passeriformes has been a matter of research and debate for quite some time, and I wouldn’t expect the current supplement to be the final word on the matter.
Am I crazy for kind of liking the ring of Summer Tanager-Cardinal?
Hyphens for everyone!
@Nate: Yes, yes you are crazy.
The question should not be whether to adopt new English names that reflect the new taxonomy, but whether the new taxonomy is even accurate. I strongly question the practice of using genetics as the primary determinant of what makes a species a species and how we define or phylogenetic relationships.
Our North American migratory members of the genus Piranga are in every way a tanager if you look at their behavior and morphology. Now, scientists are telling us that our sense of reality is completely wrong based on “invisible” traits: genetics.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe in Darwin’s theory of Evolution. But genetics have not been correlated with morphological and ecological data. Darwin was first and foremost a naturalist: he based his theory on field observation and patterns of traits.
Our system of taxonomy has undoubtedly evolved tremendously over the centuries, and it will continue to do so. But it cannot do so in a laboratory vacuum that ignores traditional ornithological field study.
I think detente will be reached here via one road only: Nobody-Gets-What-They-Want Street.
Instead of common names that A) reflect inaccurate historical taxonomy (scarlet tanager), B) reflect best current understanding of relatedness but involve icky change (scarlet cardinal) C) apply some contortionist combination of A and B (scarlet tanager-cardinal), or D) blur lines between common names and scientific binomials (scarlet piranga), we have to opt for plan E, a poetic hybridization that pisses everyone off.
It should obviously be scarlet gerdinal. I prefer that one to scarlet cardager because of the serendipitous reference to acid reflux that accompanies it. Heartburn for everyone is the only solution.