It depends on the system of classification, the taxonomy. In fact, there’s almost a taxonomy of taxonomies – a meta-taxonomy – whose species include Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW), Clements, Howard & Moore and International Ornithological Congress (IOC). Like species, they don’t interbreed to produce viable offspring. Worse still are different, unrelated races: the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) and the Americans (AOU) among them.
I’ll not batter you with any more variations. Or acronyms: they fill this article as it is. They did my head in while I tried to establish the exact total of my world life list. Not tremendously important – just interesting and I rather wandered into this terrific maze by switching my Wildlife Recorder database from its default HBW configuration to IOC, just for the hell of it.
Maybe my motivation wasn’t quite so devil-may-care. I had never questioned what the software was giving me; I’d just assumed it was right. In a moment of true Socratic inquiry, the switch boosted my list from 1,060 to 1,062. Which were the two new species?
I wasn’t about to hunt down all the differences between HBW and IOC to find out. Engineering a couple of comparative spreadsheets from the two lists isolated great egret and snowy plover. The IOC does treat the Australian race, Ardea modesta, of the former as a full species, as I intimated in an earlier post. That was OK then.
The snowy plover Charadrius nivosus was a different problem. Here, the AOU retains it as a race of Kentish plover C. alexandrinus and, since nearly half my world list is American, I’d like to keep in with them. But they do seem to be getting out of step. Even the BOU is flirting with IOC, and HBW acknowledges that it would also follow suit except “not halfway through publishing the series, chaps.” A reasonable stance.
I’m keeping my switch to IOC and not just for the bigger score. I like its fluid nature, which can follow ideas about taxonomy, still emerging from DNA analysis inter alia. I like the philosophy of coming from a position of not-knowing. The structure is not set in stone; in Darwinian terms it is the fittest, the species most likely to survive the changing landscape.
The big hassle now is that Wildlife Recorder doesn’t carry my edited species names across. I have to put up with Eurasian blue tit, common starling, western osprey, northern lapwing and what not all over again. No pain, no gain.
In the course of this little inquiry, I discovered that Wikipedia will be adopting the IOC too but it’s clearly a big job. Neither of its entries for the egret or the plover reflects the taxonomy. Time for me to get on the job? I do have a Wikipedia account; it’s just a bit scary to consider changing any entries.
So, a spot of armchair birding transforms my list to 1,062, consistent with the world total of 10,347 – 10.26% of the way there!