If your bird ID book, by any author, opens with the loon family, you're out of date. The loon position in identification books changed some years ago. Not that I noticed.
A committee of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) moves species groups around when new science makes that necessary, updating its list. Eventually, book publishers follow suit.
It's all about DNA and relationships of one bird family group to another. The latest list was published in July, based on recent research.
This has no impact on most of us, particularly those of us who continue to use old guide books. I use a year 2000 Sibley guide. It's out of date, like my dusty Peterson books, some dating to the 1960s.
If, however, yours is a more recent book, ducks greet you at the door.
The checklist for the American Birding Association, following AOU work, runs from ducks through 25 bird families before hitting loons. Included is a family called goatsucker, the most interesting name in an otherwise straightforward list. (More on that in a moment.)
In the July announcement, some scientific names were changed. Some common names were changed. Some species have been lumped together — two or more species found to be so similar that they now share not only genetics but also a name. Other species have been split, genetics making one species into two or more.
Lumping and listers
This is all official business, insider stuff. The birds in the new books look the same; your book certainly remains useful. I could use my antique Peterson guides without much problem.
You can put new books on your want-list if being current is important. That would mean learning the new order, of course, what with the loon migration and all. Sounds like a lot of page-thumbing to me.
For bird species found in Minnesota, there were no changes, only a close call.
Redpolls, both common and hoary — always hard to distinguish one from the other — long have been considered lump candidates. Being winter birds, common redpolls are common, hoarys are not.
The difference is subtle. Lumping would simplify things. Redpolls slipped through untouched one more time, though. Birders get to keep both on their life lists.
Listers, by the way, hate lumping. These are the people trying to see as many birds as possible, so lumping means one less bird species to count, perhaps even an erasure. Splits, on the other hand, offer opportunity.
OK, goatsuckers explained: This family includes our whip-poor-will and common nighthawk, both insect eaters. Belief in the supernatural led to this ancient folk name. Pliny, a Roman author, wrote about this in 77 A.D. Here he is, translated in a book from the Loeb Classic Library:
"Those called goatsuckers, which resemble a rather large blackbird, are night thieves — for they cannot see in the daytime. They enter the shepherds' stalls and fly to the goats' udders in order to suck their milk, which injures the udder and makes it perish, and the goats they have milked in this way gradually go blind."
You think that name might qualify for an AOU update?
(Goatsuckers, also called nightjars — honest — are interesting birds. For information, go to audubon.org/bird-family/nightjars.)
Read Jim Williams' birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.