Birds of Seabrook Island

COAST BIRDS
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WORLD BIRDS
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ANECDOTES

  Andy Meyerriecks, Charlie Vaurie, Ernst Mayr
 
 
 

Species Acct.
Loons
Grebes
Procellarids
Pelicans
Herons
Ibises
Storks
Vultures
Flamingos
Waterfowl
Raptors
Turkeys
Quail
Rails
Limpkin
Cranes
Shorebirds
Gulls
Terns
Auks
Doves
Parrots
Cuckoos
Owls
Goatsuckers
Swifts
Hummers
Kingfishers
Woodpckrs
Flycatchers
Shrikes
Vireos
Crows/Jays
Larks
Swallows
Tits
Nuthatches
Creepers
Wrens
Kinglets
Gnatcatchers
Thrushes
Mimids
Starlings
Pipits
Waxwings
NW Warblers
Tanagers
NWSparrows
Cardinalines
Icterids
Finches
OWSparrows

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Classification
   
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Classification
Phylogenetic Arrangement of Categories
   ("Taxa")
   
 

Classification

 
 

Classification

 

Classification is the ordering of any group of things - in this case of birds. Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. Classifications are composed of related units or taxa, usually arranged in a hierarchy. Systematics is the study of the diversity of these things and their relations through time. Biologists attempt to arrange organisms in branching order showing historical relations among taxa. Evolution is their guiding principle. Thus taxonomists also attempt to be systematicists.
Classification of an organism begins with the Species. It is the only category in the hierarchy of taxa with a clear definition based on the independence of breeding units - valid species do not (should not, usually do not) interbreed. Related species are grouped into Genera, genera into Families, and families into Orders. All orders of birds are grouped into the Class Aves. Birds are vertebrates (animals with a back-bone or vertebral column) and are placed in the Subphylum Vertebrata. All vertebrates (cartilaginous and bony fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) are placed in the Phylum Chordata (characterized by a having a notochord at some stage in their development). [Non-vertebrate chordates include tunicates (sea squirts), and sea lancelets (amphioxus).]
These hierarchies in classification may be further subdivided - there may be sub- and super- (even infra- and parv-) levels interposed to group related characteristics used to  arrive at a phyletic (evolutionary) clusters of all species. Bear in mind that the actual arrangement of species is like a branch - each have sub-branches extending into the past. Some of the twigs may be closer to each other and others farther apart so they may be grouped or clustered but a linear order is not really possible...but it may be useful!

   Classification is the pigeon-holing of species into these hierarchical categories. Identification is correctly recognizing the traits and naming the individual under consideration.
   As an example, let's classify the Willet:
Species, Willet, Cataptrophorus semipalmatus
  Genus, Cataptrophorus
    Family. Scolopacidae
      Suborder. Charadrii
        Order Charadriiformes
The order Charadriiformes is grouped with other birds that are able to fly (most modern birds, ranging from loons through weavers) in the Infraclass Neoaves. A second Infraclass, the Eoaves, includes the ostrich-like "ratites," large flightless birds including the ostrich, rheas, cassowaries, emus, and kiwis. Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990, also include the primitive tinamous in this group. The Subclass Neornithes includes all modern birds and the Subclass Archeornithes includes extinct birds such as Archaeopteryx. Some of these birds had teeth (no modern birds possess true teeth).
   The Willet is the only species in the genus Cataptrophorus. Most genera have several species (e.g., Calidris is the genus containing "peeps" or "stints" - our small shorebirds)
   The Family Scolopacidae contains our common shorebirds - yellowlegs, Willet, tattlers, curlews, godwits, turnstones, knots, and sandpipers.
   The AOU Checklist does not use suborders but I've grouped the plovers, oystercatchers, stilts, and jacanas in the "Suborder Charadrii" - it is useful to have a grouping that contrasts shorebirds with others contained in the order - the gulls, terns and auks ).
   The Order Charadriiformes includes thick-knees, jacanas, pratincoles and coursers, the Oriental Pranticole, and sand-grouse - none of which occur in our area. It also includes shorebirds, gulls, terns, and auks which do. (See how I've approached this relatively complex group.)
   What's important here? The species is our obvious concern - it is the category we are trying to identify. Beyond this, classification helps us group related birds - at the family level we separate plovers, oystercatchers, stilts, jacanas, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and auks. At the ordinal level, we recognize that all charadriiform birds are different from ciconiiform birds (herons, egrets, and their relatives) and all other orders.
   Thus classification helps us organize our study of birds using common-sense to emphasize common features and differences. Most bird aficionados do not know the order or family names but they actively use these groupings to "order" their information and understanding of birds they know. Thus, this info is provided to help you understand species relations and grouping.

 
 

Phylogenetic Arrangements of Categories ("Taxa")

     Different lists, guides, and references may present orders and families of birds in different sequences. Originally, lists were simple classification schemes. For example, the classification used by Carolus von Linneaus in the 10th edition of Systema Natura (1758) began the class Aves with the Order Accipitres (where he placed vultures, hawks, owls, shrikes, Tyrannus, cuckoos, woodpeckers, corvids, rollers, orioles, and troupials) - an interesting assortment! His other orders were the Picae, Anseres, Grallae, Gallinae, and Passeres (see Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990, p. 185).
   Following the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin in 1859, a variety of attempts were made to list birds with some regard to their ancestry - so called "phylogenetic" arrangements.
   Probably the most influential early list was constructed by H. Gadow in 1893 was published in Bronn's Klasssen und Ordnungen des Thier-Reichs. His first "Legion" of the Neornithes began with the loons, grebes, penguins, and tube-nosed swimmers. His second Legion included pelecaniforms, herons and their relatives, storks, flamingos, waterfowl and diurnal birds of prey. Etc. Our most influential classifications were developed by Alexander Wetmore. His 1926 classification lists 27 orders (including 5 groups of palaeognathous birds). His neognathous list began with the loons, Order Gaviiformes, followed by grebes, the tube-nosed swimmers, etc. Variations of this arrangement persist in our current AOU Checklist and in The Clements Checklist (the official list of the ABA - Clements, 2007).
   The inference is that loons are primitive and somewhere near the basal stock of modern birds, but are they?
   Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990, begin their list of Neognathae with the Parvclass Galloanserae, Superorder Galloanserae - including cracids (guans, megapodes, etc.), and galli (pheasants, grouse, quail, etc.); and Superorder Anserimorphae (screamers and waterfowl). They follow with buttonquail and then the picae (honeyguides, woodpeckers, barbets, etc.), now generally regarded as the second Parvclass, the Neoaves.
   Most systematists agree with the grouping of gallinaceous birds with waterfowl and placing them first as the Galloanserae. However, most would place the picae later, regarding them as "near-passerines." The following scheme reflects current thinking:
 
Phylogeny
 

I've kept to the more traditional order because our use of classification is probably enhanced by this "standard" arrangement and it matches most field guides (including Sibley's). However, if you contrast a loon - a specialized diver and fish-eater which cannot even walk on land - with a chicken - a generalized walking, flying bird that eats anything - it is easy to pick the chicken (or better, Red Jungle Fowl, Gallus gallus, with all its domestic variants) as the archetypical bird.

       
    Banner - left to right: Andrew J. Meyerriecks and his wife, Charlie Vaurie and his wife and, at the head of the table, Ernst Mayr. Rear views of Dean Amadon (daughter, Dean, his wife) and Gretel Mayr. Ernst and Gretel's farm, New Hampshire, 1956. Click for a picture of Gretel and the Amadons (left), Andy, his daughter, and wife, and a rear view of Ernst - same venue.