Organizing all the world’s birds

2006 August 15
by David J. Ringer

UKARUMPA, PNG — For more than a year, I have been looking for a satisfactory, comprehensive list of the world’s birds. I thought my requirements were relatively straightforward: The list should be widely accepted, updated regularly, and available freely and electronically. But reality is not so simple.

There have been several recent attempts to list all the birds of the world and hypothesize about their relationships with each other.

Sibley and Monroe’s controversial list grows more obsolete with each new ornithological paper that’s published. It is rapidly becoming a part of history. Some of the taxonomy used in the impressive Handbook of the Birds of the World is also going out of style — unfortunately, even before the entire series has been published. (This, of course, reflects not on the value of the awe-inspiring series but on its utility as an international taxonomic standard.)

As far as I know, this leaves Clements’ “Birds of the World: A Checklist” and “The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World” as contenders for an up-to-date taxonomic standard.

Reviews of Howard and Moore have been mixed. The ABA still names Clements’ taxonomy as its standard for world lists.

Until this year, the Ibis Publishing Company has provided semiannual updates to Clements’ fifth edition. Following Clements’ death, however, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has taken over his project, and the Cornell University Press will publish a sixth edition of Clements’ checklist later this year.

Because Clements’ list is copyrighted, it is not available electronically except with a few relatively expensive birding software packages. Even then, the license is for personal use only.

What Cornell will do with the list remains to be seen, but for now, it appears that the only comprehensive and relatively up-to-date bird lists will be confined to expensive paper volumes or software packages.

Meanwhile, our knowledge and hypotheses about bird taxonomy are growing and changing at a very rapid rate. DNA studies in particular are shaking up traditional views on taxonomy, and it appears the changes will continue for years to come. For example, see these recent proposals for the ‘Sylviidae’.

Though some birders grumble about the constant upheaval, I’m convinced that this is an exciting time to be a birder. But we need a taxonomic ‘standard’ (see Ronald Orenstein’s comments about the nature of taxonomic lists) that can readily adapt along with our knowledge.

Birders all across the Web are wishing for a freely available electronic list that we could adopt as a de facto standard. The benefits to such a list would be tremendous. An online database could respond quickly to new discoveries, unlike a printed book of 800 pages. (See, for example, Don Roberson’s ever-changing list of world bird families.) Enterprising birders and geeks would surely create a fantastic array of new services and mash-ups to enhance our birding lives.

But the demands in putting together and maintaining such a database would be enormous. The project would require extensive ornithological knowledge and experience, great technical competence, and the time and energy required to analyze perhaps hundreds of scientific papers and other documents every year. It seems that there is no one with both the ability and the desire to undertake such a project, or at least not yet. Perhaps the day will come.

Until it does, I’m left wondering: Should I order Cornell’s new book?

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