Should field guides reflect taxonomy?

Whenever you start birding you have your favorite field guide, and that’s the sequence you learn – you can open the book after a while and flip to the species you want. But if you’ve been birding for more than a few years, or even just for a year or two, the next edition of that field guide, or newer field guides that come out, have different sequences, which can be really frustrating. I often hear birders bemoaning: “why can’t these books stop changing?!” I agree.


Basically, taxonomy aims to reflect the evolutionary relationships among birds, which simply cannot be written in a two-dimensional sequence, or list. Field guides have a different purpose, to help you identify the birds you see. Taxonomy can certainly be helpful in identification, but sometimes it isn’t. And given how little we really know about taxonomic relationships, why keep changing things all the time? It’s long been known that hawks and falcons are not closely related, and the same goes for grebes and loons, yet for some reason these groups are still next to each other in field guides – it just seems right, even though it is “wrong.” It’s kind-of like vireos and warblers, which used to be next to each other. The two families are sort-of similar, and it makes sense to group them together. Now we learn that vireos are more closely related to crows, so they get moved away from warblers… does knowing that relationship help in field identification? I don’t think so. Vultures were next to raptors and then they got moved next to storks, and now they’re back next to hawks! Good grief, is this helpful for somebody trying to find something in a field guide? I don’t think so. Now, in the latest (2008) ABA checklist, flamingos have been moved up next to grebes, as these two families are believed to share a common ancestor. While flamingos are basically unmistakable, I still think that in field guides they’d be better left next to wading birds such as spoonbills and storks. How often do you hear people ask: “hey, is that a flamingo or a Pied-billed Grebe?”


I’m not making fun of taxonomy. I think it’s a fascinating subject and I’ve written taxonomic papers describing new species and splitting groups of species. I’m really interested (for whatever reason) to learn and appreciate that ducks and chickens are more “primitive” than loons, or that flamingos are related to grebes. But what is the place of taxonomy in field guides? And let’s think about museums. These great and under-used institutions have thousands, millions, of bird skins arranged in an old taxonomic sequence, and I doubt that any two museums are exactly the same. But most are fairly similar, and if you go to almost any museum collection in the world, loons will be at one end of the cabinets, and finches and sparrows at the other. The purpose of a museum collection, like a field guide, is to organize things so you can find them. Every time the AOU comes up with some new pronouncement you can bet that museums don’t rush out and start moving heavy cases all over the place! But with books it’s much easier to move things around.


Some field guides have tried to group birds by color, or by habitat, and that hasn’t worked. So taxonomy seems like as good an idea as any. Yet I think I’m pretty safe in saying that not one North American field guide has ever strictly followed AOU sequence; every author decides to move this species or that, maybe something won’t fit on a plate here and is better there. With the new move of flamingos, every field guide is already out of date… Field guides that were designed for the user, to be useful, include Kenn Kaufman’s focus guide and Ned Brinkley’s new photographic guide. These guys know what sort of problems birders have in the field, and so they arranged species accordingly and weren’t constrained by taxonomy. Field guides that feel obliged to strictly and blindly follow taxonomy are actually of less practical use to birders than ones that don’t.


Some people argue that it is useful to learn and understand taxonomy, and it is “good for birders” to learn taxonomic sequence. I don’t disagree in principle, but if taxonomy keeps changing every week then I see little value to this argument, and the rate of change is only speeding up. If taxonomists don’t understand what is going on and argue about it, then why should birders try to understand? Taxonomic lists and field guides are two different things. Forcing them to have the same sequence is an admirable but impractical and, basically, unhelpful notion.


So what’s the answer? Well, there is no perfect answer. At least, my perfect answer will be different from your perfect answer, and so on. But how about this, which is not a new idea? What if all authors of field guides in North America could come up with (and agree upon) a semi-taxonomic/semi-logical sequence in which birds are arranged. Hey, even put swifts next to swallows – they look similar.  Why not put owls and nightjars next to each other? And so on. Then, stick to this sequence and don’t change it. After a few years, everybody would be able to easily use every field guide – communication would be enhanced. Each guide, or edition, could have an appendix giving the latest taxonomic list and explaining the newest changes, but the order of the birds in the field guide would always be the same. Ten years from now we may learn that swallows are more closely related to flamingos, but regardless of this they still look more like swifts and so they will remain next to swifts in a field guide. So why not make a new standard field guide list and stick with it? I’m curious what young birders think about this question, and the answer?