Birder's Guide

NOV 2013

Birder's Guide is the American Birding Association's newest publication. Each issue focuses on a key subject, providing tips from experienced birders on a wide variety of topics like Travel, Listing & Taxonomy, Gear, and Conservation & Community.

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In broad terms, birds fall into two groups: those which learn their songs, and those whose songs are instinctual. If a young bird of a species that sings instinctually is removed from its nest while still in the egg and raised away from every other member of its own species, it will still sing the correct song. This latter group is especially interesting in terms of taxonomy. That's because a difference in songs implies an underlying difference in genetics. So when you hear the FITZ-bew of a Willow Flycatcher and the rrrree-BEER of an Alder Flycatcher, you can be assured that no matter how similar they look, they are still genetically distinct. That last bit is hugely important. Once scientists realized that some birds don't learn their songs, avian taxonomy was changed forever. Suddenly, myriad fycatchers, owls, antbirds, and more were being split left and right, and cryptic species were found among species formerly thought to be clear cut. Perhaps no group of birds better demonstrates this than a clan of small, gray, and undeniably mouse-like birds found in the Neotropics: the Scytalopus tapaculos. As recently as the publication of Ridgely and Tudor's The Birds of South America (1994), there were only 16 species. Nineteen years later, one wouldn't even recognize the genus, which has ballooned to more than 40 species! What has happened? Well, tapaculos are suboscine passerines. The suboscines, a speciose assemblage confned mostly to the Neotropics, don't learn their songs. They inherit them, so their songs are genetic. Differences in song correspond to differences in genes—and quite possibly, differences at the species level. Every time some- Quito, Ecuador gwwarbler@gmail.com Andrew Spencer This Scytalopus tapaculo has yet to be described to science, but its unique vocalizations will certainly be relevant when that time comes. For now, birders are calling it "Millpo Tapaculo". Amateur bird recordists are, now more than ever, advancing our understanding of bird taxonomy. "Millpo Tapaculo". Photo © Nick Athanas. Sonogram of "Millpo Tapaculo". Derived from a recording by © Andrew Spencer. November 2013 | Birder's Guide to Listing & Taxonomy 25

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