Birder's Guide

OCT 2016

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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Page 59 of 61

58 Birder's Guide to Listing & Taxonomy | October 2016 t is late summer on the northern Great Plains, and the longspurs are gathering to flicker and flutter and flit across windy prairies. For many of us older-timers, there's something new to think about as we watch the flocks: ever since the publication of the 2010 Supplement to the AOU Check-list, the longspurs and the white buntings have been assigned their own family, Calcariidae, after centuries of taxonomic cohabitation with the passerellids and the fringillids. The new family name is based on the genus name of three of the longspurs, Calcarius, which straight - forwardly points to those birds' inordinately long hind claw (calcarius is Latin for "spurred"); it was coined in 1802 by the "father of German ornitholo - gy", Johannes Matthäus Bechstein, and interestingly enough, German appears to be the only European language other than (American) English in which the official vernacular name ("Spornammer") also refers to the long nail. Kaup's later proposal, Centrophanes, likewise incorporates a word—this time the Greek centron—for spur. All that is well known, but not many birders understand that the white members of the family, Snow and McKay's buntings, are also named for their toenails. For many years, they were placed in the genus Plectrophanes, etymologized in 1815 by Bernhard Meyer, the creator of the name, as "spur - birds" (German "Sporner"). A plectrum, as musi- cians know, is a spearhead-shaped object used to pluck the strings of an instrument (I've heard, and might even believe, that the plectra of some harpsi - chords were made from the spurs of domestic fowl). The –phanes part of the name is more perplexing. The standard etymology, asserted by Elliott Coues among many others, derives those syllables from the Greek phaino, meaning "be evident": thus, Snow Bunting has a conspicuous spur. That explanation seems just a bit too easy, but in the case of the white buntings, it doesn't matter any more. In 1882, Leonhard Stejneger (of petrel and sco - ter fame) determined that Plectrophanes was in fact not properly applied to the Snow Bunting, leaving that genus in need of a new name. "In order to make as little change as possible," he formally proposed the current genus name, Plectrophenax, and gave as its et - ymology the Greek words for spur and for impostor. Impostor? Stejneger offers no further explanation. I can guess only that the "spurred impostor" is a gentle joke referring to the nomenclatural confusions his new name was intended to clear up. Rick Wright Bloomfield, New Jersey Snowflake Undercover I Lapland Longspur. Photo © Tim Lenz

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