The Atlantic

The Factious, High-Drama World of Bird Taxonomy

Some ornithologists have very strong feelings about hyphens.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In July 2008, an American ornithologist named Bret Whitney was researching antbirds in the Brazilian Amazon when he heard a curious bird song. The sound, to his expert ear, clearly belonged a Striolated Puffbird––a big, streaky creature that looks like an owl crossed with a kingfisher. But it also had a smoother quality that struck him as “off-the-charts different” from the slightly warblier songs he knew from elsewhere in the region.

Whitney recorded the bird and collected a specimen of this strange-talking bird. Before long, he was conducting an in-depth review of the species across its entire pan-Amazonian range. He and some colleagues published the results in a 2013 paper that proposed dividing the Striolated Puffbird into three distinct species, based on subtle vocal, morphological, and genetic differences between populations.

In due course, the matter came before the American Ornithological Society’s South American Classification Committee, or SACC, which exists to standardize bird taxonomy on the continent and sanction changes based on new

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