Birding Without Borders

Day 229: Four Oh Oh Oh

Notes on counting and a new milestone.

August 17, 2015: Tarangire National Park, Tanzania — My 4,000th bird of this year was a Mountain Gray Woodpecker at 11:11 a.m. this morning, in a shade-grown coffee plantation just outside Arusha. Woop-woop!

Which reminds me: Astute observers may have noticed that the species list got a bit of a shakedown this week. To keep track of my sightings this year, I am using eBird (a database of bird sightings from around the world) which is kept in accordance with an authority called the Clements Checklist. This checklist defines what “counts” as a bird species, and if a bird isn’t on the checklist, I won’t add it. This week, the Clements Checklist published their annual update reflecting the latest research, and I gained a couple of birds through “splits.”

You’d think counting birds would be straightforward, but bird taxonomy has been in flux lately. The biological species concept hasn’t changed but its interpretation is becoming increasingly liberal these days: If an ornithologist can demonstrate that a population of birds is enough different from others of its kind, through DNA research and other work, then a split will be suggested - and splitters have taken over the world. A couple of decades ago, there were supposed to be about 8,000 species of birds on Earth; now that figure is near 10,500. (Meanwhile, Europeans play by different rules: They use a separate checklist, kept by the International Ornithological Congress, which lists even more birds. That would certainly make my job easier!)

Really, there is no such thing as a species; birds hybridize and evolve on a continuum, and our efforts to categorize them are entirely for our own benefit. Counting large numbers of anything gets fuzzier as you go along. But rules are rules, and, for this project, I am keeping careful track in accordance with the latest installments. I picked up four “armchair lifers” through this week’s Clements Checklist update—any little bit helps! Onward to 5,000.

New birds today: 11

Year list: 4,007

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