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Sage Sparrow split, changes proposed for White-breasted Nuthatch, Sandwich Tern, and rosy-finches

Sage Sparrow by Dominic Sherony
Sage Sparrow by Dominic Sherony (Creative Commons)

In this year’s update to the Check-list of North American Birds, the American Ornithologists’ Union will recognize at least one new species and may make other changes.

The new species will be split from Sage Sparrow, a bird of western sagebrush and mountain chaparral habitats. Its classification has been the subject of ornithological debate for 115 years. Recent studies of mitochondrial DNA, morphology, and other factors have established that sparrows of the interior west are separate from birds of coastal regions. Common names have not been announced yet. Options are Bell’s Sparrow and Sage Sparrow, or California Sage-Sparrow and Great Basin Sage-Sparrow. Read the proposal to split Sage Sparrow: Proposals 2013-A (pdf).

Here are three proposed changes to watch for:

Splitting White-breasted Nuthatch into two, three, or four species. Scientists have documented differences in calls, bill size and shape, and plumage across the bird’s range, and new genetic research has confirmed that distinctions exist. Range boundaries between the Rockies and the Pacific are not well understood, however, so it’s possible that the AOU will wait to split the species until further studies are completed. Read the proposal to split White-breasted Nuthatch: Proposals 2013-C (pdf).

Splitting Cabot’s Tern from Sandwich Tern. Sandwich Terns that occur in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and western Asia were once believed to be a single species, but DNA research has revealed that birds of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres are distinct. If the AOU splits the species, terns from Europe, Africa, and Asia would keep the name Sandwich Tern while birds that inhabit our shores would become Cabot’s Tern. Read the proposal to recognize Cabot’s Tern as distinct from Sandwich Tern: Proposals 2013-A (pdf).


Lumping the three rosy-finches into one species. A recent genetic examination suggests that Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black Rosy-Finches are in fact one species. If lumped, the new species may be named American Rosy-Finch. Read the proposal to merge all North American rosy-finches: Proposals 2013-B (pdf).

The decisions of the AOU’s classification committee will be announced in the July issue of The Auk, the quarterly journal of the AOU.

A version of this article appeared in the August 2013 issue of BirdWatching magazine.



Originally Published

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