[CT Birds] the knotty subspecies problem

greg hanisek ctgregh at yahoo.com
Fri Mar 14 18:08:29 EDT 2014

The exchange below highlights an issue that all birders should be aware of when reporting birds that they believe may be identified at the subspecies level. The tendency  to attempt this has been growing since Sibley illustrated many regional forms (even though he cautions against viewing these in more than a general way in most cases). The exchange below comes from an eBird reviewer forum in which cautions are raised about the ability to enter many birds at the subspecies level in eBird. The first post (from Rick Wright) is at the bottom, with a response from Ned Brinkley, editor of North American Birds magazine, above it.
As veteran CT birder Mark Szantyr has often said, it's usually best to say an individual birds shows characteristics of a given subspecies, rather than to state categorically it is that subspecies.

Greg Hanisek

Rick and all -
This is an exploding problem across the continent but surely is most intense in areas where multiple subspecies occur (middle of the continent). I should add that overzealous or overconfident identification of hybrids is a close runner-up to this problem. If identification is not demonstrated, or not demonstrable, then as a reviewer I have to invalidate. It's very tough to prune regional reports in North American Birds to comport with what is (conservatively) believed to be possible in field ID of various subspecies. This wicket only gets stickier with time and increasing numbers of e-birders.

Ned Brinkley
Cape Charles, VA

On Fri, Mar 14, 2014 at 9:26 AM, Rick Wright <birdaz at gmail.com> wrote:

>One of eBird's estimable strengths is the encouragement it gives birders to go beyond the species level in their identifications. Unfortunately, I've run into a problem recently.
>Some conscientious contributors in the region I 'review' has begun to make very liberal use of the options to record her/his birds down to subspecies or subspecies group. In some cases -- the juncos, say, or the fox sparrows -- it's obvious that s/he is in fact making rigorous distinctions. In others, however, it is equally apparent, even in response to my inquiries, that the subspecies (group) is being indicated solely on the strength of a sense of which one is "supposed" to be present, resulting in circular identification and reinforcing old ideas that may someday be subject to revision.
>Has anyone else faced this problem? What have you said to the observer to clear it up? Is there a page on the eBird site I can refer to? (Understanding Subspecieshttp://help.ebird.org/customer/portal/articles/1010552-understanding-subspecies-in-ebird doesn't really address the need for critical identification.)
>Thanks in advance, -- 
>Rick Wright
>Bloomfield, NJ (reviewing Nebraska)

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