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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BirdNote: What's in a Name?

Air Date: Week of

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Northern Flicker, which used to be known as the Red-shafted Flicker (Photo: Gregg Thompson)

Watching the birds at your feeder is a pleasure for many, but as Mary McCann comments in today’s BirdNote, identifying them can be a headache, as some as reclassified and now have new names.



CURWOOD: One of the joys of having a birdfeeder in your yard is seeing and identifying who comes to dine with you. But as Mary McCann observes in today’s BirdNote, nowadays, that can be a bit confusing.

How Birds’ Names Change
Or Who Took my Rufous-sided Towhee?

[Spotted Towhee trill]

MCCANN: A listener recently wrote us: “Years ago, some of the birds at my feeder were the Rufous-sided Towhee, Oregon Junco, and Red-shafted Flicker [Spotted Towhee trill; Northern Flicker wick-wick-wick call]. But I can’t find them in my current field guides. They're gone, and so are the marsh hawk and sparrow hawk.”

[American Kestrel call]

Well, the listener’s right. Some of these long-familiar bird names have passed into history.
The study of birds, like any science, remains a work in progress. New findings about birds’ DNA or other attributes bring changes in classification of species, which often result in new names. Take the Rufous-sided Towhee, found across North America. Differences between its western and eastern forms – plumage, songs, genetics – brought an official split into two distinct species: the Spotted Towhee in the West [Spotted Towhee trills], the Eastern Towhee in the East [Eastern Towhee “drink-your-tea” song].

The Red-shafted Flicker, on the other hand, was lumped with the Yellow-shafted Flicker, because so many hybrids were found. Now, they all fly from tree to tree as the Northern Flicker.

[Northern Flicker wick-wick-wick call]

But where have the “marsh hawk” and “sparrow hawk” gone? Check your field guide for the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel.

[American Kestrel call]

I’m Mary McCann.

The Rufous-sided Towhee is now known as two distinct species: the Spotted Towhee, shown above, and the Eastern Towhee. (Photo: Mike Hamilton)


Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Spotted Towhee song recorded by K. Colver #49764. Eastern Towhee recorded by W.L. Hershberger #94294. American Kestrel recorded by D.S. Herr #133146. Northern Flicker recorded by R.C. Stein #6819.
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and produced by John Kessler.
Ambient sounds recorded by D.S. Herr.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2005-2017 Tune In to Nature.org February 2017 Narrator: Mary McCann


CURWOOD: And if you like, you can flit on over to our website, LOE.org, for some pictures.



Listen on the BirdNote website

Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted Flickers are now called simply Northern Flickers

The Spotted Towhee, once known as the Rufous-sided Towhee

The Eastern Towhee was also once known as the Rufous-sided Towhee


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