Monday, 16 November 2009

"Read All About It ?"

On Saturday my copy of "Birdwatch" was delivered through my letter-box. Don't ask me why but I always turn to the second last page to see what next month's issue will feature. And behold, staff writer David Callahan is apparently going to be writing a piece on the current state of Loxia:

"Got Your Bills in A Cross? Debate continues as to the true number of crossbill species in Britain, Europe and beyond. David Callahan assesses the current state of the taxonomy and what is yet to come". (Birdwatch, Issue 210, p.69)

Now, clearly I will be interested to read this, as I am sure some of you will, but what exactly can this article say, and, is there really any 'debate' concerning this subject other than on Bird Forum ? Okay, Birdlife lost the plot on Scotbill a few weeks ago.....until the RSPB reminded them of the script. Nothing against Mr. Callahan, who is a good writer, but as a rule I am generally a bit wary of journalists - remember that embarrassing Glasgow Herald article on Scotbill that their 'Environmental Correspondent" wrote ? Sure there are those Scully types that don't believe in Scottish Crossbill as the evidence is flimsy, but us Mulder types continue to observe, sound record and sometimes even catch them. The Scully types are often serious listers, who in many cases rather than buy a sound recorder and microphone to ID crossbills, choose to deny its existence as they can't see any differences and instead blow their money on plane fares to Fair Isle to see a small brown bird that shouldn't be there. The BOU seem to believe in Scottish Crossbill as a species so surely that should be that, shouldn't it ? In Britain we have 3 breeding species - Common, Parrot and Scottish. Two-Barred can occur as rare migrant. So that is the current state of the taxonomy in the UK as I see it: not a pretty sight but it is what it is.

What is still to come regarding the future of Loxia taxonomy ? In UK at least how about this as a guess:

1) Further work on classification and understanding of crossbill vocalisations, with reference to speciation and irruptive populations. More 'new' calls will be discovered (and fact, already have been. One of my main areas of focus). Possible lab based studies on song and call learning (not my thing ethically).

2) More 'refined' genetics esp. for Loxia scotica, but also the others ( Not my field, but I would gladly participate in this).

3) More Stable Isotope analysis of Common Crossbill populations especially given the current irruption ( Not my area, though I have offered to gather samples).

4) Further work on biometric and taxonomic classification of Crossbill species. (I am interested in long term studies of biometric stability of a dormant crossbill population in relation to sporadic influxes from the continent. Other workers doing their own thing with bios also.)

5) Ecological studies on feeding efficiency and 'fitness' to environment ala Benkman - possibly a PhD project ? (I am doing this with field observed wild birds). Possibly supplemented in the lab using captive birds (again, not really my thing).

My participation is only small though hopefully will make a contribution. I have already got a new call here in Scotland. My project has recently suffered some major set backs though.

In USA, well I can't keep track with the number of Red Crossbill 'species' there - I reckon there will be more though......they, so far, are hands down the cutting edge in all things crossbill ( like in so many things !). I reckon they'll possibly discover a crossbill on Mars......or send a crossbill to Mars.....or a crossbill will win X Factor. Something like that.

In Europe, more could be done on the boreal 'natal' grounds of Common and Parrot Crossbills - calls, biometrics, genetics, anything ! So if anyone in Russia fancies taking up the baton, or more precisely the Telinga ? ! I am sure the Med races will be given the same 'treatment' as our own beloved scotica, and some may reach full species status (if any ornithogical body can be bothered approving it).

Roll on next copy of Birdwatch, a fine journal for the discerning 21st Century orni-enthusiast.


Crossbill Taxonomy in Action ?


Jochen said...

The South Hills X-Bill is now officially recognized as a full species in North America. I don't know of anything beyond that. But let me tell you, the controversy amongst birders is just the same as here.

Stephen Menzie said...

I see David Callahan is requesting photos of "the more distinctive
crossbill subspecies", namely "Cyprus, Sicilian and
Bulgarian/Balkan crossbills, as well as South Hills Crossbill from the
US". He also says it's for "an article... ...summarising
the recent advances in the understanding of Loxia evolution for a
popular audience".
So, maybe it's going to be all photos and no sonograms. Call me cynical but the words 'article', 'crossbill', and 'popular audience' make me think 'dumbing down'!

Loxia Fan said...

Hi Jochen,

Good to hear from you again ! Yes I don't think there was any way South Hills xbill would not get full status. And yes - this all might all be taxonomy for scientists sake here, so I do sympathize with birders....honest !

Loxia Fan said...

Hi Stephen,

No I didn't know he was seeking pictures. More distictive species !?If someone can't tell a Parrot Crossbill in a photo never mind a Scottish Crossbill, how can they do any of the others ? ! Who checks or verifies it ? Birders don't tend to like looking at sonograms of crossbill calls....they would much rather look at a nice picture of a (likely) misidentified Crossbill sp.

Then again recently up here we have had Eastern Oli's that turn into Barred Warblers and a RTD that turn out to be a humble Turtle Dove - and they say crossbills are too hard !

Regarding your last paragraph, spot on but it can't be worse than the "Ruffled Feathers" Glasgow Herald article a few years ago. Thank **** I wasn't quoted in that, though some were as I recall, and ended up sounding a tad silly.

Personally, I can't wait to read it.... !

Jochen said...

Actually, I am fairly relaxed about the Crossbill development - well, their taxonomy.
My guess is that in a few years (very few) field recording equipment will be inexpensive and effective, and thanks to your work and your recordings and others like you, we'll all have a tiny computer with us to help us identify them.
As soon as a few X-bills fly over, we simply press a button and the machine will tell us what call types and what possible species these are, with sonograms and all.

As you can see, I specifically wrote "species" and not "forms".

I did that on purpose.

Loxia Fan said...

Hi again Jochen,

Unfortunately, I don't think it will ever be as simple as that - crossbill taxonomy may well be in a continuous state of flux as their environment changes around them. Some species/forms may remain relatively 'stable' eg. Parrot, but the more nomadic forms may well go up and down like yo-yo's.....maybe. What we call "Scottish" Crossbill may well have already been affected by such 'conditions' to a degree.

As I get older (and wiser) I look at Crossbill taxonomy a bit like a work of Art: in a work of art, it is all about the individual interpretation of the receiver. You might see one thing and I another. It is, to a degree, aesthetic (down like a lead balloon with the scientists!). Maybe that is why I like Crossbills, there may well be no 'definitive', certainly one that can't be refuted........phew, a bit heavy that !

Loxia Fan said...

Hi Stephen,

David Callahan has been in touch with me about next month's article. Sounds like the article will have some interesting stuff in it especially about continental forms of curvirostra, so definitely worth checking out I would say. I subscribe so will definitely see it.