Goodbye Moorhen, Hello Gallinule

Drew WeberBird News, distribution, General News and Info, General Rant, Identification, Listing, Research, Science10 Comments

Sometimes I am okay with changes, other times I am a little hesitant to accept things, and sometimes I just downright cannot stand certain changes. This is especially true when it comes to birds. For instance, last years split of the Whip-poor-will into the ‘Eastern Whip-poor-will’ and the ‘Mexican Whip-poor-will’; this was a great split and made perfect sense given the scientific information backing it up. Or in the case of the ‘Western’ Flycatcher being split into ‘Pacific-Slope’ and ‘Cordilleran’ which, to me, seemed a little premature and I am a bit apprehensive. However, last year’s Winter Wren and Pacific Wren split, I am more than willing to accept.

One change I absolutely refuse to accept is the name change of my all-time favorite waterfowl species; Clangula hyemalis. This beautiful species, formerly known as the ‘Oldsquaw’, is now referred to as the ‘Long-tailed Duck’. The eccentric name ‘Oldsquaw’ perfectly captured this duck’s weirdness, and was just such a different and odd name that perfectly fit with how charmingly bizzare this duck really is. Changing its name to ‘Long-tailed Duck’ was perhaps the worse move ever by the AOU, and I think this new name is probably the most boring and lame label they could have decided on. Anyone that birds with me often, knows that I still refuse to say the name ‘Long-tailed Duck’.

I am sure you have heard by now that this years update to the AOU’s checklist shows that the Common Moorhen has officially been split into two separate species. The bird found throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa is now known as the ‘Eurasian Moorhen’ (Gallinula chloropus) however the species found here in North America, as well as South America, is now called the ‘Common Gallinule’ (Gallinula galeata).

What is now, officially, the Common Gallinule. (Photo used with permission from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shellgame/2729073254/sizes/l/in/photostream/)

In the late 1800’s, the AOU referred to this species as the ‘Florida Gallinule’, but then in 1923 lumped it in with the Old World’s ‘Common Moorhen’. For some reason, even after the lump, the AOU kept the name as Florida Gallinule for quite a few years, but then switched it over to ‘Common Gallinule’, and then finally in 1982, referred to it officially as the ‘Common Moorhen’. All through this time, the Old World and New World species where, however, considered two subspecies.

Well-known birder and tour-leader Alvaro Jaramillo proposed to the AOU to split the subspecies back to their own distinct species status. Jaramillo’s proposal (link) cited the drastic differences in vocalizations between the two populations as well as slight morphological differences. Here is a link to recordings of this bird’s vocalizations showing just how different the New World species sounds from the Old World species. The morphological differences are that the New World species has a larger, truncated frontal shield whereas the Old World species has a smaller, rounder frontal shield. The AOU accepted the split, and so now we are back to having the Common Gallinule and the Eurasian Moorhen!

But this leaves us with another opportunity to accept or deny change. Yes, the scientific evidence is pretty solid and I agree they should be their own species (heck, I even get a freebie lifer out of it since I have seen the ‘Eurasian Moorhen’ in South Africa), however can we all handle this name change? I am sure older birders are going to be okay with it, since they had already known this bird as the Common Gallinule, assuming they were birding prior to 1982, but what about us young birders?…..I think its gonna be tough.

To me, the word gallinule was reserved for the Purple Gallinule of the southeastern US; a mysterious and beautiful species. Now, having to also give that same name to what was the moorhen, a bird which looks like a rejected and illegitimate child of the awkward American Coot and the dazzling Purple Gallinule, just doesn’t seem right. I have been attempting to try it out recently whenever I see one around here along the Lower Colorado River, and it just doesn’t flow off the tongue the way I would like it to. Perhaps, I just need some more time…..at least the AOU didn’t go with the other suggestion; ‘Laughing Gallinule’ which is just plain dumb.

Let me know your thoughts on this name change and other name changes you have trouble living (and birding) with!