New York State Avian Records Committee

a committee of the New York State Ornithological Association

Posted 7/29/15

Checking the Checklist:
      staying current with advances in bird systematics
Since its inception, NYSOA (formerly the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs) has played a leading role in the study of the birds that occur in New York State. Responsibilities include maintaining the official checklist of bird species recorded in the state, which is made available to all through our website. This list forms the basis of the ever-popular printed checklists that many birders use to keep track of their sightings and their year or life lists. The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that the web version of the Checklist of the Birds of New York State is regularly updated, usually at least once a year. Why so frequently? Are new species found that often? The answer is a resounding YES! Each year the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC), which oversees the state list, adds one or two new species based on the documentation it receives and reviews. To date the NYS checklist stands at 485 species and at the current rate of ascent will reach the magical 500 in less than ten years.


Trindade Petrel, photo by Paul A. Guris
Trindade Petrel   © Paul A. Guris
(click photo to enlarge)

But new species aren’t the only changes that need to be made. Like many organizations across the US and Canada, NYSOA follows the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Check-list of North American Birds and every year, the AOU’s North American Classification Committee (NACC) publishes a supplement to the Check-list detailing various revisions. These include lumps (merging of two or more species into one), splits (opposite of lumps, usually subspecies becoming full species), occurrence of entirely new species to North America, and also less glamorous changes such as alterations to the spelling of bird names (‘linguistic housekeeping’) and changes in taxonomic order or grouping. These decisions are usually based on peer-reviewed scientific publications, increasingly those using molecular techniques to study genetic relationships, as well as input from numerous expert advisors including museum-based and field ornithologists.


Like the ripples of a pebble tossed into the waters of a still pond, the effects of changes to the AOU Check-list radiate outwards, triggering similar edits and updates in other regional checklists such as our own. Ultimately and most importantly, the decisions made by the NACC alter the way we birders think about the birds around us. In July of this year, the NACC published its 56th Supplement (Chesser et al. 2015). There are only two revisions that impact the NYS Checklist:  the splitting and renaming of a rare seabird that has only occurred once and a change to the taxonomic placement of the more familiar American Tree Sparrow.


The first of these two changes is long anticipated and acknowledges that North American records of Herald Petrel refer to the distinctive South Atlantic population that breeds just below the equator on Trindade and Martim Vaz a cluster of tiny, rarely visited and very rugged islets situated in the subtropical South Atlantic some 900 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Howell 2012, Flood et al. 2013). This population is now recognized as a full species, Trindade Petrel (Pterodroma arminjoniana), distinct from nominate Herald Petrel (P. heraldica) found in the central Pacific. Confusingly, similar birds also breed on Round Island near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and for the moment at least these are kept with Trindade Petrel.


Trindade Petrel   © Paul A. Guris
(click photo to enlarge)

Trindade Petrel has a short but interesting history in our state. The only documented occurrence is from 24 Aug 1933, when a Mr. Raymond Westfall discovered a ‘strange looking duck’ among his chickens at his farm near Caroline Center (Tompkins Co.), about 12 miles southeast of Ithaca. Alive but emaciated, the bird – thought initially to be a Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) – was nursed for a week before it died, whereupon it was handed over to Cornell University. Realizing the measurements did not fit Sooty Shearwater, the skin was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where the leading authority on petrels at the time, Robert Cushman Murphy, identified it as a dark-morph Herald (now Trindade) Petrel. The next year an account of the discovery and identification, along with a photograph of the live bird, was published by Dr. Arthur Augustus Allen, professor of ornithology at Cornell University (Allen 1934). The specimen (USNM 348070) now rests in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.. By chance the farm property (Boyer Creek Farm) is now home to Steve Kelling, a familiar name in state and local birding circles and a former member of NYSARC.


The discovery of the Caroline Center petrel coincided with the passage of a hurricane that made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina near Nags Head on 23 Aug 1933, before sweeping inland and over central New York the next day at which time it had weakened into a tropical depression. It is now know that Trindade Petrels regularly feed in the warm Gulf Stream waters off the mid-Atlantic states during the summer and are rare but regular casualties of hurricanes that move quickly across the Gulf Stream and onto land. It seems very likely that the petrel was caught up inside the storm and traveled with it for at least 600 miles, only escaping when the wind speed dropped sufficiently. A Black-capped Petrel (P. hasitata), another Gulf Stream specialist, was also found near Owego (Tioga Co.) on 26 August 1933.


Trindade Petrel now replaces Herald Petrel on the NYS Checklist but stays in the same position on our list, snuggled up between the relatively common Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and Mottled Petrel (P. inexpectata), for which there is also only a single historical record in the state. One question that birders are sure to ask is how to pronounce ‘Trindade’. The debate over the vernacular name has been chewed over for years without satisfactory resolution and there is insufficient space to delve into the competing and strongly felt opinions except to say that the name of the principal rock in the archipelago is derived from the Portuguese word for ‘Trinity’. This should not to be confused with Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, which originates with the Spanish for Trinity. Leandro Bugoni, a Brazilian ornithologist who has studied the petrel on the islands, says something like 'Treendádee' (per Bob Flood) and other Brazilians say ‘Trin-da-dzeh’ (per Stan Walens). So there you have it, no letters please!


American Tree Sparrow, photo by Aidan Griffiths
American Tree Sparrow   © Aidan Griffiths
(click photo to enlarge)

The other change impacting the NYS Checklist concerns the relationship of the American Tree Sparrow to other New World Sparrows. Recent molecular studies (Klicka et al. 2014) support existing suspicions that American Tree Sparrows are not in fact closely related to the Spizella sparrows, which for us comprise Chipping (S. passerina), Clay-colored (S. pallida) and Field (S. pusilla) Sparrows, but instead deserves its own genus. The scientific name for American Tree Sparrow is changed now from Spizella arborea to Spizelloides arborea. The relative position in the list has not changed but may do so when the affinities of this new genus become better understood. Current findings suggest that Spizelloides is more closely related to Fox Sparrows (Passerella), Zonotrichia sparrows, and juncos, and in time might end up being moved in amongst them. In discussing the changes, members of the NACC commented that single American Tree Sparrows themselves tend to associate with juncos rather than Spizella sparrows perhaps because of similarities in their contact calls and other traits more obvious to them than us. Just from this one example one can see that a seemingly arcane shuffle in the Checklist stimulates a reappraisal of the species and who knows, perhaps birders in the future will find the concept of ‘tundra juncos’ intuitive rather than unsettling.

Keep an eye on the relentless advance of the New York State Checklist and the inevitable ripples caused by future taxonomic developments.


  Angus Wilson
  Chair, New York State Avian Records Committee
  New York State Ornithological Association



Allen, A.A. 1934. A new bird for North America. Bulletin to the schools, The University of the State of New York. 20(13): 134-135.


Chesser, R. T.,Banks, R. C., Burns, K. J., Cicero, C., Dunn, J. L., Kratter, A. W., Lovette, I. J., Navarro-Siguenza, A. G., Rasmussen, P. C., Remsen, Jr., J. V., Rising, J. D. Stotz, D. F. and K. Winker 2015. Fifty-sixth Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 132: 748–764.


Flood, B., Fisher, A. and Elliott, M. 2013. Multimedia Identification Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds: Pterodroma Petrels. Pelagic Birds & Birding Multimedia Identification Guides, Isles of Scilly, England.


Howell, S. N. G. 2012. Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.


Klicka, J., Barker, F. K., Burns, K. J., Lanyon, S. M., Lovette, I. J., Chaves, J. A., and Bryson, R. W. Jr. 2014. A comprehensive multilocus assessment of sparrow (Family Passerellidae) relationships. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 77:177–182.

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