The OSME Region List (ORL) 2014 – the story so far

Matters came to a head when at an OSME Council Meeting in 2004 the question was raised as to which taxonomic authority OSME should follow in correspondence and publications. This came as a mild surprise because many Council Members knew the answer. Possibly a bigger surprise was that many of their answers differed! The majority response was that OSME followed the 1996 Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East, by Richard Porter, Steen Christensen and Per Schiermacker-Hansen, but then the question arose, expressed in a state of mild alarm, would Richard Porter take kindly to being supplanted as the taxonomic authority cited by OSME? Now, the whole subject had arisen because the OSME Region had expanded in order to provide ornithological coverage in areas that other similar organisations, such as the Oriental Bird Club, had not considered when establishing the geographical or biogeographical boundaries of their areas of interest, in this case Central Asia (Technically, Middle Asia was the better term, but the usage of ‘Central Asia’ had long prevailed in most other fields of scientific enquiry).

White-throated Robin Irania gutturalis © A.Al-Sirhan

In 1996 OBC had produced an exceptionally useful checklist in book form, An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region, by Tim Inskipp, Nigel Lindsey and Will Duckworth. This precedent clearly could inform OSME work on a similar project and I was tasked to present to Council a recommended path to achieving an OSME equivalent. Shortly afterwards, by happenstance while birding, I met Richard Porter and Simon Aspinall on a Norfolk beach, and so I asked for their thoughts about OSME’s suggestion that the FG taxonomy in use needed to be supplanted. Richard’s (expurgated) response was, “Not before time”! A short but invaluable discussion quickly established that we were all on the same wavelength – if in my investigations I could convince them that I had come up with a coherent approach, we would work together.

Let me summarise why we dispensed with some checklists as our main authority. Some did not cover anywhere near all the bird taxa of the OSME Region – eg the BOU British List; some were dated and somewhat contradictory – eg the Voous, Peters and Vaurie Checklists and some quirky or over-reached in part, though all were useful – eg Monroe and Sibley.

Essentially, we were left with the Clements World Checklist, then a hard-copy book in its 5th edition, the emerging World Bird List (a book with a DVD) from the International Ornithological Congress (both were intended to become on-line repositories, the first under Cornell, the second as part of the IOC development) and the Howard and Moore 3rd Edition hard-copy checklist edited by Edward Dickinson.

Initially, it seemed the Clements route had more advantages, but the Cornell partnership with James Clements and their takeover after his death in 2005 had two apparent consequences: first, although a 6th edition lumbered on to our shelves in 2007, the strategy of getting the data on-line (in our view) needed more resources than could be funded and more time than the dedicated staff could spare; second, the North American Classification Committee within the American Ornithologists’ Union was almost glacial in the speed it dealt with some taxonomic proposals, and the Cornell approach (unlike that of James Clements in the past) was to await the published decision. However, in developing the on-line IOC World Bird List, IOC had decided to make Howard & Moore 3rd edition its main basis, primarily, we understood, because the thousands of references cited therein enabled IOC to follow an audit trail of the taxonomic treatment of each subspecies in question. The IOC World List had attracted a formidable array of talents, many of them with extensive field and academic experience across a wide range of bird families and genera. Furthermore, Richard Porter had been a fan of the IOC approach since its inception.

The OSME Region List (ORL) therefore would follow H&M3 as amended by IOC on-line updates, mostly based on peer-reviewed papers published since H&M3 had hit the shelves. An additional reason for following this path was that the Cornell on-line updates were to be annual, whereas the IOC World List updates would be more frequent, thus spreading the updating task of the OSME Region List more evenly throughout the year.

Nevertheless, we needed some assurance from knowledgeable people working in taxonomy before I could hope to persuade Richard and Simon, let alone OSME, of the recommended way to go (in fighter-pilot parlance, we needed ‘top cover’). Fortunately, before an Oriental Bird Club AGM in Cambridge, Nigel Collar kindly took time out of his preparation for that meeting to go through the nuts and bolts of how we should marshal the pros and cons within the context of OSME’s aims – I appreciated hugely his encyclopaedic knowledge and enthusiasm! At about the same time, our little group felt the need for someone to be recruited who had a working knowledge of recent taxonomic history and an understanding of the issues increasingly presented by the flood of scientific papers being published, and so Steve Preddy joined the ORL team. At his determined prodding, we developed the approach detailed in the Ornithological Basis of the ORL and the Explanation of the ORL. This approach has proved robust; if it had not, many people in the ORL Acknowledgements List surely would have challenged at least one aspect. OSME is particularly grateful for Steve’s calm and insistent advice. We hope we have not inadvertently omitted from the Acknowledgements List anyone who has helped us on our long journey!

In the ORL Reference Lists (Non-passerine and Passerine), there are many major works that have been read in detail where material applies to the OSME Region, and likewise hundreds of published research papers. Naturally, this will have resulted in numerous typos but, we would hope, only a few errors of fact; we are always pleased when any user of the ORL is kind enough to raise queries or put us right. The ORL has now been cited by numerous authors and its reference lists have been mined by many more. New field guides have followed its treatment of bird taxa, eg Birds of the Middle East 2nd edition, by Richard Porter and Simon Aspinall (2010) (UK and US) and Birds of Central Asia, by Raffael Ayé, Manuel Schweizer and Tobias Roth (2012) (UK and US). Versions of the former in Arabic, but tailored to national avifaunas, have been, or soon will be published, also following the ORL. We have also produced a simplified taxonomic list for those who wish to submit articles for Sandgrouse or other journals that cover, or have an interest in the OSME Region – the Simplified ORL (SORL).

As it has developed over the last 10 years, the ORL now follows the IOC World List in the general case. Most of our early seemingly radical decisions based on newly-published peer-reviewed papers (in individual cases) have been similarly interpreted in the longer run by IOC World List updates. However, we recognise that biology, fundamentally, is complex and messy – seldom is there a neat rule that applies in all circumstances that otherwise might be defined as being so similar as to be identical, and that is what makes bird taxonomy so fascinating – I try to keep in mind this mantra, ‘Species and subspecies are but a convenient fiction’ [1].  Volume 1 of H&M4 has now been published. In it, Edward Dickinson and Van Remsen emphasise their conservative approach, but acknowledge that most of the recently published papers that indicate differing interpretations likely will be proved correct. Volume 2 should appear late in 2014, but until then we won’t compare differences from IOC of treatments of individual taxa to make changes in the ORL. Furthermore, radical changes in H&M4 of order and sequence of families and genera have not yet been addressed fully by the IOC World List. A new system of bird taxonomy (the Tobias et al 2010 method), omitting consideration of molecular findings, has been developed for conservation purposes, and adopted by BirdLife and Lynx Edicions. This is very much a work in progress, but no rationale for any assessment of any taxon has yet been published, although the overall methodology has[2]. The ORL team will consider the implications once the data are published.

We are particularly grateful to all who have patiently listened to our queries, especially in the early days, and provided us with much sage advice; the ORL Team has worked compatibly and well.

We dedicate the ORL to Simon Aspinall, a good friend to all who met him.

Mike Blair, ORL Listmaster

[1] Kees van Deemter (2010) “In praise of vagueness”

[2] Tobias, J, N Seddon, C Spottiswoode, J Pilgrim, LC Fishpool and N Collar. 2010. Quantitative criteria for species delimitation. Ibis doi: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2010.01051.

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