Oh, Shrikes! (pt. 2)

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The long-tailed shrike is known alternatively as the rufous-backed shrike – for reasons that highlight the confused world of bird taxonomy better than anything.

The problem is that there’s this thing called subspecies – which means that, for example, to take collared kingfishers, you can get two birds that are technically the same species but are found in two completely different location and also happen to look completely different. So while this individual is distinctly not rufous-backed – grey-backed is a far more visible descriptor – when you look at other subspecies, such as tricolor or even erythronotus, the name becomes much more appropriate.

It also ties into a debate raging amongst bird taxonomists today – to split or not to split? Growing knowledge of DNA and hybridization has blurred the lines between species, and the problem facing many biologists today is deciding where exactly to split it. Should tricolor be a different species from this one (which I believe is caniceps)? Of course, with specific regards to long-tailed shrikes that might be entirely unfounded in DNA examination. It’s one that’s most certainly affected other species, though – take purple swamphens, which have been sectioned off into several species across their extensive range; what we find in India is now the grey-headed swamphen, which confused me immensely on eBird the first time I saw it.

More species or less species? What do you think defines a species? Let me know in the comments!

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