For the Birds: Falling behind on name changes

Photo by Chris Bosak A common gallinule in Naples, Florida, April 2019.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column:

I brought up the subject of bird name changes last week. The column was about eastern towhees and how the ones we see here in the East were formerly called rufous-sided towhees.

I recently visited family in Florida and came across another interesting bird name change. Coincidently, it relates to a bird that paid a rare visit to Keene last week.

We were walking on a trail south of Naples and seeing many of the birds typically spotted in Florida. One of the more ubiquitous birds was the common moorhen. We kept hearing a rather strange bird, call so I took out my phone, launched my birding app and typed in “common moorhen” so I could find out what the bird sounded like.

Nothing came up. How could that be, I wondered. I know there is a bird called the common moorhen. I saw many of them the last time I was in Florida.

Phone service was spotty on the trail, so I couldn’t do an Internet search for common moorhen at the time. When we got back on the road I discovered why I couldn’t find common moorhen. The bird no longer exists as the common moorhen. The American Ornithologists’ Union split the U.S. bird from the similar marsh bird that is found in Europe and Asia.

The bird found overseas is called the Eurasian moorhen and the U.S. bird is now called the common gallinule. Florida has always had the purple gallinule; now it has the common gallinule as well. It is actually a return to the name common gallinule as that is what the bird was called prior to being named common moorhen in 1982 by the AOU. Confusing, I know.

This latest name change happened in 2011. There is little fanfare when bird names are changed. They don’t hold parades and they don’t grab the attention of the national press. Unless you are reading science journals or hanging out in bird expert circles, it could take years to find out that a bird’s name has changed — especially a bird that is not common to where you live. Such was the case with the moorhen … I mean gallinule.

Common gallinules are numerous in Florida and other points south. On occasion, they show up well north of Florida. I saw one years ago in Westchester County New York. This spring a few have been spotted in New England, including at Airport Road in Swanzey.

As with all unusual bird sightings, you never know how long the bird will stick around. As of this writing, the last reported sighting was on Wednesday, May 1. Common gallinules are freshwater, marsh-loving birds — kind of a cross between a duck and a rail. They are mostly a shiny black with a bright red facial shield and bill tipped with yellow. They are closely related to American coots.

Another similar name-change example is the common snipe. The birds that occur in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia were previously all called common snipe. The U.S. version is now called Wilson’s snipe, while the overseas bird is still common snipe.

Every year some bird names change and they often impact our New England birds. I have to start paying closer attention to those science journals.

For the Birds runs Mondays in The Sentinel. Chris Bosak may be reached at chrisbosak26@gmail.com or through his website www.birdsofnewengland.com

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