Saturday, 19 September 2015

Split Infinity

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted something about splits and armchair ticks, this caused immediate, and understandable confusion amongst the myriad of tyro birders on the patch. By way of an apology I thought I would offer this quick guide to bird species and the listing thereof. 
Charles Darwin
Archbishop Ussher
According to the Genesis account Birds appeared during the fifth great epoch (n.b. not 24 hour day, which, thanks to being misled by the clergy of his day, led Darwin to his first wrong assumption and to write the dullest book in the world, I know I’ve read it) of creation, they were produced according to their kind (n.b. not species. The second spanner that the clergy of old threw into Darwin’s works) the writer offered no definition of a ‘kind’ but it would seem it was somewhere between what we now call an Order and a Genus (see Taxonomic Rank.)

All was well and everyone knew what everything was but two things happened to throw the whole thing into a state of confusion. Micro Evolution: Birds didn’t stay the same; within their kinds they bred, spread abroad, became isolated and started to look a bit different. Paradise Lost: Man had a few problems and Birdwatching took a bit of a back seat. Listers (yes there have always been Listers) had to content themselves with just 4 ticks. Big Bird, Little Bird, Pretty Bird and Nice Sounding Bird. Note that identification was occasionally Aural but mostly Visual.

A couple of thousand years on and a new development occurred. Birds as food: This led to a doubling of the number of species. Now in addition to the original 4 another 4 were available to the keen Lister. Tastes Lovely, Tastes Alright, Tastes Funny (some authorities added Smelt Funny but not everyone got that) and Tastes Disgusting. Sharp-eyed readers will note this new advance in identification was partially Olfactory but mostly Gustatory, little used techniques amongst the Lister of the 21st century.

'Tastes Lovely'
As part of their continuing slide into stupidity mankind developed more effective ways of catching and killing Birds, but this had an upside to the Lister. Now he (female Listers were not out of the closet at this stage) was seeing Birds close up and in the hand all sorts of variation was noticed and his list grew. Exponentially! As a corollary to this new development a new element to the hobby of listing was born: The List Police. Not everyone thought it was ethical to list dead Birds and this led to much wrangling within the burgeoning Birding community. Tactile identification was controversial.

The List Police
By the 18th century things were swinging back to the Visual/Aural techniques of old, especially with the development of rudimentary visual enhancement devices. It was Gilbert White, who with his brand new pair of ‘Zeiff 5x25 binocularff’ became the father of the modern day Splitter. He noticed that the Bird previously known as the ‘Little Green Bird’ didn’t all make the same noise, some went ‘piu, piu, ptt, ptt, ptt, trrrrrrr’ others went ‘swi, swi, swi, wewewewee’ and others went ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’. He split the 1 Bird into 3, Listers went wild everywhere! The first he called Wood Warbler as it warbled in the Woods, the second he named Willow Warbler as it often chose to warble in a Willow, he wasn’t really sure what to call the third.
Gilbert White
Around the same time a Swedish Zoologist named Linnaeus decided to codify all this stuff and so invented Taxonomy (a sort of cross between stuffing animals and star-gazing). He decided that the smallest divisible element of Birds would be the species and there were quite a lot of them by now what with all the looking, shooting, touching, sniffing and cooking that had been going on over the centuries. The world list was somewhere around 1,000.

Carl Linnaeus
The 18th century was of course a time of imperialist expansionism, this led to more travel, exposure to more birds, and also, a sort of pre-cursor to the cold war arms race but with Birds as the weapon of choice. By the time of the first World War there were 20,000 species of Bird as each empire had to have more than the other, Listers were ecstatic but things had clearly got out of hand, the Listing Police (in association with the League of Nations) stepped in and scaled the whole thing back down to 8,600.

League of Nations
Listers were not to be outdone, they (a few women had joined the men, now they had been emancipated. In fact it was often thought, mistakenly, that Emily Davison had thrown herself in protest under the Kings Horse when in fact she had spotted a rarity on the other side of Epsom racecourse that she needed for her London List) worked surreptitiously on new technologies and new techniques that would ensure future growth to their pared down Lists.

Emily Davison
One surprisingly obvious ‘new’ development was to actually go and look for Birds, Birdwatching evolved into Birding, Birders went to stay at Bird Observatories, all the better to observe Birds. Lists grew, but more was needed! New areas were pioneered, Scilly, Shetland, Boats, the Zoo (don’t worry the Listing Police were all over that, if you can’t tick dead stuff you certainly can’t tick stuff behind bars, stuff recently escaped from behind bars still causes problems) but List growth was stalling.

Two things happened almost simultaneously, 1) Birders commandeered Astronomical Telescopes, e.g. Questars and, 2) Guru’s were invented. Legendary Birders such as Peter Grant, Killian Mullarney and, more recently, the famed Ma-tan Ga’ana started to notice, with these superior optics, that there were whole tracts of feathers that nobody previously had realised existed. Many of these tracts were actually ever so (ever so) slightly different from those of Birds that had formerly been considered the same species, the Split was well and truly here to stay.

  Ma-tan Ga'ana
Similar progress has been made in the Aural department with the likes of the Sound Approach gang leading the way in espousing that, ‘stuff that sounds different probably is different.’  Split, Split, Split. But. ‘Of course’, I hear you say, ‘this is all the same old same old, If it looks different, sounds different (okay, not much has been done with the whole sniff & scratch approach lately but I’m sure it’s due a resurgence) blah, blah, blah’. But wait!

The Sound Approach
Up until now most of this Splitting lark (not Splitting Lark) has relied on tangible perceptions of what Birds are but modern technology has stepped in with the likes of Prof. Martin Collinson and his ilk who made the Watsonian, or should that be Crickian(?) discovery that if you chop Birds in two it reveals a barcode (such is my understanding) that rather like Blackpool Rock tells you what the Bird actually is, and guess what, yes, loads of identical stuff is in reality totally different. Splitters were euphoric and apoplectic in equal measure, the goal of 20,000 ticks seemed as if it were within reach again but, by a cruel twist of fate, no one would be able to reach it without the assistance of a crazed scientist.

Dr. Strangelove
Prof. Martin Collinson
Wither to now, you ask? I suspect that a large leap forward in technology is our only hope, someone needs to invent a Birdscanning device capable of detecting minute differences between hither to undifferentiated species. 40,000 species awaits, will you rise to the challenge?


Oh, and as for Armchair Ticks, you can get fumigation products to sort them out #rentokill

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