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March 24, 2005

Birds Of Iraq: The Black-Winged Stilt

Fran of Northwest Notes wrote in response to our Greylag Goose entry in this series; What a beautiful bird. I really like all of your Birds of Iraq posts.

So obviously I thought of her the moment I opened up the latest email from LTC Bob and saw the bird above. It's our third wader, a Black-Winged Stilt. It is, as the guide says, "Unmistakable," which is always a help when it comes to identifying a species.

"Exceptionally long, red legs and rather slim black and white body; walks with high graceful carriage."

Sounds more like the description of a pied Cate Blanchett than a bird to me, but admittedly, I'm kind of odd. God only knows what's bubbling away down in the depths of my subconscious. That whatever it is evidently involves a parti-colored Galadriel shouldn't surprise anyone in the least.

The gods of nomenclature have declared that Stilts, along with the Avocets, form the Recurvirostridae bird family, though controversy erupts once one gets down to the classifying the species.

While there is comparatively little debate about the taxonomy of the world's four avocets, there is little agreement about species-level taxonomy in the stilts. Leaving aside the unique Banded Stilt Cladorhynchus leucocephalus of Australia, some would lump all other stilts into a single species Himantopus himantopus, the name first in priority and which I prefer to restrict to the Black-winged Stilt of the Old World.

Fortunately for the self-esteem of LTC Bob's stilt, the nomenclaturists all classify it as Himantopus himantopus no matter what. The question is whether or not to lump the other variants in with it, or to separate them out. Thus, depending upon whom one asks this bird is either another Black-Winged Stilt, or a Hawaiian Stilt, and this one is either a Black-Winged or a Black-Necked. It may seem silly, but the intricacies of avispecies classification can have a surprisingly large effect on the real world.

Here's what Shorebirds : An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World says on the subject of stilt races.

"Try not to fall over."

Hold on a sec, that's a different book. Here's what Shorebirds, which I have chosen as the ultimate word on the subject because it contains some pretty pictures, really says;

RACES Five: nominate himantopus (S Eurasia, India, Sri Lanka, Africa), leucocephalus - 'Pied or White-Headed Stilt' (SE Indonesia, Australasia), knudseni - 'Hawaiian Stilt' (rare and endangered, Hawaii), mexicanus - 'Black-Necked Stilt' (USA to Peru and N. Brazil, Galapagos Islands), and melanurus (Peru and N. Brazil to central Chile and Argentina)

Shorebirds goes on to classify New Zealand's Black Stilt and Australia's Banded Stilt as separate species, leaving us with three stilt species overall, one of which has five sub-species. Let us hope birders the world over adopt this scheme as gospel, and bring to a close an argument that, in its way, has been every bit as deadly and bitter as the one between 50 Cent and The Game.

Can't we all just get along?

Previously: The Eurasian Collared Dove

Next: The Pied Kingfisher

Update: All six of LTC Bob's Black-Winged Stilt photos have been added to his page at the photo blog.

Posted by Bigwig at March 24, 2005 03:11 PM | TrackBack
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Intriguing how some of the related (linked) birds' bills curve up, some down, and some are straight. Especially the upward-curved ones (pied avocet); maybe they're always flipping food up out of the mud?

Posted by: Fran at March 25, 2005 12:59 PM
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