Pigeon Hawks, Oldsquaws and Water Pipits: One Birder’s Journey Into the Past

by Ryan Treves

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North American Vegetative Regions. Golden Field Guide to Birds (1966)

Most birdwatching journeys begin with a step out the door. They involve trips across miles through diverse ecosystems and vivid scenery. Today, however, I took an ornithological journey not through space, but through time — back to the origins of modern birding.

Tucked behind numerous flashy, modern field guides on my shelf is a modest book I had scarcely ever noticed. This time my eyes rest upon its beige-olive spine purposefully:  “Birds of North America,” it reads. How chaste. As I pull the book away from the shelf, a dazzling illustration of North America’s buntings is revealed on the front cover. The vibrant drawing and curling title contrast the book’s binding so starkly that I become curious immediately.

Cover.JPGThe Golden Field Guide to the Birds of North America was published in 1966, before the founding of the American Birding Association and several years before Kenn Kaufman’s first Big Year. The book describes about 700 species of birds observed in North America, including several casual visitors. Chandler Robbins, Bertel Brunn and Herbert Zim collaborated to put the guide together, with Arthur Singer illustrating each species. Turning the pages, I am continually absorbed in the artwork. In comparison to the refined depictions in my standby National Geographic guide, the plates in the Golden Guide show richer colors and more pure brush strokes. The page of tanagers stands out as particularly vivid, as Singer manages to capture the range of scarlet, rose and flame-colored hues of each male bird. The pine needles above and the subdued gold of each female tanager provide balance, adding an aspect of visual pleasure to the plate’s educational function.

Tanager plate.JPG

As I pore over the book, I begin to notice discrepancies within its pages. Why have I never heard of a “Pigeon Hawk”? Since when were there five species of Juncos? What is a Blue-Gray Tanager, native to South America, doing in a North American field guide?

Junco plate.JPGThe answer lies in nomenclature, taxonomy and distribution. Nomenclature is the devising on common names for individual species, for example, the convention to call Coccyzus americanus a “Yellow-billed Cuckoo.” Nomenclature has changed significantly across the years, leading to a “Pigeon Hawk” now being called a Merlin, a “Water Pipit” an American Pipit and the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow” a Nelson’s Sparrow. Nomenclature sometimes changes as older names predating modern species descriptions are replaced with names that modern Ornithologists deem superior, as is the case for the Long-tailed Duck (“Oldsquaw” in the Golden guide). More productively, it often shifts to prevent confusion between species. For example, Capella gallinago  had its name changed from “Common Snipe” to Wilson’s Snipe because it was not the same species as the Old-World* species named Common Snipe. Often, nomenclature changes are gradual in their affection: some birders still refer to the Eastern Towhee as a “Rufous-sided Towhee.”
Myiarchus plate.JPG


The Flycatcher family has had more than its share of name changes, as shown here in the Myiarchus genus. The “Wied’s Crested Flycatcher” in this plate is now the Brown-crested Flycatcher, and the “Olivaceous Flycatcher” is now the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Both species retained their scientific names, however: Myiarchus tyrannulus and Myiarchus tuberculifer, respectively. 


Taxonomy changes, while more unusual, are certainly more interesting. These occur as a result of increased knowledge about what constitutes a species, and where a species fits in its genus or family. Alterations in the taxonomy of North American birds usually occur in two forms: ‘lumps’ and ‘splits.’ For instance, the five subspecies of Juncos illustrated above were ‘lumped’ into one species after the Golden guide was published, while the “Plain Titmouse” was split into two species in 1996, the Oak Titmouse and the Juniper Titmouse. Other notable examples include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker split into the Red-naped Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Blue Goose and Snow Goose lump. Taxonomic changes that are neither lumps or splits have occurred, though they are few and far between. The Screech Owl, for example, not only split into its Western and Eastern variety, but also moved into the new genus Megascops. Even more drastically, the Olive Warbler was moved into its own family — Peucedramidae —  as a result of a 1998 study of the bird’s mitochondrial DNA. Though taxonomy changes continue today (2016 changes), the definition of a species is questioned now more than ever. When a bird’s anatomy, behavior and genetics all suggest different conclusions, the reality arises that, in some cases, animals do not adhere to rigid classification.

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Bald Eagles were considered rare in the 1960s.

The last major clue to what makes the Golden guide so different is distribution: the way a species or population is spread across a given area. The most common distribution change is a decline in range or population. Several species in the Golden guide have experienced drastic population changes since 1966. Bachman’s Warbler, Dusky Seaside Sparrow and Aplomado Falcon** have been considered all but extinct due to habitat loss and/or hunting. The population decline of other species such as Red Knot and Black Tern can be seen by comparing the species descriptions in the Golden guide to a field guide today. Nevertheless, there are a few notable instances where a species has rebounded from its 1966 status to reach healthy levels today. Due to human effort and the ban on DDT in the 1970s-1990s, Bald Eagles and Ospreys have both made spectacular rebounds in North America.

Cardinal Family Plate.JPG
Grosbeaks, finches, sparrows and buntings.


Looking up, I realize several hours have passed. For a time I was completely consumed by the intricacies of a magnificent bird book, every page sparking new curiosity. By looking back through the years, I glimpsed what it would have been like to be a birdwatcher in the 1960s, in the budding field of ornithology and field identification. Yet I did not only learn about name changes and species lumps—I learned about why I love birdwatching. While names and styles and even species may have been different way back then, birding in 1966 was driven by the same core reason that birders go out today: for an unwavering passion for our feathered friends. On the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the Golden Field Guide’s Birds of North America, I became a better birdwatcher—without even leaving the house.


*Old World refers to Africa and Eurasia. Old World warblers and Old World Buntings, among other families, are very different from New World Warblers and New World Buntings.

**Efforts to re-introduce the Aplomado Falcon to southwestern U.S. have had some success.

“All About Birds.” All About Birds. Cornell University, 2015. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.                                                                                         Robbins, Chandler S., Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim. Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. New York: Golden, 1966. Print.

Young Birder Feature: Raymie

Raymie and his sister at Parfrey’s Glen in Sauk County.

Age: 13
Hometown: Appleton

How long have you been birding, and what got you started?

As long as I can remember. While my family wasn’t really what you would consider birders, my Grandma watched birds at her feeders. She taught me the basic backyard
birds, and I went from there. I spent a good majority of the time at my Grandma’s house
looking through her copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds. I learned to recognize the birds I
hadn’t learned from my Grandma from the drawings in the book that I had memorized. I
started to draw birds in kindergarten. Eventually I started going to nature preserves to
look for birds. Now, I sometimes teach my Grandma a new bird (this spring I identified an Eastern Towhee for her.)

Why did you join the Wisconsin Young Birders Club?

I wanted to get together with people my age that like birding as much as I do.

What is one bird you want to see in the future?

I want to travel around the world and see all sorts of exotic birds and other wildlife. One bird that has always stuck out to me is the Iiwi. This bird is beautiful, and represents Hawaiian birdlife and the conservation that needs to take place on the island chain.

The Hawaiian Iiwi

Tell us something interesting/funny that happened to you while birdwatching.

I went down to Missouri to see the total solar eclipse. But the trip would have been worth it just for the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. When it was almost to totality, they would fly more like a woodpecker or a finch. That is, they would fly up a little ways, stop flapping and let themselves fall a little bit. They would then start flapping again and repeat the process. I have never seen a hummingbird fly that way before. (Check out eBird’s feature on eclipse birding here!)

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know. I definitely want to work with animals and nature. Ecology is an interesting subject. It would be cool to work in/own a zoo. Environmental education would be cool. I just somehow want to work with animals and nature.

Thanks, Raymie! 

December Young Birder of the Month: Oliver B.


Age: 13  

Hometown: Carpentersville, IL (main) / New Lisbon, WI (cabin)

How long have you been birding, and what got you started?

I have been seriously birding for about two years but I have been interested in birds for much longer.

A flock of Ducks (probably Ring-necked or Bufflehead) at our cabin back in 2013 was the first time I tried hard to identify a bird.

Why did you choose to join the Wisconsin Young Birders Club?

I saw it on the ABA website and thought it would help me with birding near our cabin (New Lisbon, WI).

Where do you see yourself as a birdwatcher in 10 years?

I see myself traveling around the world trying to see the most birds possible and as a avian field technician for my job.

Tell us an interesting/funny birding story from your experience in Wisconsin or elsewhere.

We were going to walk our dog and as I am walking down our driveway, I spot a Warbler about 7 feet up in a tree about 15 feet away. I walked closer till I was only about 5 feet from the bird. I got my binoculars on it and realized that it was one of the most rare birds I had ever seen. It was a Kirtland’s Warbler! The bird stayed for almost a minute with me at that distance allowing me to study the it very well.

Kirtland’s Warbler

What advice would you give to a novice young birder?

Keep birding. Know that even the most experienced birders make mistakes and age is not a barrier.

Why is birding important to you?

Birding is important to me because

1 – I have made many friends through birding.

2 – It is the only hobby/activity that I have ever had that I can do anytime and anywhere.

And 3 – It gets me outdoors.

You can check out Oliver’s fledgling Illinois bird club, the Whimbrel Bird Club, here: https://whimbrelbirders.org/

Thank you Oliver! 

November Young Birder of the Month:   Elsa

Hometown: Madison, WI

In lieu of the traditional Q&A style of YBM articles, Elsa chose instead to write a short description of her time volunteering at the Open Door  Bird Sanctuary in Door County.


“Interning at such a young age, I have found most people think is very surprising, and unheard of. If you ask me, almost anyone should try out such an amazing opportunity as this. I have been feeding owls, handling falcons, cleaning the water bowls for a turkey vulture, and much more! Interning opens up a whole new list of opportunities to both learn and have fun!

       On days when we are open to the public, I often get either stationed at the mews, or the education table. At the mews I get to give speeches about 4 out of 12 of the birds at the sanctuary. Here, I often see the visitors astounded, by both my knowledge of birds of prey, and the birds themselves. You would be surprised to find the number of people who haven’t heard of a great horned owl; explaining it to them and seeing them smile, is super fun. It is like suddenly I become the teacher! The education table is nice too. It is covered with tons of fascinating artifacts, that are irresistible and fun to touch. On all open days we also have a raptor show, often with this I help behind the scenes, tying falconers knots and lifting crates with birds in them. Someday I hope to be onstage, and handling the birds myself! After the show, on good days we have a guided trail hike. The trails around the sanctuary are some of the best kept trails I have ever seen. I always enjoy tagging along with the hikes, where we often see cedar waxwings, quail tracks, and eat apples right off the many trees which grow throughout the sanctuary.

       On volunteer work days, we come in ready to scrub down the mews and feed the birds. I do a lot of the water bowl and rock scrubbing for the first section, it isn’t the best job, but just being there makes it all worthwhile. By feeding time, this hard work all pays off. I get to slice up the quail for the Merlins, and I walk around placing frozen rats, (or rat-cicles as we like to call them) in almost every mew for the birds to enjoy. As you can probably tell, interning at Open Door Bird Sanctuary has been one of the best things I have ever done, and I would highly recommend an internship of any kind to almost anyone. It is a fantastic opportunity to learn even more about birds.”


Elsa is the perfect example of hope for the future of Wisconsin’s birds. While the WYBC loves members who show up to every event, it is so much more to see members like Elsa working outside of the club to help birds and give back to nature. Thanks Elsa!

First Annual ILYB Symposium

Wisconsin Young Birders at ILYB symposium

On August 27th, the WYBC was invited to the First Annual Ilinois Young Birders Symposium in Ryerson Woods, Illinois. It was a great event and we look forward to next year’s meeting. Here is the full report published on the ILYB page:

“Illinois Young Birders in conjunction with Brushwood Center offered the first Illinois Young Birders Symposium at Ryerson Conservation Area on Saturday, August 27th. The event was nearly sold out with more than 60 people in attendance!

The packed house got to enjoy complimentary breakfast, lunch, and snacks from Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, while young birders presented polished and impactful personal stories of how birds have affected their lives. Isoo O’Brien spoke about his year long adventure, birding around the world in more than 20 countries. Jackie Kuroda debunked the stigma surrounding pigeons, proving to us how intelligent pigeons are. Eddie Kasper regaled us with stories of Camp Colorado and birding from the arid grasslands to the mountain tops. Ryan Treves gave a moving speech of the struggle to start Wisconsin Young Birders, taking an dream and making it a reality. Jake Cvetas taught everyone how to get the most out of eBird from tracking your life list to calculating the probability of finding Eurasian Wigeon in Illinois. Finally, Kalman Strauss talked of his selfless work with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors and how it once took six monitors to resuce a Virginia Rail in downtown Chicago.

Also on the agenda, author and naturalist, Joel Greenberg, moderdated a panel discussion of professionals who have turned their passion into a career with birds: Sulli Gibson – recent graduate of Cornell University, Vickie Igleski – Zookeeper at Lincoln Park Zoo, and Peggy Macnamara – Resident Artist at the Field Museum.

Finally, key note speaker, Josh Engel, recounted tales from his life and career from an early age through college and into professional life. Josh told us how his focus, friendships, and a bit of luck took him around the world from Chicago to Eucador and South Africa, all while working with birds.

After the talks ended and donated items were raffled off including a signed copy of a Sibley’s field guide, the group headed to Brushwood Center for an art reception. The walls of Bushwood proudly displayed photography, drawings, paintings and more by several young birders including Lucas Haberkorn, Nandu Dubey, and Brett Kasper.

Overall it was an amazing day!”

Bird Banding at Woodland Dunes Nature Center


Join us on October 8th in Two Rivers for a chance to mist net and band songbirds. Jim Knickelbine will lead the group through a morning of bird-banding, demonstrating techniques and conventions such as how to properly remove a bird from a net, how to hold a wild bird and other data that can be collected. This will be a hands-on activity; every member will have the opportunity to participate in the process! The club may band migrants such as Orange-crowned Warbler, Palm Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow in addition to resident Wisconsin birds.

 Jim is the Executive Director of the center and has been working at the site for 23 years. He has extensive experience in both bird banding and youth education. Jim is also the co-chair of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s Education Committee.

Please meet promptly at 7:30am on October 8th in the parking lot of

3000 Hawthorne Ave, Two Rivers, WI 54241.

The facility has bathrooms, however please use them before banding as it is off-site.

While the WYBC will provide a small snack, bring plenty of water!

If you need transportation assistance, email Ryan at the address below.

Because of limited space availability, we ask that you bring no more than 2 family members along. The event will last no longer than 3-4 hours.

******Note: You MUST RSVP to attend this event.*******

If you can’t make it at 7:30 but would like to come, inform Ryan so the group is not delayed. Better late than never!

RSVP to ryantreves@gmail.com

A Trip to the International Crane Foundation

Crane image

                        Come join us for a morning of birding and learning about projects at the International Crane Foundation! Meet at 8:00am at E11376 Shady Lane Rd, Baraboo, WI 53913. Birding will start at 8am as we traverse the trails on the property, looking for specialties such as LeConte’s Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, Bobolink, Clay-colored Sparrow, as well as many wood-warblers and late migrants. An ICF staff-led presentation on bird telemetry will follow. The morning will finish off with a 10am tour of the ICF, during which one can observe all 15 of the world’s crane species! Visit savingcranes.org for more info on the facility.

When: June 28, 2016         8:00am-12:00pm

Come when you can, leave when you have to! The group will start birding the trails at 8am. Please contact Ryan for any special scheduling questions. 

Where: International Crane Foundation 

E11376 Shady Lane Rd, Baraboo, WI, 53913


Who: any kids interested in birding ages 10-18! Please RSVP to wisconsinyoungbirdersclub@gmail.com before June 27th.