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!
We continue with the bird taxonomy lesson/rant with another family on another continent – shrikes. The all-knowing Wikipedia informs me that the name is derived from the Latin word for ‘butcher’ – or, at least, its scientific family, Laniidae, is. (Linguist nerds: the Latin word is Lanius, which happily also means executioner.)
Now, “butcher” might seem a trifle macabre for a bird of such lovely colors. It might seem an unfair judgement of a perhaps overly – practical beak and a glint in the eye that appears slightly evil when viewed in the wrong (or right) lighting. Taxonomists, one might shake one’s head. When they have any imagination, it’s too much.
In the shrike’s case, however, “butcher” appears to be entirely accurate. In Africa, they’re known as the fiscal – which happens to be the word for hangman. It’s not an unfair likeness to a serial killer that caused it. They are in the habit of picking up insects or small prey and literally skewering it on acacia thorns. In the absence of acacia, barbed wire will do, or really just any sharp point. It’s really a very practical adaptation: this way, they can rip their catch into smaller, manageable fragments. Heck, it even works for short-term storage. Stick it on – well, a stick, and then keep coming back for a nibble before it rots entirely. In the case of the toxic lubber grasshopper, it’s perfect – one to two days of dead impaled grasshopper later, all the poison has degraded and voila, dinner.
(Note: shrike itself has a rather less gruesome origin. It’s simply the near-screaming sound of the bird’s call.)