2019 eBird Taxonomy Update

By Team eBird August 7, 2019
White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi

eBird’s annual taxonomy update is scheduled for 7 August, and there are three things you need to know: submit all unsubmitted lists from eBird Mobile prior to the update; expect changes to some data from 15 July onwards; expect changes to bird names for several days around 7 August.

Taxonomy updates are always fun: maybe your life list will increase as subspecies are elevated to species with splits? Even if your numbers don’t change, there will be new names to learn, new field marks to study (how *DO* you tell a Stejneger’s Scoter from a White-winged Scoter?), and maybe some new birds to be aware of on your next trip to a new area. eBird updates its taxonomy once a year to reflect the newest science on species limits and avian relationships, as well as any changes in nomenclature.

This year’s taxonomy update will be a “big one”, although changes in North America and Western Europe are relatively few. The large number of changes is the result of a comprehensive review of African, Asian, and Australasian species to reflect the best available information. After about 20 species are lumped, the global species total in eBird will increase from 10585 to 10721, including 3 newly-described species, 48 extinct species previously not included, and ~107 species added due to splits. A couple groups, including drongos (genus Dicrurus) and white-eyes (Zosterops) have some major shuffles that reflect new information. We assess each case independently for each update, but we are also pleased that this year’s update will make strides to better match other global checklists (e.g., IOC World Bird List and Handbook of Birds of the World). This will help reduce confusion globally.

The three things for you to keep in mind for the taxonomy update are:

Submit any old checklists from eBird Mobile
We strongly recommend that all eBirders submit all “not submitted” checklists from eBird Mobile prior to 31 July. This ensures that we can implement the latest taxonomic changes on your lists as soon as possible, and makes it much easier. In general, this is also always a good practice—if something happens to your phone, your unsubmitted checklists will be lost, but submitted lists are always safe at eBird. Taxonomy updates take time to ripple through the eBird system, so please submit these lists as soon as you can.

Changes start 15 July
In previous years taxonomic updates would start on “eBird Taxonomy Day” and continue at a fast pace for the next few days, with a small number of changes still happening over the next couple weeks. This year you may notice some changes starting as early as 15 July, although life list totals change in most cases until later. Many of the changes each year involve changing a subspecies—such as Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri to a newly split species, such as Stejneger’s Scoter (Melanitta stejnegeri). Remember that the subspecies and species are not really different entities, within the eBird database or taxonomically speaking: all that happens is that we change the names and taxonomic rank (subspecies changes to species). By converting to the subspecies group in advance, these will flip right over the the species more easily. Please don’t be alarmed if you notice some of your records changing to the subspecies options for the scoters (e.g., records showing as White-winged Scoter (North American) Melanitta deglandi deglandi), since these will flip over to the species more quickly when eBird Taxonomy Day comes along.

Be ready for 7 August
As always, we’ll publish a comprehensive summary of this year’s changes prior to the update and we’ll also let you know on the home page and via social media when the updates are underway. You may notice a few odd behaviors—such as names that look out of sync briefly—while these updates happen. But we will make sure that your normal birding is not interrupted and that eBird Mobile transitions over seamlessly to the new bird list.
eBird Taxonomy Day is always exciting. We wish you many new armchair lifers and can promise you’ll have some new field marks to learn in scoters, white-eyes, elaenias, ibis, and many other species!