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2015 taxonomy update for Indian birds

By eBird India August 17, 2015
Grey-headed Swamphen - Panchami Manoo Ukil 600px

The Swamphen formerly known as Purple. Photo: Panchami Manoo Ukil

One of the painful things about being a birdwatcher is periodically having to get used to new names for species. This is not something most of us enjoy (in fact it can provoke strong reactions in some!), but these changes are inevitable as new techniques and better understanding of taxonomy cause a rearrangement — even in a relatively well-studied group of creatures like birds.

The eBird taxonomy is updated every year in August, and this year’s update brings its share of changes. In this article, we describe the main changes that affect us in India. If you are interested in exploring more, eBird central gives a comprehensive listing of changes, including more details on the basis on which the changes were made.

First, a new feature. The eBird taxonomy is synchronized with the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World. But of course eBird/Clements is not the only naming system available. Until now, it has not been possible for us to seamlessly translate between the eBird naming system and any of the other systems. But as of this month, you can choose to view species information on eBird in the naming system devised by the International Ornithological Committee — this is called the IOC World Bird List. To do this, go to your account preferences and choose to display names in “English (IOC)”. If you play with this, please do remember to change back to “English (India)”. We strongly recommend that all birders in India use the “English (India)” setting, as those names are adjusted according to what we in India are accustomed to. If you want to look at how different species are treated differently across the major global naming systems, please do explore the wonderful resources provided by Avibase.


Purple Swamphen in India is now Grey-headed Swamphen: This widespread and easily recognizable species had a huge geographic range: from Europe and Africa to Asia and Australasia. For a relatively sedentary species with clearly recognizable subspecies it was perhaps inevitably due for some reorganizing. Now, the erstwhile Purple Swamphen is split into 6 species, the one found in India being called Grey-headed Swamphen Porphyrio poliocephalus (poliocephalus meaning literally ‘grey-headed’). The “English (India)” name for this new species is Grey-headed Swamphen (Purple Swamphen), so if your eBird preferences are set this way, you can continue to find species with its old name.

As an aside, some of us remember feeling sad, years ago, when the name Purple Moorhen changed to Purple Swamphen!

Asian Paradise-Flycatcher is now Indian Paradise-Flycatcher: This species, cherished by us all, has also been split — into three new species. The species in South Asia (Afghanistan to Bangladesh, including Sri Lanka) is now called Indian Paradise-Flycatcher with the same scientific name (Terpsiphone paradisi) as the parent species. Note that the subspecies found in the Nicobars is now under a different species: Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher (Terpsiphone affinis nicobarica).

Common Buzzard is now confusing in India: Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) had a subspecies in the Himalayas (Buteo buteo burmanicus); this is now split into a separate species: Himalayan Buzzard (Buteo refectus). The confusion arises because we also get wintering Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) in India!

Scaly Thrush is now multiple species: Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma) has been split into four species. Two of the new species are found in India: the Nilgiri Thrush (Zoothera neilgherriensis) of the Western Ghats and the Scaly Thrush (Zoothera dauma) of central, northern and northeastern India. A close neighbour is the Sri Lanka Thrush (Zoothera imbricata) endemic to Sri Lanka.

“Steppe”, “Heuglin’s”, and “Mongolian” Gulls: Our coasts had two types of large white-headed gulls, the darker backed Heuglins and slightly lighter backed Steppe Gull. The taxonomy of these and related gulls is very unclear. Heuglins (Larus fuscus heuglini) was considered a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull; Steppe (formerly Larus cachinnans barabensis) was considered a subspecies of Caspian. With this update, both Heuglins (same scientific name as earlier) and Steppe (now Larus fuscus barabensis) are made subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull, while Caspian has only one race (monotype) and is a rare vagrant to our coasts. If you are reporting Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans), please make sure you add lots of detail! If you are in the eastern coast, you may rarely come across “Mongolian” Gull (Larus argentatus mongolicus), which was formerly also placed under Caspian but is now considered a subspecies of Herring Gull.

There are a few other changes for Indian species; most are minor changes in existing names. Please see the full description of the taxonomic update here.

As described above, the ‘English (India)’ setting exists so that we can more easily find species under the names that we are accustomed to. This year, some further customizations been made to the ‘English (India)’ names, with further parenthetical additions, including: Pale Sand Martin (Pale Martin), Malabar Starling (Blyth’s Starling), Vernal Hanging-Parrot (Indian Lorikeet), and Crimson-backed Sunbird (Small Sunbird), among others.

Earlier versions of the eBird taxonomy had other differences from what most of our current fieldguides show. Please see this article on the Bird Count India website for a description of these changes, which affected many common and widespread species including Great Tit, Golden Oriole, Common Stonechat, House Swift, Plaintive Cuckoo, Black Bulbul, White-throated Fantail, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Scarlet Minivet, Hill Myna, Chestnut-tailed Starling, and several more!

For your reference, here is a link to an excel sheet (350 kb) that contains a link to all “non-rare” species in India, together with a mapping across two other major naming systems: the IOC list and the BirdLife International list. We hope you find this useful!