What is a Species, Part II: Why do we Care?

Plumed and Wandering Whistling Ducks - Parry's Lagoon, Western Australia, Australia

Yesterday I spent the day in the company of 4 other excellent birders as we worked our way around Lake Cayuga, into the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, and back down the far side of the lake.  Over the course of the day, we tallied up 24 species of the Anatidae family that includes Swans, Geese, and Ducks.  Other birders were also covering the same areas we were and at least 4 more species were seen that we missed.  Two of these species were represented by 3 individuals among a flock of over 8,000 Canada and Snow Geese.  These two species are essentially smaller versions of the Canada Goose (Cackling Goose) and the Snow Goose (Ross’s Goose).

So why did we not spend the time picking through these huge flocks for these few unusual individuals?  What does that mean about my group’s interest in the species concept compared the other groups?  Does any of this matter to the birds themselves?  Ultimately, why do we care about classifying these birds so specifically?

Why didn’t my group spend the time to find the few oddballs in the flock?  I’m not quite sure.  We did spend some time earlier searching through a smaller flock of Canadas looking for a Cackling.  We spent a good portion of the day picking out ducks at a huge distance, distinguishing the species in low abundance out of thousands of others.  I can’t tell you exactly why we didn’t find the Cackling and Ross’s Geese.  We thought about it.  In fact, I made a joke about looking for a Ross’s Goose.  It was a joke at the time and then I got home and saw that people actually had done exactly that.

For me, it has a lot to do with the experience of seeing a species.  Before I was a photographer, picking birds out of a flock with a scope at 500 yards or more would have been a rewarding challenge.  Today though I want to be closer.  Ideally, I want to be within 20 yards.  If it’s a songbird, I want to be much closer.  Years ago I was content with counting species.  Today I want to observe birds and behavior, preferably with both eyes, not just one through a high powered scope.  For me, both the Ross’s and Cackling Geese would have been new birds.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy to have them on my life list, but I’d much rather add them when I can really see them up close and personal.  Then I could study the differences and behavior.  If I can get a photograph, great, if not at least I am more confident on the identification.

I can’t speak to the motivations of the other birders in my group or the other birders that did pick out those two odd geese species.   I can guess though that by taking the time and painstakingly identifying every individual in the flock, the other birders were more interested in documenting species numbers and distribution.  This motivation can come from a desire to contribute to academic research through citizen science project like eBird or even to further their personal records and understanding.  Maybe it comes from a desire to see two more species on that given day.  I don’t know, but I do know that birding and the experience of seeing and identifying a bird is very personal. It is different for every person and probably different every single day.

So does any of this mean anything for the birds themselves?  Overall, probably not.  The only way I see taxonomy affecting a specific bird is through one of two ways.  First, birds could be affected negatively if a specific subspecies was split into a full species and numerous birders flocked to a specific location to see the new species and ended up disturbing the population.  Seems theoretically possible but on the whole, not all that realistic for a major impact.

The second option can be much more significant and benefit a bird and that is conservation.  Splitting a single species into two species means that the overall population of that species gets cut significantly since some portion of the birds is now considered a separate species.  Since population size has a lot to do with conservation efforts, this could raise the profile of one or both of the new species, leading to increased conservation efforts.  The Gunnison Sage Grouse is a good real life example where this has occurred.  This could also go the opposite way with a separate species being reclassified as a subspecies, however when this happens the conservation efforts seem to continue despite the reclassification.  I’ve personally seen this with both the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken.

This all leads to a single ultimate question.  Why do we care if a specific population of birds (species or not) exists or doesn’t?  Why do we value biodiversity and why is it so important in our lives?  Does a species have some intrinsic value?  Tune in next week for a discussion of biodiversity and its importance in our lives.

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