What did the DSP ever do to Them?

One of the unique and most charismatic birds in South America, high if not top on any birders’ list of target species when they visit its range, is Phegornis mitchellii, long known as Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, or affectionately abbreviated as DSP. Its long and droop-tipped bill is unlike that of typical plovers, hence the compound sandpiper-plover, conveying a history of taxonomic uncertainty. Now, because it appears to be ‘simply’ an aberrant small plover, some authorities have castrated the name to Diademed Plover, or ‘just another’ plover, which DSP most certainly is not. But why stop there? I mean, everyone knows what a diadem is, right? Or perhaps not. So why not go all the way and emasculate it totally to, say, Andean Plover?

Does the beautiful little Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, with its diadem and its probing, sandpiper-like feeding, deserve to have its name castrated of history? Some say yes, but those watching the bird still call it DSP. Chile, 15 Nov. 2015. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Does the beautiful little Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, with its diadem and its probing, sandpiper-like feeding, deserve to have its name castrated of history? Some say yes, but those watching the bird still call it DSP. Chile, 15 Nov. 2015. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Birders enjoying a close-up view of DSPs. El Yeso, Chile, 15 Nov. 2015. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Birders enjoying a close-up view of DSPs. El Yeso, Chile, 15 Nov. 2015. © Steve N. G. Howell.

The subject of fiddling with English names is a popular one among birders, a field rife with inconsistency and hypocrisy (see, for example, What’s in a (Bird) Name? = Leica Blog Post). While ornithological bodies in charge of taxonomic decisions are questionably qualified to make such decisions (see Split or Get off the Pot = Leica Blog Post), they are undeniably unqualified when it comes to the English language. Indeed, a perusal of almost any ornithological journal will reveal a litany of illiteracy when it comes to syntax and grammar, a veritable treasure trove of ‘word crimes’ as Weird Al Yankovich called them.

A separate committee in charge of producing, when necessary, common sense English bird names might be one solution. In the meantime, I hear birders ask: Why do so-called authorities delight in messing with birds that occur in far-flung regions rather than address ‘problems’ nearer home? Does the word Nimby mean anything? For example, all flycatchers in the genus Contopus are called pewees, except for Olive-sided Flycatcher (which realistically comprises two species that might be named Boreal Pewee and Cooper’s Pewee, if they are split before the Catholic Church embraces birth control). Oh, and except for the ‘wood-pewees’ that breed in North America, which could be named simply Eastern Pewee and Western Pewee (most if not all pewees occur in woods, after all). But no, needlessly long names are fine in this case, if not for the DSP.

The “wood-pewee” in Western Wood-Pewee is clearly useful and helps birders appreciate how different it is from, say, a Tropical Pewee (next image). What’s so ironic about irony? California, 15 May 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.

The “wood-pewee” in Western Wood-Pewee is clearly useful and helps birders appreciate how different it is from, say, a Tropical Pewee (next image). What’s so ironic about irony? California, 15 May 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Just a plain old Tropical Pewee, not a Tropical Wood-Pewee. Quintana Roo, Mexico, 29 Nov. 2010. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Just a plain old Tropical Pewee, not a Tropical Wood-Pewee. Quintana Roo, Mexico, 29 Nov. 2010. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Or for Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, an icon of the Southern Ocean with it’s evocative and very descriptive name, which some lists have shortened to Light-mantled Albatross. Birders still shout “Light-mantled Sooty” when they see one, however, and they also use DSP and Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, despite these names being ‘wrong.’ In such cases it might be like Coca Cola trying to rebrand and failing—New Coke just didn’t work. Perhaps the pressure of thousands of birders who actually look at birds will prevail over a handful of whimsical bureaucrats who have nothing better to do than fix things that aren’t broken, and the ‘official’ names will universally revert to their former selves. On the other front, I’m not suggesting changing Eastern Wood-Pewee to Eastern Pewee (although personally I use the latter exclusively in my own notes), but perhaps the ‘authorities’ could look to clean their own homes before they fiddle elsewhere.

The iconic Light-mantled Sooty Albatross or, in the language of New Coke, the insipid Light-mantled Albatross. At sea in New Zealand (20 Nov. 2008), © Steve N. G. Howell.

The iconic Light-mantled Sooty Albatross or, in the language of New Coke, the insipid Light-mantled Albatross. At sea in New Zealand (20 Nov. 2008), © Steve N. G. Howell.

The iconic Light-mantled Sooty Albatross or, in the language of New Coke, the insipid Light-mantled Albatross. Nesting at South Georgia (1 Apr. 2009), © Steve N. G. Howell.

The iconic Light-mantled Sooty Albatross or, in the language of New Coke, the insipid Light-mantled Albatross. Nesting at South Georgia (1 Apr. 2009), © Steve N. G. Howell.

In a notable case of lucidity, the South American Checklist Committee (and thus eBird along with the associated Clements Checklist) reverted some years ago to Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, after having adopted Diademed Plover for reasons that appear to be unknown. Others, however, notably the International Ornithologists Union (the IOC list) and the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW), retain the castrated version. All of these authors, however, still use the cringe-worthy Light-mantled Albatross.

Well, that was 30 minutes of a long boring flight taken care of, guess I should now do something productive with my time, like play computer games or watch a movie…