Where there were laws and rules in place during the settlement of North America, they were loose and difficult to enforce. This was no different with the identification and naming of birds. If a bird was found that did not match any of the birds that appeared in less than a handful of manuals or collections, then all that was then necessary was to give the bird a common name and a binomial. Common names for birds are often as varied as the colors of a peacock. On the other hand, the binomial must conform to the naming system as developed by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in 1735. This amounts to placing the bird in an existing or new genus and providing a name for the species. The person claiming authority for a species also must attach their name to the binomial. Lastly, Linnaeus required that the name for a genus (with a capital first letter) and a species (all lower case) be a Latin or a Latinized Greek word. The naming and identification of birds today has become more formalized but no less bewildering.
In 1886, The American Ornithologists’ Union was founded and began publishing a checklist of North American birds. Like the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, membership in the Union was for only a select few. 21 people attended the first meeting in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2016, the Union merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society to become the American Ornithological Society (AOS). The Society has taken in many new members but has a limit of 100 in its upper echelon of Honorary Fellows. Birds appearing on the AOS Checklist of North and Middle American Birds have endured untold hours of scrutiny and debate, yet there are still such birds as the Acadian flycatcher that supposedly never ventures into the Acadian reaches of Canada.
Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) was the first to document the Acadian flycatcher in American Ornithology. He called the bird a Small Green Crested flycatcher. Wilson placed the bird in the Muscicapa genus. The bird must have displayed a sufficiently quarrelsome nature for Wilson to name the species querula. John James Audubon also observes such behavior in Birds of America. He describes the Small Green Crested flycatcher as “Almost as pugnacious as the [Eastern] King-bird.” Although, for Birds of America, Audubon leaves intact the bird’s common name and genus but changes the species to acadia in reference to seeing the bird as far north as Maine and Nova Scotia.
Few experts today would hesitate questioning anyone spotting a Small Green Crested flycatcher so far north. The bird tends to stick close to the southeastern United States. The Small Green Crested flycatcher and its family members are notorious for looking strikingly similar. It is not until they call or sing that the identification of a species can be more definite.
Audubon adds more detail about the Small Green Crested flycatcher’s manner and voice. “While perched it is heard at intervals repeating its simple, guttural, gloomy notes, resembling the syllables queae, queae, tchooe, tchewee. These notes are often followed, as the bird passes from one tree to another, by a low murmuring chirr or twitter, which it keeps up until it alights, when it instantly quivers its wings, and jerks its tail a few times. At intervals it emits a sweeter whistling note, sounding like weet, weet, weet, will; and when angry it emits a loud chirr.” Audubon undoubtedly knew a Small Green Crested flycatcher when he saw one.
Nonetheless, the AOS decided the Small Green Crested flycatcher needed a name overhaul. Almost all of the flycatchers that once were in the Muscicapa genus are now an Empidonax. And rather than reference the unlikely northern range of the Small Green Crested flycatcher, the AOS decided the name of the species should reflect the olive-green color of the bird’s back and subtle crest. The binomial for the Small Green Crested flycatcher is now Empidonax virescens. The name change seems reasonable until the AOS goes one step further and changes the common name from the Small Green Crested flycatcher to the Acadian flycatcher. Whatever the Society’s process is for naming birds, it appears little more than redux.
Scientists have had far more trouble splitting, lumping, and revising the name and taxonomy of the tree in which Audubon places the Acadian flycatcher. Few plants are as recognizable or as fragrant in North America as the Sassafras tree. The tree is maybe better known for the oil that its wood and roots produce. Much of the tea and other concoctions that were developed from Sassafras are now tasted in the form of root beer. The tree’s small, dark fruit is also popular for consumption, but much more so with birds like the Acadian flycatcher than people.