The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Clements Checklist
We birders might be called a peculiar lot if there weren’t so many of us. Estimates of our population size in the United States alone vary among surveys, but numbers like 25 million, 54 million, even 70 million have emerged from recent, scholarly efforts to measure our burgeoning pastime. We vary from home naturalists content with our bird-feeders (like my late mother) to globe- trotting ecotourists like the late Jim Clements, eager to plan the next trip’s potential bird list even while unpacking from the last one. Some of us even converted this peculiar passion into a profession and are fortunate enough to devote our lives to fostering appreciation, study, and conservation of the world’s birds.
As a member of the last category, I am privileged to represent the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in honoring the lifelong contributions of Jim Clements to birding, exploration, and ornithology. As a sponsor of this Sixth Edition of Clements’ monumental checklist, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has agreed to assume official responsibility for updating it on a regular basis. I personally admired Jim Clements enormously and felt privileged to know him. Besides his boundless energy and enthusiasm for birds and travel, I respected his audacity to straddle the line between scientific ornithology and bird watching in producing and maintaining his pioneering Checklist. As were so many others, I was deeply saddened by Jim’s premature departure. When Karen Clements asked if Cornell could step in to ensure publication of his nearly complete Sixth Edition, it was difficult to refuse despite the enormity of the undertaking. Thankfully, Cornell University Press accepted the significant up-front challenge of producing this handsome book. But to honor Jim Clements genuinely, we recognized the need to commit to its regular updating.
We do not make this commitment lightly. Few tasks could be as Sisyphean as publishing an accurate, up- to-date list of common and scientific names, and their respective distributions, for a worldwide group of organisms as popular, mobile, and closely studied as birds. Jim Clements was a brave man to tackle such a task, and he did it so brilliantly that his Checklist has become an essential tool for serious birders the world over. Clements had the foresight to recognize that we birders are awed by the global diversity of these wonderful creatures, and we love our lists. He saw the need for a scholarly compilation of bird diversity as a reference tool, but he also kept sight of four specific needs of real birders: (1) the list must remain easy to use, pared of any but the most essential words in presenting the names and approximate ranges of all birds; (2) the list must be consistent with the findings of scientific professionals, who study bird biology and publish their decisions in peer-reviewed technical journals; (3) where differences of opinion exist among professionals, the list must be decisive, but biologically consistent and clear about its choice and hierarchy of scholarly references; (4) the list must “stay alive,” remaining as synchronous as possible with a constantly changing body of information about both names and distributions. Jim kept abreast of these changes admirably, and the Internet became his vehicle for communicating regular updates to birders.
Beginning with his fifth edition, Jim Clements took another one of his signature steps, at once both monumental and risky. He elected to provide birders entry into the biologically fascinating world of within-species diversity. His ambitious cataloging of all currently recognized subspecies clearly was spurred by recognition that these names represent the grist for most future taxonomic splits. The proliferation of excellent behavioral studies all over the world continues to yield a steady stream of such changes, and the rate at which these changes appear will no doubt increase now that DNA sequencing has become a mainstream scientific tool. The sixth edition is largely Jim’s own work and continues this ambitious effort to provide a comprehensive list of currently recognized subspecies for each bird species. Through our updates in this edition and our future updates, which will be posted regularly on this website, we will do our best to keep these names current with the recognized authorities worldwide.The recent English names suggested by Frank Gill and Minturn Wright on behalf of the International Ornithological Congress in Birds of the World: Recommended English Names will undoubtedly spur much conversation on this topic. Our first electronic update, available soon after publication of the sixth edition of the Clements Checklist, will include a comprehensive list of species having different common names in the Clements and IOC lists. As in the past, future updates to the Clements Checklist will reflect official name changes as they are approved by the American Ornithologists’ Union (for the AOU checklist area) and other professional organizations (as appropriate elsewhere around the world.) Birders with suggested taxonomic changes, suggestions, or questions are invited to submit their queries to email@example.com.
Jim Clements was an energetic man of the world, who might have been called larger- than-life had he lacked his genuine warmth and infectious, friendly grin. He embraced big challenges, especially if they provided an opportunity to make a difference in the world. He was an explorer, and a communicator, who opened up the world of birds and birding to countless legions of people in all walks of life and on every continent. I have no illusion that anyone, or even any team, could fill the shoes of the late Jim Clements. But his unique Checklist, straddling as it does the interface between birding and ornithology, fits squarely within the mission of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For this reason, and with appreciation in advance to all who will help us live up to Jim’s legacy, we accept the challenge to try.
John W. Fitzpatrick
Director Emeritus, Cornell Lab of Ornithology