If you are a beginning or intermediate birder, you may wish to review the 
discussion of taxonomy in "Ornithology 101" on the ASM website before 
attempting to understand Will Chatfield-Taylor's explanation. Click on this 
link: (or or go to, click "EDUCATION" from the bar at the top, then click 
"Ornithology 101" from the drop-down menu). There, I try to explain the 
system of nomenclature that appears in your field guides and which Latin 
names are relatively more important for you to start learning. I also lay 
out the hierarchy of classification by orders, families, genera and species 
that you will find in your field guide. (Field guides follow the order of 
the American Ornithologists Union checklist when the field guide was 

If you want to read a beautifully written book that explains cladistics in a 
fascinating way, I recommend The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins (Hougton 
Mifflin, 2004).

Please don't be put off by Dawkins' subsequent atheistic rant, entitled The 
God Delusion (Bantam Books, 2006). It has created a predictable uproar and 
made Dawkins seem like the Devil incarnate in some quarters. Like most 
scientists, who make their livelihood explaining evolution, Dawkins 
evidently feels threatened by "creationism" and "intelligent design."  The 
God Delusion apparently represents his belief that the best defense is a 
full scale frontal assault. There is a small amount of clever argument 
against "intelligent design" in The Ancestor's Tale, but it won't turn you 
into an atheist unless you are close to being one already.

Bob Fisher
Independence, MO
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The Audubon Society of Missouri's Wild Bird Discussion Forum
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