Serious Consideration for Passerellidae Subspecies Group Complexes

I was thinking about posting this to curators but maybe this is better, so I can get a public opinion too. Please share your thoughts.

I’m no curator but I want to address a concern of mine about data quality in certain Passerellidae (New World Sparrows) species on iNaturalist. Let me give you a couple of examples. The Dark-eyed Junco has 14 recognized subspecies on iNaturalist. Seven of those subspecies are used by birders typically as the group Oregon Junco. They differ from eastern juncos by having a solid black hood and rich orange-buff sides. Males of each Oregon Junco subspecies can be identifiable in on breeding grounds. But winter plumages and range overlaps happen so often in winter, that identifying to the subspecies level is next to impossible. And if you look at iNaturalist reports, there’s a significant amount of more junco sightings in winter than summer. Yet to me, just simply saying you saw a Dark-eyed Junco is wasting valuable information, especially since the Oregon Junco group looks so much different from the Slate-colored. Wouldn’t it be logic to make a subspecies complex/group to represent the 7 Oregon Junco subspecies for winter-type situations. It would make data more accurate and more useful than just saying Dark-eyed Junco when you know it’s at least the Oregon group.

Yet the Dark-eyed Junco isn’t the only one I think needs group complexes. The Fox Sparrow has some very distinct-looking subspecies group. If I find a “Sooty” Fox Sparrow in a northeastern Oregon winter, I can say it’s P. i. sinuosa (called the Valdez Fox Sparrow on iNat) is the likely subspecies because studies in California state that that subspecies tends to be more inland-ish. But I can’t be certain especially when another subspecies or two migrate down the coast right past me. Any of them may go inland and I could never tell. So subspecies groups for both Sooty and Slate-colored (cause they had a similar issues in southern US/Mexico) Fox Sparrows. Because once again, we’d be wasting information just saying Fox Sparrow in our observation.

But it was explained to me that this argument can be applied to many, many species outside of Passerellidae and by going forward in these complexes will create a huge mess in the family tree especially since most subspecies are field identifiable and experts disagree on what subspecies belong to which group anyway.

I’m not asking for subspecies groups for every single species that has them but for those where the differences are subtle and ranges overlap, such as the Dark-eyed Junco. I’m not saying to make the Eastern and Rocky Mountain subspecies groups for Black-capped Chickadees because that species is non-migratory so most can be subspecies identified by range anyway. I’m not saying to make the Eastern, Alaskan or San Francisco Saltmarsh Song Sparrow groups because most of subspecies identified. Winter can get crazy in California sure but Song Sparrows don’t have winter/summer plumages that may make the plumage differences between subspecies nearly nonexistent. I’m just asking for an easier way to get more accurate information on Dark-eyed Juncos and to a lesser extent Fox Sparrows. And I know others want to id their juncos as Oregon as well. I went through Oregon/Washington Dark-eyed Junco sightings that needed an id and that was because they all had ids but it was four or five people saying J. h. oreganus (Alaskan Dark-eyed Junco) when it could be any of the seven because you really can’t tell the difference in winter. And all I can do is correct them to Dark-eyed Junco because I can’t tell them what subspecies it is. I know its likely J. h. montanus or J. h. shufeldti, but still it could also be the other five. I can’t blindly guess but I know it’s an Oregon junco, just not the exact subspecies. Hopefully someone hears me out here because I believe we’re wasting information by not providing users with something like this.

@cmcheatle, I believe you might be the best person here to respond with a curator’s perspective. @psweet, @jbroadhead, off the top of my head you two might also have an opinion.

@birdwhisperer, did you check out some of the other conversations around subspecies complexes, disagreements on range, junco ID, etc.? If you use the search icon you can look for similar conversations to get a sense of what the community has already said on similar topics. This isn’t exactly the same as the other topics but they might give you context if you haven’t previously come across them.

As a non-expert birder myself, I would likely be hesitant to ID to subspecies on most birds with the exception of ones with obvious field marks, like Fox Sparrows. I do recognize your point about missed data opportunities. I see a current option, short of altering iNat’s taxonomy choices, as adding a tag or comment or creating an observation field

Personally I have to admit I am not a fan of doing subspecies level ID entry, for several reasons.

Far too often, they are simply done by range which is a circular argument.

If an observation represents the ‘expected’ ssp for an area, adding the ssp ID adds little, and in fact can create confusion for less experienced users (why is one person calling this a Yellow-rumped Warbler and someone else calling it a Myrtle Warbler? What is it then?)

The Junco example has been widely debated on the site. I personally don’t feel that information is lost in, or that the value of information is less in entering a western Junco that is clearly not in the ones outside the Oregon group as J. hyemalis vs J. hyemalis Oregon complex. Both entries equally communicate uncertainty what this is.

I see value in species complexes, I personally don’t in subspecies ones. But by all means continue the discussion.


I think @cmcheatle’s take on this is really good. Most ssp ids don’t have a ton of value imo (although exceptions might be when there are groups of specific conservation concern that are not simply IDed by range) and can add confusion.

As @mira_l_b suggested, I do think this situation is a prime candidate for using tags or observation fields if it is something that you are interested in tracking.

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Admittingly yes, I see that to be the case in many instances. However that’s not case when dealing with the Dark-eyed Junco. In my area in Oregon, if I see/photograph a junco between April and August, I know it’s J. h. montanus due to range. Yet in winter, I can say it’s J. h. montanus or shufeldti by range as well but because of juncos nomadic behavior, I could get all seven of them. So range is not a useful tool for that case. Especially when my part of Oregon also gets Slate-colored, Cassiar, Pink-sided and Gray-headed in the winter season.

I think what you’re trying to tell me though is that if I identify Oregon Juncos as just Dark-eyed Juncos but id everything else to other subspecies, then the data isn’t lost.

On the other hand, the Yellow-rumped Warbler was very close to being split into three species a couple years back and it’s still an active discussion with taxonomists. If such a change were to happen, we’d have to reeducate less experienced users anyway. The same thing goes for Fox Sparrows, experts were going to split them into four species a while back.

My only concern with an observation field is, I do not know how many users use fields anyway for their sightings. But that would be a argument leaning to your side about how many users would actually use the subspecies id.

No, actually you would not, because if the change were made, then all ID’s on that observation would then share a common name (both scientific and common), not potentially different ones as happens now.

You are actually doing the same thing in your argument, using range to define an ID. You can assume (likely with a high degree of probability) that a summer sighting in your area is montanus, but short of being able to confirm any morphological keys, you can’t ‘know’ it is one. Highly likely to be is not the same thing as must be.

It is no different than me saying I can say a Junco I see in winter is a J.h.hyemalis based on range (again likely with a high degree of probabilty, but that is not the same as 100%), when in reality I can’t verify it is not carolinensis without being able to validate the separator keys.

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Yes I did say that but I let’s be clear that I use range as my first method of narrowing down a subspecies. Let me give you an example where I always use subspecies. I like to observe Red-tailed Hawks and I know that all year long and 99% of time, every Red-tail I’ll see is going to be the Western subspecies. However I know there’s northern subspecies that will cross over the Rocky Mountains into Oregon. So every single time I see a Red-tailed, I always doublecheck to make sure it doesn’t have a black bellyband of a Northern or the nearly snowy white underparts of Eastern. Not to mention Harlan’s reside here in the winter.

Another example is, I went bird watching today looking for a Blackpoll and Tennessee Warbler sighting in northeastern Oregon yesterday morning. I saw tons of Yellow-rumped Warbler and I made them all Audubon’s because of one, range and then two because they had either yellow throats or no white supercilium. But because I always doublecheck my birds, I found out there was an Audubon’s X Myrtle in the mix and that was because I took the time to observe each individual closely. The same goes for the White-crowned Sparrow. All I saw today was Gambel’s because they had no loral stripe and their beaks were bright orange, but I know that pink-billed Mountain White-crowns breed here in the summer, so my eyes are always open.

But the point I’m trying to make is, subspecies aren’t as insignificant as some might think.

Another worthwhile point to bring up is that many subspecies are poorly or questionably defined in the literature. In the example of birds, the major taxonomic authorities that iNat is based on (Clement’s and AOS) stopped paying much attention to subspecies more than half a century ago. Most of the subspecies included in Clement’s are old and poorly documented, as taxonomic work at that level is infrequent unless the subspecies in question is being considered for listing.

Subspecies complexes potentially compound this problem, as the evolutionary relatedness being subspecies is unknown in most cases and close phenotypic similarity (as in the “Oregon Juncos”) does not always imply close evolutionary relatedness.

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