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Lecture Notes: Avian Taxonomy

Lecture Notes: Avian Taxonomy and Major Divisions of Living Birds

Reading for this lecture
Required. Gill: Chapter 1, and online at

Taxonomic organization

i) Organisms are arranged in a hierarchical fashion with nested taxonomic levels. The basic levels are: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. In addition, some taxonomists use intermediary levels, such as subfamilies, subgenera, superspecies, etc.
ii) In addition to their common names all birds also have scientific (“Latin”) names. These are given as a binomial, with the genus name first (and capitalized) and the species name second (not capitalized). E.g., the scientific name for Canada Goose is Branta canadensis. Subspecies names are given as a trinomial, with the third part identifying the subspecies. E.g., the subspecies of Canada Goose that occurs in the Aleutian islands (and which is endangered) is called Branta canadensis leucopareia.

iii) Birds are classified in the Kingdom Animalia, the Phylum Chordata, and the Class Aves. Within the Aves, the first major subdivision splits the birds into two superorders, the Palaeognathae (ratites and tinamous) and the Neognathae (all other modern birds). The Neognathae are further subdivided into the Galloanserae (fowl-like birds and waterfowl, such as ducks and geese) and the Neoves (all other living birds).

i) Just to reiterate the last lecture, there is variation in the ways that birds are grouped (there is also a lot that is consistent across taxonomies) and taxonomies do differ. For simplicity I will follow the taxonomy that is presented at the Tree of Life Project page for Aves (your textbook is outdated), but you should be aware that there is variation.
ii) During this lecture (and probably part of another), I will simply provide an overview of the biggest divisions groups (e.g. superorders) of birds in the world. The I will also discuss and hand out instructions for the Ordinal Summary Assignment, which will provide you with an opportunity to learn and summarize what we know about a single order of birds, and its relation to other birds.