I was checking out the ducks at some ponds near Ocean Isle Beach last weekend and found a pretty rare bird…a green-winged teal. There were a couple of dozen green-winged teal present but only one of them was the rare one, yet they were all the same species. In North America that is.
If you are confused you are excused. You would have to be a pretty serious birder and lister to know what I’m talking about, but I will try to explain.
There are two races of green-winged teal on the planet, the North American race and the Eurasian race. There are some obvious differences that make identification of the males of both fairly easy, so birders on both continents will sort through teal flocks searching for the odd cousin from across the pond. I’m not sure how common the American race turns up in Europe but it is pretty rare to find a Eurasian individual in with our ducks. Usually they occur along the East coast.
The differences in the two are straightforward. Notice in today’s photo of an American green-winged teal there is a vertical white bar on its side. In the European birds this bar is totally lacking and is replaced by a very conspicuous pale horizontal stripe on the folded wing.
But that’s not the end of the story. In North American both races are recognized under one species umbrella; green-winged teal. In Europe they are recognized as two distinct species. The Eurasian birds are known as the common teal. They still call ours green-winged. The difference is that there are two different bodies that establish the taxonomy of North American birds and Eurasian birds.
For birders like me who keep detailed life lists this is significant. Since I keep North American and North Carolina lists I cannot add common teal. Here “common teal” does not exist. There is a hope however that the A.O.S. (American Ornithological Society) will recognize the Eurasian birds a distinct species one day soon.
When that happens I will be able to immediately add a new species to my North American life list and North Carolina state list without even going outside or looking out the window. I’ll just stick that common teal in my hip pocket and wait for the change to happen.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com