It seems each week on the SGU one or more issues come up where some of our listeners like to engage in a bit of pedantry. It’s part of the skeptical culture, and it’s all good. Attention to detail, precision, and completeness are important aspects of science and critical thinking. We are happy to engage in the self-corrective nature of science. We often will take the time on the show to make corrections or read feedback on prior segments – but not as much time as I would like. We always seem to have too much new content to get through.
So to supplement this I will try to regularly include a segment here on Rogues Gallery in which I answer some feedback on the previous week’s show.
The topic for this week is the definition of the word “raptor.” On episode 315 the topic of raptors came up and Rebecca and I had a brief discussion about the definition. I said that raptors are eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures – essentially meat eating birds with talons and sharp beaks. A couple of fellow birders e-mailed to me that vultures are no longer classified as “raptors.”
Listener Cathryn wrote in:
The purpose of my e-mail is actually a correction to something in episode #315 (July 27, 2011) during Who’s That Noisy. During the segment, Steve and some of the other panelists said that owls and vultures are in the ‘raptor’ group of birds with hawks, eagles and falcons. This is a common but understandable misconception that they are lumped in one group. I’ve been a birdwatcher and amateur ornithologist since high school, and I have to address this.
Taxonomically, owls and vultures are in a separate order from hawks, eagles and falcons, which are the ‘true’ raptors. Hawks, eagles, falcons and old world (European, Asian, African) vultures are in the Falconiformes order of birds, and they are then separated further into families. Owls are all in the Strigiformes order. DNA analysis has indicated owls are more closely related to nightjars and nighthawks (Caprimulgiformes) than the true raptors. New world (American) vultures are more closely related to storks than raptors, and are now accordingly placed in the Ciconiiformes order of birds, with storks and also herons. You can check out a comprehensive taxonomic guide at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse_tax.aspx) and search their bird guide (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search) for more information on individual birds.
and listener Adam added:
I am sure lots of bird nerds have already pointed this out, but one of the many startling revelations of molecular biology was that vultures are not raptors. They are in fact more or less short legged storks. Much love and keep it Skeptic.
OK – so I am starting off this RG segment with a correction in which I was actually correct – that happens. As regular listeners know I am a bit of an amateur birder myself, so I take such issues seriously. Also – the topic of naming convention and word use comes up frequently on the show and is a common topic of listener pedantry, so it’s helpful to cover some basic issues.
Adam and Cathryn are both making the mistake here of confusing common usage with taxonomical naming. Taxonomy is the formal system of naming all species, and therefore there are no issues of usage, culture, definition drift over time, or ambiguity. The system is official and specific, so there can be only one correct answer to any question of taxonomy. Classification does change as new discoveries are made, including recent DNA analysis, but such changes are not made by use but rather are formally published.
Common usage, on the other hand, is informal – there is no ultimate authority that gets to determine what the correct definition of a term is. Even for those recognized resources, like the Oxford-English dictionary (or these days, Wikipedia), definitions change with use and one could always argue that the source is outdated or incomplete.
In this case, the word “raptor” has no formal taxonomical definition. There is no order or family within the class of avis that is designated as “raptors”. Therefore there are no “true raptors” as Cathryn suggests. In fact the very reference that Cathryn linked to in her e-mail used the term “raptor” to informally refer to new world vultures.
For those who are interested, the taxonomy of birds referred to as raptors is this: The order Falconiformes includes two families – Accipitridae (kites, hawks, eagles, and allies) and Falconidae (falcons and the old world vultures – caracaras). The order Strigiformes contains all owls and is divided into two families – Tytonidae and Strigidae. New world vultures are placed within the order Ciconiformes with herons, storks and similar birds, and in their own family of Cathartidae. You will see that the word “raptor” appears nowhere in these taxonomical groups.
Having been engaged in many such discussions over the years, I have come to follow a few rules in determining which word usage is “correct”. First, you need to determine if you are dealing with a technical scientific term or formal definition, or rather common usage. A technical or formal term will often have a very specific definition and a recognized authority to determine this (such as the IAU’s recent defitinion of the term “planet”).
Almost always, however, when we get listener feedback concerning the common usage of terms the pedantry is not justified. It is, in fact, often pointless to argue over the correct usage of a word, because words are determined by common usage. It almost always turns out that the various usages being argued over are all considered “correct” variations.
A distinct issue from which definition is officially “correct” is – which is better. Here I follow one main guidelines – which usage is the least ambiguous and the most commonly and easily understood? For example, if a term is shortened in common usage, without losing any of its specificity, then I see no problem with the shortened version, and it is mindless pedantry to insist that the original or older version is somehow magically “correct.”
Yes – convention does matter, and some things in grammar and word usage are correct simply because they are – but language is flexible around the edges and if a variant usage is completely and unambiguously understood, then there’s no point in complaining