Scientists may give oriole back its Baltimore

February 01, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore will likely get its bird back.

The bird -- Icterus galbula, the one so blandly dubbed the northern oriole in 1973 -- seems destined to reacquire its original name.

Nothing is final, mind you. But by the time Peter Angelos' birds take the field in April, the American Ornithologists Union's Committee on Classification and Nomenclature may have ruled on the matter.

The committee of eight scientists, akin to the Supreme Court of bird naming, plans to meet in Orlando, Fla., in March.

The panel has a proposal to re-establish "Baltimore oriole" as the accepted common name of the bird, Dr. Burt L. Monroe Jr., a professor of biology at the University of Louisville who chairs the committee, said yesterday.

"This is a pretty reasonable bunch of guys," Dr. Monroe said of the committee. "They will make the right biological decision."

Biology was the reason for the change from Baltimore oriole to northern oriole.

Scientists determined that there was enough interbreeding between the Baltimore oriole and its western cousin, the Bullock's oriole, to lump them into one species.

Now, studies indicate that there really isn't as much interbreeding as originally thought, Dr. Monroe said.

So, as the proposal goes, the northern oriole may be split back into two separate species.

"The evidence does suggest that the split probably will occur," Dr. Monroe said.

A reversion to the Baltimore oriole as a separate species may not be final until next year, with the publication of the seventh edition of the "Checklist of North American Birds."

It's not that bird watchers and others dutifully accepted the change to northern oriole -- anymore than southerners took kindly to the change to northern cardinal.

An impending change back to Baltimore oriole is good news to scientists in Laurel who keep tabs on bird populations.

"We kept the old name," said Bruce Peterjohn, who coordinates a nationwide breeding-bird survey for the National Biological Survey, an agency of the U.S. Interior Department.

By the way, the oriole is holding its own, despite some recent declines. Studies show that since 1980, the oriole has declined at a rate of nearly 2 percent per year in Maryland, primarily because its breeding range and its winter ground in Central and South America are being deforested, Mr. Peterjohn said.

The data from throughout the range of the Baltimore version of the northern oriole show a lesser decline: 1.3 percent per year since 1980.

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