Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What’s in a Name?

By Hannah Fraser

Inconsistent classification of species introduces systematic bias to ecological studies.

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Woodland birds are bird species that depend on native woodlands. Unfortunately, woodlands have been widely cleared for agriculture and urban development, leading to a widespread belief that woodland birds must be declining.

Many have studied the decline of woodland birds, most commonly the effect of changing tree cover and fragmentation. The results of these studies vary. Some find evidence of decline; others dispute that a decline is taking place.

Similarly, the nature of the relationship between woodland birds and tree cover and fragmentation varies substantially too. These differences might be due to regional or scale differences between studies, but could there also be underlying disagreement about what actually constitutes a “woodland bird”?

In ecology, there have been sporadic efforts to promote consistency in terminology but little progress. Inconsistent terminology can lead to a range of problems, including difficulties in finding relevant studies, redundant investigations and an inability to synthesise across studies. It can also create problems when communicating findings to other scientists, policy-makers and the public.

How important is consistent terminology when it comes to determining the conservation status and trends of a group of birds loosely referred to as “woodland birds”? To answer this question, I led an investigation...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.