Bird Classifications/Families




In the 1750’s, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist who described many North American birds, established a system or hierarchy of living organisms so that scientists all over the world could understand each other. Since then, the Linnaeus System has been improved by a number of scientists and it’s still being changed today as new discoveries are made among groups of birds. The science of naming things, such as birds, is called “Taxonomy” and it can become quite complicated, but the basics are easy to understand.

Basics of Taxonomy:

All living organisms are divided into 5 Kingdoms: Plants, Fungi, Animals, Protoctista and Bacteria (the last two have to be seen through a microscope). The living members of the Animal (Animalia) Kingdom is divided into smaller groups called Phyla (singular) or Phylum (plural) which means a direct line of descent within a group and then its further divided into smaller groups called Classes. Classes are divided into even smaller (though still fairly large) groups called Orders. After categorizing the Orders, we have Families and sometimes Subfamilies. Within each Family/Subfamily, there are are number of Genera (plural for Genus) and within each Genus are a number of Species.


For example, all birds are in the Animalia Kingdom, Phylum of Chordata (with a backbone), and Class Aves (birds). At the Order level, the birds begin to diverge. For instance, the pelicans are in the Pelecaniformes Order while the nuthatches are in the Passeriformes Order. Next comes the Family with the pelicans in the Pelecanidae family and the nuthatches in the Sittidae family. At the genus level, the nuthatches are in the genus Sitta. At the species level, there are the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) and Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea). The scientific names are all in Latin so that scientists around the world can communicate in a common language.

A White-breasted Nuthatch can then be classified as:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Sittidae
Genus: Sitta
Species: carolinensis

The Bird Classifications/Families table, which has been colorized for easy reference, lists only Eastern US birds in their Orders, followed by the scientific and common Family name, and then by scientific and common Subfamily name. The Genus and Species (both scientific and common) of all Eastern US birds will be listed in a separate window by moving your mouse over the Order Name. For easy reading, the scientific names are not italicized. The standard convention for writing or printing scientific names requires that only the genus name be capitalized and the species should begin with lowercase. The entire scientific name should be underlined or in italics.

The Eastern US states include the states of: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

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