If it's alive and it lives wild, it's wildlife.

Kevin J. Cook                                              Kevin@WildlifeWindow.com

A Naturalist's Way with Words

Current Word

18a    phase
noun – traditional (becoming archaic): a genetically determined variability of coloration among individuals of the same species without being attributable to, associated with, or determined by subspecies, race, or geographic population.

18b    morph
noun – (1) biology: a recognizable group, distinctive for some specific attribute of form or structure, within a species; (2) an individual of a recognizable group within a species known for having two or more groups distinguishable by form or structure; (3a) ornithology: a group or an individual within a species known to vary by form or structure; (3b) an individual bird distinctive for a specific permanent plumage color within a species known for various genetically determined plumage colors that do not vary by age, season, breeding condition, or geographic subspecies status.

adjective – descriptive of a species characterized by two groups distinguishable by some attribute of form or structure.

Example: Hawks and owls are sexually dimorphic because females are larger than males.

Example: Elk and Moose are sexually dimorphic species because males grow antlers and females do not.

polymorphic adjective – descriptive of a species characterized by three or more groups distinguishable by some attribute of form or structure.

Example: The Canada Goose is a polymorphic species because the various subspecies are distinctive by size and body proportions.

Example: The Red Crossbill is a polymorphic species based on geographically predictable differences in beak sizes.

18c  chromer
noun – (Kevinism) an individual bearing a specific, permanent coloration that is one of two or more color variations typical of the species and not attributable to genetic mutation or defect or to age, season, breeding condition, geography, or subspecies status.

Example: That soaring bird is a dark chromer of Red-tailed Hawk.

Explanation: The term "phase" came into routine usage during the 1800s as naturalists worked assiduously to discover, document, describe, and classify Earth’s wildlife. Early interpretive protocols misguided taxonomists to regard every variation of size, shape, or color as legitimate for recognizing a new species. For example, Clinton Hart Merriam once proposed that the "Black Bear" actually represented more than 100 species based on color variations. "Red Foxes" and "Red Squirrels" were likewise elaborated into multiple species. Better science based on more thorough knowledge consolidated the species but recognized blue, cinnamon, and black phases for Black Bears; red, black, silver, and cross phases for Red Foxes; blue and white phases for Arctic Foxes; and red and gray phases for "Red Squirrels" (the Common Chickaree of Wildlife Window).
    The concept adapted equally well to birds. Species particularly known for color phases include Snow Goose, several buteo hawks, Ruffed Grouse, and several small owls; but other birds also exhibit color phases that are not associated with geographically distinct subspecies.
    As people engaged birds through recreational birding, they bypassed the academics of ornithology. A person could become a highly skilled identifier of live, wild birds but possess no appreciable ornithological scholarship. One consequence of this was the misperception of the word "phase."
    For more than a century the term "phase" had meant one of various alternative expressions or conditions of coloration. Period. As the Twentieth Century progressed, the number of recreational birders grew and they brought with them the notion that "phase" was locked into the passage of time, that "phase" was a temporary condition that changed with years or seasons. This became particularly problematic in hawk identification because people misconstrued "phase" to mean that a hawk started in one color and changed to other colors. They do not.
    The term "morph" was advanced as an alternative to "phase." The substitution seemed to make sense on two points: (1) "morph" was established in biological usage, and (2) "morph" bears neither explicit or implicit nor technical or colloquial elements of time or impermanence.
    Following is a selective but pithy chronology involving "phase" and "morph":

1902. Florence Merriam Bailey published Handbook of Birds of the Western United States and referred to various hawks as having melanistic phases and to screech-owls as being dichromatic or monochromatic with dichromatic birds having red and gray phases.

1955. George J. Wallace published his college textbook An Introduction to Ornithology in which (page 52) he instructed:

    "The opposite of albinism, or the production of an excess of dark pigments, is known as melanism, and explains the dark phases found in birds like the American Rough-legged Hawk which has a light or normal phase and a dark phase. Erythrism (excess red pigment) is less common, but is well known because of its frequent occurrence in the Screech Owl, which has two color phases, red and gray, a condition known as dichromatism."  [Boldface original.]

1962. Joel Carl Welty published his college textbook The Life of Birds in which (page 48) he instructed:

    "Sometimes within a given species or race different color phases appear. Where two alternate forms of coloration appear within a single species, dimorphism or dichromatism is said to occur...Birds that show more than two color phases are said to show polymorphism or polychromatism."

1970. Olin Sewall Pettingill published the fourth edition of Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, a greatly enlarged and elaborated version of its earlier editions. On page 193 of this college textbook he instructed:

    "In certain wild species, two or more color phases, which presumably have a genetic basis, normally occur. When a species has only two color phases, the condition is known as dichromatism...When a species has two or more phases often intergrading, the condition is polychromatism."

    This language and interpretation remained unchanged in the 1985 fifth edition (page 167).

1990. Frank B. Gill published the second edition of his college textbook Ornithology, in which (page 90) he instructed:

    "Analogous to human eye colors are alternative plumage colorations – called color phases – in birds..."

    In his third edition published in 2007, Gill used "phase" and "morph" interchangeably without distinction, comment, or elaboration (page 100).

    These citations collectively establish two important vocabulary linkages: (1) they link variable plumage colorations with the term "phase"; and (2) they link the term "phase" with a set of more specific terms including "chromatism," "chromatic," "dichromatism," "dichromatic," "polychromatism," and "polychromatic." Noteworthy in this discussion is Gill’s casual disregard for any real or perceived separation of "phase" and "morph," implying by his lack of comment that the topic is pedestrian in the recondite world of modern ornithological science. Nevertheless, ornithologists had long linked "phase" with "chromatism" and did so without defining or characterizing "phase" as being temporary or impermanent.
    Outside the culture of ornithological scholarship, a corollary culture emerged; this was the culture of applied scholarship, of putting knowledge to work for the highly focused ambition of identifying live, wild birds. What had been the professional life-work of bird taxonomists in the 1700s and 1800s became the avocational passion of recreational birders in the 1900s. But, ironically, as birding commerce established itself as a legitimate sector of the American economy recreational birding became a profession. This is the arena in which field guides emerged and developed with the following chronology:

1947. Roger Tory Peterson revised and expanded his 1934 field guide, A Field Guide to the Birds. In both books he labeled illustrations with "light phase" and "dark phase" for the hawks.

1961. Peterson published A Field Guide to Western Birds, a companion volume to his previous book, in which he used the term "phase."

1966. Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim published A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America in which they refer to all hawk and owl color variations as "phases."

1980. Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, a major revision of his first field guide. Based on incomplete if not uncooperative information from the Check-list Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the book’s content inspired harsh criticism. On page 30, Peterson defined the descriptive heading "In part" as "A well-marked subspecies or morph – part of a species"; this established "morph" in Peterson’s lexicon for his field guides. However, he labeled all his hawk-falcon illustrations with "light phase" and "dark phase."

1983. Responding opportunistically to the criticism of Peterson’s 1980 field guide, several publishers entered the competition in the bird field guide market.

Robbins, Bruun, and Zim published a revised edition of their field guide, A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America, in which they continued using "phase."

The National Geographic Society entered the commerce of bird field guides with Field Guide to the Birds of North America, in which all the hawks, falcons, and screech-owls are labeled with "phase."

Alfred A. Knopf published The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, Volume 1, in which they expanded the field guide concept to include a glossary. On page 426 the book provided the entry "Color morph or Color phase" then gave the definition "One of two or more distinct color types within a species, occurring independently of age, sex, or season." This linked "morph" and "phase" as synonyms relative to plumage color. However, within the book’s text, the term "phase" was consistently used.

    Change was brewing. A British publication attempted to establish some uniformity by reconciling the languages of ornithology and birding:

1981. Peter Weaver of The United Kingdom published The Birdwatcher’s Dictionary, in which he deferred the definition of both "colour phase" and "phase" to "See dimorphism and polymorphism." He then defined "dimorphism" as

    "The existence of two distinctive forms (usually differing in terms of plumage colour) within a species, but not regarded as constituting a subspecies. Sexual dimorphism is common, while some species have two ‘colour phases’ or ‘morphs’,..."

    He treated "polymorphism" in a similar manner.
    Weaver, reflecting a growing mindset in the U.K., may have influenced Knopf’s Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding. Regardless of the causal inspiration, the language shift took hold in the U.S. and began cascading.

1987. William S. Clark and Brian K. Wheeler published A Field Guide to Hawks: North America as part of the Peterson Field Guide Series. In the introductory material (page 3), they wrote:

    "The preferred term ‘morph’ is used in this book in place of the widely used ‘phase,’ as the latter word implies a character that changes with time."

1987. The National Geographic Society published the third edition of Field Guide to the Birds of North America, in which all references to hawks, falcons, Ruffed Grouse, and Screech Owl were as color morphs.

1988. John Farrand, Jr., who edited The National Geographic Society’s first bird field guide, published Western Birds, labeled "An Audubon Handbook" through MacMillan. He referred to color phases for Snow Goose, Ruffed Grouse, various hawks, and Eastern Screech-Owl.

1990. Peterson published a revised A Field Guide to Western Birds. A curious inattention to detail so very uncharacteristic of Peterson – he referred to hawks, Ruffed Grouse in text, and Eastern Screech-Owl as having color morphs but he referred to Gyrfalcons and Ruffed Grouse illustrations as having color phases – may have reflected cost compromises with the publisher.

1995. Reversing their authorship roles, Wheeler and Clark published A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors through Academic Press. They included a glossary in the introductory material and specifically defined (page xvi) the two terms in question:

    "Morph. Term used for recognizably different forms of a species, usually color related. Color morphs are dark, rufous, and light. See also ‘phase.’
    "Phase. Term formerly used for color morph. Phase implies a temporary condition; color morphs are permanent. See ‘morph.’"

1996. Donald and Lillian Stokes published Field Guide to Birds. Their glossary (pages 508-509) gave no entry for "phase" or "chromatism" but defined "morph" as

    "A regularly occurring color variation within a species that is not related to the sex, age, or seasonal plumage of the bird."

2000. David A. Sibley published The Sibley Guide to Birds.
The "Sibley Guide," as it came to be called, was Alfred A. Knopf’s new bid for the bird field guide market, replacing its earlier Master Guide set. Though the "Sibley Guide" met with simultaneous favor and disfavor, it became the top-selling bird field guide. On page 12 Sibley defined "polymorphism":

    "Some species...occur in a variety of plumage colors that have no relation to age or sex. Typically, color morphs..."

    And on page 114 he wrote of the identification of buteos:

    "...Six species are polymorphic, with dark, light, and intermediate morphs shown by all ages."

    Now, ten years into the Twenty-first Century, old-time birders who have pursued their interest for decades still use the expressions "light phase hawk" and "dark phase hawk," while beginning birders all use the expressions "light morph" and "dark morph" and regularly ask what’s meant by "phase."

Application: avian ecology, biogeography, population genetics, recreational birding.

Derivation: As presently used, "morph" derives from Greek morphe meaning "form" and by extension "shape" or "structure."

From Greek chroma, meaning "color," has grown a variety of words and combining forms associated with color: chrome, chromatism, chromatic, and others.

Note: Inventing contemporary words by rummaging the vocabularies of foreign languages, especially ancient versions of them, involves a substantial risk of error. The case of "color morph" is a perfect example.
    For the life of me, I can neither fathom the shape of red nor comprehend the form of blue! My mind wants to know what the "structure" of color is. What is the "shape" of "dark" or the form of "light" relevant to birds?
    Two mistakes were made. The first error was to discard a valid term rather than to expect beginners to learn the language of bird study. The second error was to adopt a substitute term well outside its realm of reasonable application because color has no form!
    Substituting error for mistake is no accomplishment at all.
    By objective reasoning, the expression "color morph" is etymologically incorrect so that describing color morphs of bears, foxes, squirrels, geese, grouses, hawks, falcons, or owls is orismologically illiterate.
    One may certainly argue that a word means what its users intend it to mean, and dictionary editors have long observed that if enough people misuse a word often enough long enough the misusage becomes accepted. On the other hand, just because everyone believed the Earth was flat did not make it flat. Error is error no matter how many people embrace it.
    Because the Greek word morphe means "form" and the Greek word chroma means "color," and because color has no form, correcting a misleading term by devising a meaningful substitute from the ancient roots of a foreign language should originate by selecting the proper parent word. This is fundamental scholarship. The coinage "chromer" draws on the original distinctiveness of the Greek language as long-used in biological scholarship and does so while retaining the useful term "morph" but without resurrecting the confusing term "phase."

    The expression "color morph" exemplifies either linguistic naivete, hence error of scholarship, or a willingness to revise the vocabulary of scholarship downwards rather than to expect people to educate upwards. Wildlife Window policy is to reserve the term "morph" only for descriptions involving size, shape, form, or structure and to use the coinage "chromer" for descriptions of colors or color variations unrelated to seasonal breeding or nonbreeding condition.





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