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What’s in a (common) name?

February 19, 2010

I and the Bird #119 up at Somewhere in NJ.


Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s magazine Birding, instigated an interesting discussion earlier this week on the listserve Birdchat on the topic of honorific names for bird species and the inconsistent way in which they’re used.  Ted asked, in a post titled Why Steller’s Jay is wrong, why we use the possessive form of the honorific for several bird species when we don’t for other things that are also clearly named for people.  Think Heimlich Maneuver and Doppler Effect as opposed to Heimlich’s Maneuver and Doppler’s Effect.  For lack of a better reason, the answer is that the AOU, the final arbiter of common bird names in the Western Hemisphere, says so.

But more than that, as Floyd states, it’s probably based in the long tradition of latinizing English, as the birds in question nearly to a one have species names that honor some long-gone naturalist and in translating these names directly to English turns Cyanositta stelleri and Accipiter cooperii into Steller’s Jay and Cooper’s Hawk as opposed to Steller Jay and Cooper Hawk.  The non-possessive names sound odd to our ear only because we’ve heard the alternative so often, but Floyd advocates making the switch, summing up his argument thusly:

Formulations like Cooper’s Hawk, Swainson’s Thrush, and Steller’s Jay are affected and antiquated. They’re also wrong. Let’s employ proper, and properly understood, English when we’re writing and talking about birds. We want to share our passion for birding with as many folks as possible, don’t we? We want to reach out to beginners, don’t we? We want our voice to be heard, don’t we? We want to make a difference, don’t we? Then let’s do it in a way that makes us look smart and relevant, not fussy and antiquated.

It’s a compelling argument, but I don’t think he goes far enough.  If it were up to me, and if you really want to avoid looking fussy or antiquated, you’d get rid of honorific names altogether.

What are they anyway, but the “Kilroy was here” markers of a long gone taxonomy crowd or the reminders of little more than a history of British colonialism around the world.  After all, while those of us in North America are comfortable with our honorific bird names, do we find the same thing in the heart of the English-speaking world?  A look at a list of British birds finds that honorific names are nearly completely absent from terrestrial bird species found there.  Sure there are the odd exceptions, but by and large even those tend to be transient or accidental.

In their absence, common bird names tend to be descriptive.  It isn’t until you leave the British Isles that the use of honorific names for regularly occurring species becomes more common, and as you move out into areas where the avifauna has been more recently inventoried, the number of honorifics increases dramatically.  In fact, a quick perusal of the bird list for continental Africa in particular shows a list just dripping with apostrophe s-es.

Why is this? It probably has to do with the long history of well established names among British birds.  There was simply nothing new under the sun for naturalists and self-styled explorers.  Once those naturalists got out into the world in the age of British exploration, however, the opportunity to attach their names to the multitude of new species being discovered the world over was apparently too much to resist.  In fact, although I’ve not graphed it, there certainly appears to be a direct correlation between the number of honorific common names on a nation’s list and the year that nation was surveyed for birds. Given the sheer number of new species, it may have been easier to just apply the discoverer’s possessive name to a new species rather than coming up with a new descriptive name.

But what exactly is their current purpose and why are they still so common?  After all, bird names, both scientific and common, are completely arbitrary anyway.  They are the means by which we assume a common vantage point to sort the overwhelming diversity we see into a context that can be readily communicated. To that end, what real use are descriptors like Steller’s Jay and Cooper’s Hawk other than by paying homage to the legacy of naturalists who are already honored by the scientific name? Is it fealty to a status quo? Honoring a ornithological tradition?  Or just laziness?

It’s hard to say, but what is clear is that very little useful information about the species’ in question is communicated through an honorific name.  Knowing that John Kirk Townsend first collected a warbler in the American west or that he decided fellow scientist William Vaux deserved a swift named for him gives us no appreciable clue as to how we are supposed to identify Townsend’s Warbler or Vaux’s Swift. They are simply some practically obsolete reference to a by-gone era that we cling to for, well, there really isn’t a good reason at this point.

Not only are descriptive common names more useful, but they make the birds themselves more accessible to potential birders.  A Steller’s Jay is a meaningless name to a non-birder, but a Black-fronted Jay?  Well obviously, there’s the black front of course.  It also potentially allows for difficult identifications between closely related species to become more readily apparent.  We all know to look for the gray on a Gray-cheeked Thrush, but wouldn’t separating it from Catharus ustulatus be more self-evident if the second bird was known as Pale-cheeked Thrush?  Maybe not for those of us with several years under our belt, but for a potential new recruit it has obvious advantages.  It allows for them to come to grips with important field marks and clues to identification far easier than with the name of a long dead 18th century naturalist whose for whom the name is little more than a beyond the grave ego boost.  These clues would be a constant reminder when they’re right in the common name of the bird, drilled into your brain through repetitive turns through a field guide.

Granted, it’s hardly a perfect system. One only has to bring up Red-bellied Woodpecker or Ring-necked Duck to point out that not all descriptive common names are as useful as others.  But it’s not as if those field marks aren’t there, only that they are not immediately obvious, and even poorly considered descriptive names force the birder to consider the differences between related species from an equal footing.  Simply by looking at the common names of birds in a shared genus we’re able to see the inherent diversity and quickly assess the impact of speciation in explaining that diversity. It’s not something that is immediately obvious when every common name consists of a possessive honorific as in the African Francolins, to use a particularly egregious example of lack of creativity in bird’s names, or the western Auklets to use one more familiar to North Americans.

Floyd is right that we should be looking for ways in which we can make birding more accessible.  Encouraging new people to take up birding provides us with not only colleagues to enjoy the fun, but a built in group of interested parties for conservation issues.  But if we truly want to make birding less stodgy we should encourage the AOU to not only discontinue new honorific common names (a policy they’ve largely adhered to in recent years), but to gradually roll back the use of honorific names already on the list.

And the sooner the better.  I always thought Accipiter cooperii sounded better as Swift Hawk anyway.

  1. February 19, 2010 8:43 am

    Excellent point that I fully and whole-heartedly support.
    However, you only mention that altering names would make birding more accessible to beginning birders. One group you forgot (yet, I forgive you) are birding tourists.
    It is already difficult enough for a European birder to learn the identification of a few “difficult” bird species by heart before he visits North America, but to memorize in advance which warbler is from Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, Nashville, Cape May, or is the sole property of Swainson, Townsend, Virginia (Virginia who?), Kirtland, MacGillivray, or Wilson, is a near impossibility, especially as the visiting birder has likely never been to any of these places, might have no idea where they are as he’s visiting Point Pelee in Ontario on his first trip to the continent, and has certainly never been introduced to the owners of the birds, let alone had a conversation with them.

    If you know me or my blog a bit, you might realize that this is a topic I am rather emotional about and I had actually begun to write a post about the names in the names about a year or more ago, but never finished it.
    Time permitting, I’ll finish and post it next week in response to your blog post.

  2. Nate permalink*
    February 19, 2010 12:26 pm

    @Jochen- Another good point. I tend to sympathize with new birders just figuring this stuff out, but experienced birders from foreign countries are in the same situation.

    If I ever find my way to Africa, I would be mystified by the honorifics and generally confused as to what to look for where. Not to mention that it’s sort of insulting to consider the species’ discovery from a decidedly Anglo-centric perspective when so many have useful local names that can be incorporated into their english common names.

  3. February 19, 2010 2:24 pm

    Common bird names would be more helpful if they were more descriptive, either of physical features or of their most common location. I’m not sure that changing them at this point would be helpful, though. It would make any older editions of field guides pretty much unusable. That in itself could cause as much confusion among inexperienced birders as the current names since not all inexperienced birders use the newest editions.

    I don’t think the nominative is used for honorifics with anywhere near the consistency that Floyd suggests. He gave a list of examples in the nominative but left out places like Harpers Ferry or places where a possessive remains in a compound form, like Greensboro. Possessives are even more common in informal usage, especially for religious institutions (St. Paul’s, St. Mary’s, etc.). Standardizing honorifics in the nominative case is just as arbitrary as standardizing them in the possessive.

  4. Nate permalink*
    February 19, 2010 2:48 pm

    @John- I think Ted Floyd was being intentionally provocative to provoke discussion on his Birdchat thread, and pretty successfully too. I don’t know that anything is ever going to be done about what he specifically suggests, but the AOU has steadily moved away from honorifics in common bird names even in recent history with Coue’s Flycatcher becoming Greater Pewee and Traill’s Flycatcher bring split into Willow and Alder without holding on to the older name (in my opinion they missed another opportunity to do that when they shortened the Sharp-tailed Sparrows. What use is Nelson’s Sparrow?).

    As for field guides becoming unusable, bird’s names and taxonomic order have changed regularly throughout the years, and pretty quickly among the latest batch, and there’s scarcely a field guide out there that’s completely perfect and perhaps there never will be. At the very least, I think there should be a general trend towards removing honorific names in favor of those that are more useful, and as long as the AOU, and any such organization around the world, would consider instituting some sort of consistent stated policy to that end, people would accept it.

  5. February 19, 2010 11:41 pm

    He is definitely being provocative, and I think a little wrong in some cases. Mammals certainly have honorific names – Abert’s Squirrel comes immediately to mind, and I doubt it’s the only one. I have little problem with honorifics in birds, especially when the common name is pretty much a literal translation of the scientific name (it IS Accipiter cooperii, named after Cooper – why shouldn’t it be Cooper’s Hawk?) And to Jochen – yes, North American birds may be particularly egregious in naming birds for places, but does the Kentish Plover even visit Kent anymore? I know they’ve stopped breeding there at the very least. Which leads us to other equally unhelpful European names… I’ve always been confused as to why a Pochard and a Red-crested Pochard can exist in the same place, yet nobody’s attempted to change this yet.

  6. February 20, 2010 12:06 pm

    I totally agree that these honorific names need to go, but also what about location? Northern Cardinals and Northern Mockingbirds are southern birds!!!

  7. Nate permalink*
    February 20, 2010 1:06 pm

    @Robert- I would say that Cooper has every right to have his name associated with his Hawk as long as it’s limited to the latin name, but there’s never really been a consistent application of the direct translation of latin to common names. And if we’re really trying to make bird identification accessible and easy, we should really try to make the common names useful to those who use them the most, that being birders.

    I would argue equally against honorifics in all taxa. If the name”Abert’s Squirrel”, for example, doesn’t offer the ability to differentiate the species from Gray Squirrel to a layperson, they’re less likely to care a whit about what happens to it. Whereas the name Tassel-eared Squirrel, to use another name for the same species, immediately conjures an image that’s not too far off from what the species really looks like. So the layperson perhaps notes the squirrel on a trip out west and perhaps feel 1) a sense of accomplishment for self-identification and 2) a connection that can lead to an interest in nature. If the goal is to make nature accessible, then I have to think honorifics are working against us.

    @Ali- Well, compared to other Mockingbirds and Cardinals the American South is pretty far north. But you do bring up the point of bizarre place names in bird common names that don’t do much more than honorific names in making common names more complicated that they need to be.

  8. February 21, 2010 12:21 pm

    Well-stated, Nate. I agree with you completely, even in your responses in the comments. We birders look forward to splits and sometimes even lumps so field guides are far from sacrosanct. Any change to a common name that facilitates learning and observation has value.

    Taxonomic authorities can learn a lot from the average man or woman on the street in Jamaica, who probably knows 3 or 4 different names for a species, most of which are far more evocative of the essence of that bird than its common name.

  9. Nate permalink*
    February 21, 2010 8:15 pm

    @Mike- That’s a great point. Many North American species also have a long history of colloquial names that remain untapped. Some of them pose obvious taxonomic problems (“Sparrow” and “Finch” are liberally applied to birds that are neither sparrow nor finch, for example), but there are plenty that could potentially be useful common names, or at least could be considered for something like that.

  10. February 22, 2010 10:23 am


    Good points, and utterly true. However, English is only the language of ONE country in Europe (and the Brits would even struggle with that, I mean with me labelling them “Europeans”), and I had the German bird names in mind.
    A few years ago, the German bird names were revised extensively and all (? virtually/almost all?) honorific common names as well as the very vast majority of all geographic references in bird names were eliminated.
    The Kentish Plover (which as far as I know is very scarce around Kent) has – of course – never been called Kentregenpfeifer (Kent plover) in German (why would we name a bird that occurs throughout the world after an English region) but has always been the “Sea Plover” as it is the most marine of the three European Charadrius. We were lucky in that most common German bird names for European species did not include honorific or geografic elements. However, a whole lot of Afrotropical, Asian and American bird species saw their names (often a mere translation of the English common name) changed to something more descriptive of their habitat, habits or plumage.

    Which I think is quite nice.
    Now, if we could have another initiative to shorten some of those German names, e.g. the Schwarzrückensteinschmätzer or the Schwalbenschwanzbienenfresser, I’d be even more impressed.


  11. March 5, 2010 10:02 am

    Thanks for the post it was very informative.

  12. Brittney permalink
    March 14, 2010 5:18 am

    I have a new bird that has no name plz help me


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