Birds’ Official Names

We independently evaluate all recommended products and services. If you click on links we provide, we may receive compensation.

Old Chinese Proverb: “Wisdom begins with putting the right name on a thing” There are a number of species of birds with widespread distributions such as the Peregrine Falcon, Mallard, and European Starling. Each has a scientific name and all of the nearly 11,000 species of birds have an official common English name as well, as established by the International Ornithological Committee. So for every English-speaking country or individual, a common name is established for a particular bird, eliminating any confusion among species.

            Not everyone speaks English so there are still a variety of common names for one particular bird species in different countries or areas. For example:

Barn Swallowandorinha decelerioRauchschwalbederevenskaya lastochkafusti fecskejaskolka stodola
Mallardpato selvgemStockentekryakvavadkaesakrzyzonka
Peregrine Falconfalco peregrineWanderfalkesapsanvandersolyomsokol wedrovny

It is not unusual for the same culture or country to use different common names for the same bird species. In the U.S., the Northern Pintail is also called “sprig”, short for sprig-tail, a decorative sprig of holly or a sprig of thyme added to soup. The male American Wigeon, with a wide stripe down the center of its head is called a “baldpate.” The Northern Shoveler, with its spatulate bill, has several colloquial monikers such as “spoonbill”, “shoveler”, “daffy duck”, “Hollywood Mallard”, and “smiling mallard.” The Gray Jay is a “whiskyjack” and the American Bittern a “thunder-pumper.” In the U.K. the European Goldfinch was once called a “nicker knocker” and the Osprey a “bald buzzard.”

The convention, or at least a strong trend, is for bird-oriented publications to capitalize common English bird names. The practice is followed by the American Ornithological Society, the International Ornithological Union, the Audubon Society, and many book publishers. Although there are a few publishers who continue to use lower case, they are in the minority. The reason for capitalization is clear: to distinguish the specific from the general. A White-throated Sparrow is a particular species; a white-throated sparrow is a sparrow with a white throat. A long-tailed tit is not the same as a Long-tailed Tit and a yellow warbler may or may not be a Yellow Warbler./

Scientific names have not led to such confusion since they have been agreed upon since 1901 by the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. These rules emanated from the scheme of classification proposed by Linnaeus in the mid 18th century. A Swedish botanist, taxonomist, zoologist, and physician. He proposed that all species of organisms be identified by a unique two word Latin name, or binomial. The first part of the name is the genus, capitalized and in italics; the second name is the species, italicized but not capitalized. The Wood Duck’s scientific name is Aix sponsa, Aix being the genus and sponsa the species.

The scientific name has meaning, too, although often not too obvious. Aix is from the old French meaning water and sponsa means “hope or proposing marriage.” Not a clear meaning. But Chen caerulescens means Blue Goose, for the Blue Goose/Snow Goose species. Sometimes this stuff makes sense.

4 thoughts on “Birds’ Official Names”

  1. Name changes are okay if for the correct reasons with purposes other than satisfing the “woke” crowd for political correctness.

  2. Nicholas E. Tishler

    Thank you for explaining the naming conventions for common and scientIfic names. It makes sense that a yellow warbler, Yellow warbler or yellow Warbler, do not necessarily mean a Setophaga petechia (for some reason my iPad does not allow italiicizing or underlining); but the name Yellow Warbler does.

    Also interesting is that the field guide I am using — The Birds of Costa Rica (Garrigues, 2007) — uses Dendroica petechia, while the second edition (Garrigues, 2014) uses Setophaga petechia.

    Is it correct that the change in the scientific name is due to a reorganization resulting from advances in genetic testing?

    I apologize in advance for reacting to the comment made by the person identified as “Keith” but — according to a linguist who specializes in slang terminology, the term “woke” is a “lazy slur.” This is a blog about Ornithology. It is not difficult to hew to that subject. I for one would very much appreciate it if comments were kept to that subject and to that subject alone without the personal editorializing.

    1. Right, new DNA information changed Dendroica to Setophaga. (I can’t underline or italicize here either.)
      Yes, I didn’t see the point about bringing up “woke” either.
      Although there is a movement to change the names of birds who were named after people, and some would argue that some of those people have an unsavory reputation, the main reason is that “Cooper’s Hawk” or “Steller’s Jay” are not descriptive, so the names should be more like Striped-tail Hawk and Black-crested Jay.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.