Upper Case Bird Names

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A few years ago I wrote the editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest about the use of bird names. Birds have official common English bird names, as designated by the International Ornithological Congress which has established the IOC World Bird List. Because there is only one official name for each bird, unlike any other group of animals or plants,  it has become common usage for all common names of birds to be capitalized, such as Black Phoebe or Mallard. Virtually all bird-related publications – books, magazines, blogs, field guides, and websites – capitalize bird names.

vermillion flycatcher or Vermillion Flycatcher?

There are good reasons for this. Capitalization makes the bird name stand out, but it can also clarify. When you say you saw a yellow warbler, did you see a Yellow Warbler or a warbler that was yellow in color? If you saw a western bluebird, was it a Western Bluebird or a Mountain Bluebird, found only in the west? Did you see a lesser yellowlegs, a small bird with yellow legs or a Lesser Yellowlegs? And why mix cases with American robin and Carolina chickadee? We don’t write Grizzly Bear because some people call them brown bears and we don’t write Sockeye Salmon, because it’s also called red salmon, kokanee salmon, or blueback salmon. But a House Wren, Carolina Parakeet, or Anhinga have no alternative names, so capitalizing them recognizes that.

We have other names in the English language that are capitalized. We talk about the “Great Lakes,” the “Rocky Mountains,” and the “Pacific Northwest.”   In the same way, “American Robin” says it all. 

But not everybody is on board. Audubon had some serious discussions about the topic before they accepted upper case for bird names a few years ago. Wikipedia is another exception as is Bird Watcher’s Digest. I and others wrote to BWD asking that they get with the program as most publications have, but they refuse to do so, stating that they follow the Chicago Manual of Style.

Now I’m all for following the rules of writing style, but all languages evolve and our writing along with them. We accept new words, the use of words in new ways, new spellings, and various other changes. This is one of them. To slavishly follow guidelines and ignore most of the publications in the world of birding is rather narrow-minded. Bird Watcher’s Digest is sticking itself in a corner and weakening a decent publication. I don’t know about the well-known authors that write for the BWD, but I suspect this is the only one that they use lower case bird names for.

I wrote to Bird Watcher’s Digest again recently after I saw another letter to the editor that supported my point of view. Their response? No. “Case closed.” One reader wrote to me, enclosing her letter to the BWD in support of upper case usage, and asked that her subscription be cancelled because of BWD’s refusal to change.

Get with the program, BWD.

7 thoughts on “Upper Case Bird Names”

  1. If you want to stir up a hornet’s nest talk about the use of old ornighologist’s names and birds, slave owners, grave robbers, Confederate officers, etc. In the current environment there is a lot of discussion about removing some/even all person’s names from the common English bird names of our birds. I have mixed feelings, but many feel that the use of a person’s name is an honor, and by honoring people who in aspects of their lives other than in ornithology may be less than honorable is not appropriate. Do you have strong feelings on this current hot topic? McCown’s Longspur, Audubon’s Shearwater etc. come to mind. Thanks.

  2. The original namer of the bird wanted to honor someone, hence the new species’ name to include Audubon, Baird, Steller, and etc. Problem is, it doesn’t tell you much about the bird. A better common name would be Black-chinned, Tufted, Long-legged, Striped, Spotted, etc. So the trend is moving in that direction. After seeing so many name changes over the years, I don’t get stirred up anymore.

    1. Descriptive names can be problematic as well. We have a bird in our area called a Black-fronted Nun Bird. Except for the beak, the bird is pure black. Why is that? Well, it turns out that it has a close relative in the Amazon called the White-fronted Nun Bird. Good to know. Let´s say you had a brother called Frank. We could call you Dr. Franksbrother Lederer, I bet you wouldn’t want that?; but, it would be descriptive and accurate. Brazil doesn’t get hung up on regional names, so one name for the bird, chora-chuva which could be translated as ‘cries in the rain’, another regional name bico-do-braso could be translated as ember beak where ember connotes a lump of glowing coal, and not simply a color, an apt description for its intense beak color against its plain indistinct black body. Frankly–and I am not talking about your fictitious brother–I like names that reflect the behavior as each bird has a history and a story to tell.

  3. If you believe that the common names of birds should be capitalised, you presumably refuse to allow any of them to be used in Scrabble, which is a shame.

  4. I have bumped into this same phenomenon regarding BWD. I was given the same explanation that BWD follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Could one assume that the CMoS is assembled by real people (at least prior to AI) and that those real people could be persuaded to change their ‘Style’?

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