What’s in a (Birds) Name?

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House Finch

]What’s in a name? All animals and plants have official scientific names, established by international committees such as the IOC Bird List. Many plants and animals have common names as well. The problem with common names is that they vary by region so that one animal might have twenty different names.  Various species of sunfish are also known as perch, brim, and bream, for example. Birds in the U.S. are a single exception – their common names are officially established by the American Ornithologist’s Union – so there should be no confusion as to what bird species one is referring to. So we have the Oak Titmouse, Yellow-billed Magpie, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk and hundreds of others as single, accurate names.

There is still some confusion however, as I hear the Acorn Woodpecker referred to as the red-headed woodpecker, the Western Scrub Jay called the blue jay, and the House Finch called a linnet. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is a Blue Jay and Red-headed Woodpecker, but they are not found in California (except for some rare sightings of the Blue Jay) and “Linnet” is an old name for House Finch. “Linnet” refers to the bird’s preference for “lin”, old French for flax seed.

There are some other odd names like “plover”, the name coming from the Latin “pluvial”, meaning rain. Flamingo refers to flame, from its color. Cormorant derives from the Latin for “sea cow”. The canary that we all know is named after its ancestral home, the Canary Islands which themselves were named after the large dogs that were imported to the islands  and became a breed known for their size and aggressiveness.

Scientific names are very important to scientists and serious bird watchers because they not only refer to a specific bird but elucidate the relationships of birds. So the Mallard is Anas platyrhynchos and the Northern Pintail is Anas acuta. Without scientific names you might not know they were closely related. These birds are hunted and hunters confuse the naming issue even more by calling Mallards “greenheads” and Pintails “sprigs”. Then there is the Northern Shoveler  (Anas clypeata) with the colloquial names of “Smiling Mallard”, “Daffy Duck”, and “Hollywood Mallard”.

Having been to several international ornithological meetings where I presented my research, there are language issues and scientific names are critical. Imagine me referring to “blackbird”, which in German would be “Schwartzdrossel” but would actually refer to a European thrush. I remember going on a field trip near Berlin where the leader pointed out the birds to participants from twenty countries – scientific names were the only way to communicate.

Fortunately for you blog readers, I will use the accepted convention of common names of birds, typically capitalized, such as Canada Goose (not Canadian Goose, by the way). The only glitch in this system is that names are changed as DNA studies show enough similarities or differences to split a species into two or more, such as the Plain Titmouse becoming the Oak Titmouse and the Juniper Titmouse, or the Red-shafted Flicker and Yellow-shafted Flicker being lumped into the single Northern Flicker species. So you need a new field guide every few years.

1 thought on “What’s in a (Birds) Name?”

  1. This cracked me up. I have a very sciaetificnlly-minded seven year old boy. The subject of eggs came up. As in, are we really killing baby chickens when we eat eggs?Okay. First, so impressed with the social awareness of considering the implications of such. Second, I explained to him that the eggs we eat are not fertilized, and therefore never destined to become chicks. Why not? Because without a rooster, the eggs can’t be fertilized. Why not? Oi. He knows about sperm. And eggs. And procreation. He just didn’t have the particulars down. So I explained that only roosters have sperm. Well how does the sperm get to the egg? If they’re old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to know the answer. Right? So I told him.He wrinkled his nose and said, So that’s how Daddy got the sperm inside you to make us???? Second grade is going to be interesting.

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