Wednesday 10 March 2010

So many names in the names

The following post was written quite some time ago but then got lost in the archives, half finished and half forgotten, until I stumbled upon this particular and peculiar post on Nate's incomparable Drinking Bird blog.

Bird names.
Oh, some might remember while others had hoped to forget, but this is a topic I am very fond of. I'll need to add tags to my posts one of these days - and this is not the one of the lot - but I can recall three posts on the subject (here, here, and here), with a few more surely buried in the archives.

Nate, inspired by a flaming and brilliant email from Ted Floyd (I'll have a lot of good to say about him soon) to a bird forum, writes about honorific names.
Well, I was about to look it up, but then quickly deduced that this had to mean bird species that were named in honour of a certain person by naming it after that certain person.

And as a matter of fact, this is something I had not failed to notice shortly after setting foot on North American soil for the first time in 1987.
I had bought myself a sweet little field guide - actually I had three, Peterson, the Golden Field guide and a third one whose name I can't recall, with photos instead of drawings.
Anyway, so I was trying to memorize the birds, their names and identification and struggled, because so many names were characterized by names. I'll let my comment to Nate's post do the fine tuning:
"... 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. ..."

So quite a while ago, I started flipping through the pages of my trusty ol' Sibley and actually counted the birds named after names.

The result was impressive, as can be seen by the list at the end of this post. I am fairly sure the list is incomplete, but nevertheless:
The list contains 69 different persons, and 89 bird species are named after a person, which is roughly 11% of the bird species regularly found in North America. However, I should not fail to mention that the number of persons is likely larger than 69 as I have (for reasons of simplicity and because I just didn't want to freakin' google all the 89 honorific bird names) attributed all the Wilsons and Clarks etc. to the same person. I am fairly certain however that the two Clark birds (grebe and nutcracker) are named after two different Clarks and that this will likely be the case for a few more names.

And these are only the honorific bird names that contain a person's name. How about geographic names that honour or mention (or whatever it is that pleases) landscape structures or geographic entities, which in my honest opinion also fall into the same category?

Oh dear!

If we take geographic references and names of landscape elements into account as well, the number of birds named after a name increases by roughly 105 species to at total of at least 204 species or 25% of all the bird species of North America.

You doubt that figure?
If in doubt, think it out...

1. All the "Eastern"s and "Western"s and "Northern"s like Eastern Kingbird, Western Grebe, Northern Shrike, ...
Seriously, they may seem to make sense, but in reality they mostly don't. A few examples:
The "Northern" in "Beardless-Tyrannulet might make sense if you live somewhere in Mesoamerica but for citizens of the USA or Canada, it's a joke. And look at Texas recently, where birders were able to see a Northern Wheatear (a vagrant from the far North) and a Northern Jacana (a vagrant from the far South) at the very same time.
And last but not least, just picture Clare up at Arctic Bay. Northern Cardinal? Well, he must be chuckling all the way through his Sibley...

2. All the states and cities, e.g. California Gnatcatcher, Kentucky Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, California Gull, Florida Jay, Carolina Parakeet (oh dear), Baltimore Oriole, Virginia Rail, Savannah Sparrow, ...
All you have to do is ask birders in Connecticut if they have the namesake's warbler on their state list and you'll have to agree that it's all a bit less then perfect.

3. All the geographic areas: South-Hills Crossbill, Mississippi Kite, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Laysan Albatross, ...

Ha! Look, while in St. Louis I never saw Mississippi Kites anywhere near the Mississippi, they were all in residential areas. The hawk might as well be called "University City Kite" if it was up to me.

And last but certainly not least, yes, you know it applies, no matter how much you may think it is unfair:

4. All the Americans: American Robin, American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Black Duck, ...
I am sorry but I just don't think that bird names were meant to sound patriotic, especially as American bird names just mimic European species that aren't even closely related to them, and I frankly feel the American Tree Sparrow and the likes deserves better.

Yet, worst of all:
5. All the Europeans or rather Eurasians: European Starling, European Tree Sparrow, etc.
Apparently, being invasive ecologically just wasn't enough.

Now, if you still disbelieve that 1 out of 4 species in North America is named after a name, go ahead: flip through your Sibley, page by page, and see for yourself.
I've been there, I've done that, and while the results were fun, the process wasn't particularly so.
I'll now leave you with the list of North American honorific bird names, the birds that were named after persons. It's a long, long list...

But rejoice: African birders must surely be worse off, but I am just not prepared to flip through my entire SASOL just yet...

Honorific Bird Names of North America

Abert (1): Towhee
Allen (1): Hummingbird
Anna (1): Hummingbird
Audubon (3): Shearwater, Oriole, Warbler
Bachman (2): Sparrow, Warbler
Baird (2): Sandpiper, sparrow
Barrow (1): Goldeneye
Bell (1): Vireo
Bendire (1): Thrasher
Bewick (1): Wren
Bicknell (1): Thrush
Bonaparte (1): Gull
Botteri (1): Sparrow
Brandt (1): Cormorant
Brewer (2): Blackbird, Sparrow
Brewster (1): Warbler (hybrid)
Buller (1): Petrel
Bullock (1): Oriole
Cassin (5): Auklet, Kingbird, Vireo, Sparrow, Finch
Clark (2): Grebe, Nutcracker
Cook (1): Petrel
Cooper (1): Hawk
Cory (1). Petrel
Costa (1): Hummingbird
Couch (1): Kingbird
Cravieri (1): Murrelet
Fea (1): Petrel
Forster (1): Tern
Franklin (1): Gull
Gambel (1): Quail
Grace (1): Warbler
Harlan (1): Hawk
Harris (2): Hawk, Sparrow
Heermann (1): Gull
Henslow (1): Sparrow
Herald (1): Petrel
Hutton (1): Vireo
Kirtland (1): Warbler
Kittlitz (1): Murrelet
Krider (1): Hawk
La Sagra (1): Flycatcher
Lawrence (2): Warbler (hybrid), Goldfinch
Leach (1): Stormpetrel
LeConte (1): Sparrow
Lewis (1): Woodpecker
Lincoln (1): Sparrow
Lucy (1): Warbler
Manx (1): Petrel
McCown (1): Longspur
McGillivray (1): Warbler
McKay (1): Bunting
Murphy (1): Petrel
Nelson (2): Gull (hybrid), Sparrow
Nuttall (1): Woodpecker
Ross (2): Gull, Goose
Sabine (1): Gull
Say (1): Phoebe
Scott (1): Oriole
Smith (1): Longspur
Sprague (1): Pipit
Steller (2): Eider, Jay
Swainson (3): Hawk, Thrush, Warbler
Thayer (1): Gull
Townsend (2): Solitaire, Warbler
Traill (1): Flycatcher (pre-split)
Vaux (1): Swift
Virginia (1): Warbler
Wilson (3): Stormpetrel, Plover, Warbler
Xantus (1): Murrelet


John B. said...

For the record, I do not have a Connecticut Warbler on my Connecticut list, but I do have California Quail and California Gull on my California list.

Having more descriptive names might help beginning and visiting foreign birders, but the names that exist aren't necessarily any better. Is Northern Flicker more confusing than Red-bellied Woodpecker? Is Clark's Grebe a more confusing name than Ring-necked Duck?

One issue for North American birders is that with paired taxa there is a tendency to refer to the European version as "Common X." If a Larus canus shows up, some birders refer to it as Common Gull and others as Mew Gull. Anas crecca crecca gets a similar division – Common vs. Eurasian Teal. In a North American context, these forms are anything but common.

Nate said...

I guess I'm fortunate to have both Carolina Wren and Carolina Chickadee on my North Carolina list, not to mention Melanerpes carolinensis and Dumetella carolinensis. But I have always thought it weird that these birds, so common across the southeast US, are given the moniker "Carolina" because the guy who described them just happened to be based here.

But you know how I feel about all this stuff anywyay.

Anonymous said...

One more challenge.....what if you are using the latin's names?

For instance, Wilson keeps his Wilsonia pusilla and his Charadrius wilsonia, but loses his Oceanites oceanicus...


Jochen said...

@John: my problem is that there are no birds named after the states I have visited, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Missouri...
I have a rather radical opinion on bird names: they must be fun and easy to remember, so neither Northern Flicker nor Red-bellied Woodpecker are particularly good names in my book.
About the "Common"s: I absolutely agree, very confusing. Look at the Common Moorhen, a parks and garden bird in many parts of Europe yet a rarity over most of NA. The rpoblem with these is that there are so many nations spread all over the world with English as their first language, and each nation likes to maintain a name that makes sense in their geographic context.

@Nate: exactly, exactly.

@Laurent: well, I think honorific elements are okay in the scientific names as no one is really using them, or if they do, they are so deeply submerged in birding and ornithology that they know their birds anyway. So I don't mind that, in addition to the fact that there is a very good scientific reason NOT to mess with / alter scientific names in the first place.
Sometimes, the translation of the scientific name leads to a very interesting "common" name, but sometimes also not. And the almost exclusive use of scientific names in entomology (insects) was what drove me away from that group in my early teens and strengthened my ties to birds and mammals.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Xantus Hummingbird was in the Sibley's....


SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

We have had so many changes here that I have stopped trying to keep up with the changes and continue to call them by their older (original) names.

I really surprised myself in that I remembered all the species we saw in Kruger. It has been some time since I last had to tell someone what they were.

Jochen said...

@ Laurent: Xantus hummingbird? Geez, never heard of it. I simply counted all the birds Sibley has included in his main part and not all the species that have ever turned up in the "Sibley area". Of course then the list would have been much longer...

@Joan: yeah, I guess at a certain point, you just start to stick with what you know. The times are changing too quickly nowadays. And about remembering the bird names: the birds of SA are just so memorable, ey? So incredible that once seen and learned, they are never forgotten.

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