Gill and Wright, Birds of the World: Recommended English NamesBy
The question was posed some years ago in the letters column of Birding magazine: which is better, birding or sex? Myself, I think the answer is obvious, but others have disagreed. What is 100% certain is that one of these popular hobbies is older than the other: Adam named the creatures of the earth quite some time before he even noticed Eve’s considerable allures.
Things went downhill from that point, bottoming out at Babel, where the Edenic ur-language splintered into a thousand vernaculars. Adam’s original names went out the tower window, and we birders have been struggling ever since: is that cute little short-tailed nightjar a Buff-collared, a Tucuchillo, a Cookachea, or a Ridgway’s Whip-poor-will? And how on earth do we spell “whippoorwill” anyway?
A century and a quarter ago, the American Ornithologists’ Union made its first attempt at restoring the prelapsarian order, standardizing the English and scientific names of the birds of the US and Canada; now in its seventh edition, and having benefited from some 47 supplements over the years, the quaintly spelled Check-list has extended its taxonomic dominion as far south as Panama, providing authoritative, if not always uncontroversial, names for 2,041 birds.
But what about the rest of the world, and the 80% of the world’s birds that do not occur in the Nearctic? Over the years, Peters, Sibley and Monroe, Clements, and Howard and Moore have all offered elaborate lists of the birds of the world, and ambitious international birders have relied on an often idiosyncratic synthesis of these sources in determining what to count and what to call it. But those lists were primarily taxonomic, not nomenclatural, in intent, and none had as its primary goal the generation of a list of standard names. World birders have struggled to stay afloat in a swirling sea of polylexy and polysemy, where one bird may have many names and one name may apply to many birds.
Fifteen years ago, the International Ornithological Congress determined to create a “set of unique English-language names for the extant species of the birds of the world…based on consensus and a logical set of rules.” The result is presented in a newly published book and cd from Princeton University Press, under the nominal authorship of the noted ornithologist Frank Gill and the world lister Minturn Wright. Six subcommittees, chaired by regional experts, prepared lists of recommended names, which were then collated, re-negotiated, and accepted by the working committee as a whole.
“Pedantry,” of course, is the first and one of the kindest words to spring to mind, but the authors argue valiantly that their list “will lead to success in ornithology” by making it possible for ‘stakeholders’ around the world to communicate clearly and without confusion. At the same time, they admit that widespread adoption of the names recommended here is likely to be “piecemeal” and a long time coming.
The list of names itself occupies exactly 200 pages, and is preceded by a short introduction laying out the problems in creating such a list and the principles invoked in solving them.
I was pleased to see among the statements of principle that all names would be unique, that is to say, that no species would have more than one name and that no name would refer to more than one species. It would have been difficult but not impossible to extend this admirable principle to taxa above the level of species, avoiding such potential confusions as having both parrots and hummingbirds named “racket-tail” or mimids and bowerbirds called “catbird.”
All the recommended names are to be English, and any names of foreign origin would be anglicized, with no attempt to maintain their “original” character with such contrivances as glottal stops and accents; the umlaut, however, is retained on patronyms. Unfortunately, the committee did not carry its resolve through in the case of Hawaiian endemics, many of which are here given weakly anglicized versions of native names, a frustrating and pointless nod in the direction of some sort of political correctness (we don’t call the Corsican Nuthatch “Picchio muratore corso”!).
Equally odd is the treatment of some toponyms within bird names: those deemed “offensive to a substantial group of people” were changed (Formosa becomes Taiwan, for example), while those the committee thought inoffensive have been left as they are. “Burma,” for example, is retained over the country’s official English name of Myanmar. It would have been simpler, I believe, to insist on consistency here, and to use the modern names of geographic entities wherever possible.
Spelling issues receive special attention. The recommended names are treated as if proper nouns, and thus capitalized in print; there is no logical or linguistic reason behind this, but the convention does make scanning easier for the hurried reader. The possessive -s is retained on patronyms. And hyphens….
Americans of the generation following mine (well, generations now, as middle age rushes in on me) badly overuse hyphens, making a page of prose look way too Teutonic for my tastes. In general, the principles set forth here are conservative and easily followed. Compound names that end in “-bird” (“Bluebird”) or that are echoic (“Dickcissel”) are written as a single word, unless the name “would be hard to pronounce or would look odd” (!). “Whip-poor-will” keeps its crop of hyphens, apparently on that last criterion; “Laughingthrush,” on the other hand, bane of spell checkers and typesetters, maintains its row of five consonants, and “Woodswallow,” which I continually mispronounce, is left as one word.
The authors note that hyphenation within compound names quickly “became the single most contentious point in the entire project.” Fifteen years later, the general rule that has emerged is that hyphens should generally not be used, leaving us with “Screech Owls” and “Storm Petrels,” among other names that are consistently hyphenated in the AOU Check-list. Where both components are a bird name, as in “Hawk-Owl,” a hyphen is to be used; here, too, the AOU takes just the opposite position, naming our bird “Northern Hawk Owl.” If the second element in the name refers to a taxon that does not include the bird in question, that element is to be written lowercase: for example, a Silky-flycatcher is not a flycatcher, but a Tody-Flycatcher is.
Consistency is a slippery goal, of course, and the rules in the Introduction admit of any number of exceptions to avoid “offense” and violations of “usage” or “common sense.” And exceptions abound, some of them justified, others not.
Rule 5.B.3, which requires a hyphen in compound names comprising two bird names, appears not to have been applied to “Magpie Goose” or to “Crane Hawk.” The n of “Owlet-Nightjar” should be lowercase, according to Rule 5.B.4; “Shrike-Vireo” is a doubtful case, but the passerids known as “Sparrow-Weavers” should certainly have a small w.
More interesting than the occasional inconsistency are those instances where the committee members have taken it upon themselves to introduce stability by altering some names of long standing. To prevent polysemy, where one name refers to more than one species, the list adds the modifier “American” to the birds known in the AOU Check-list as “Cliff Swallow” and “White Ibis.” The AOU’s Black-headed Gull here becomes (again!) “Common Black-headed Gull,” with an eye to avoiding possible confusion with the Great Black-headed Gull (which is now more widely known as “Pallas’s Gull” in any event). The Rock Pigeon, a name that still refuses to trip off the tongue, is styled “Common Pigeon,” and North America’s Common Raven is more eloquently listed here as “Northern Raven,” a name it has borne before in its nomenclatural past. The Myioborus redstarts are listed here as “Whitestarts,” a change already made in most field guides to the Neotropics. And the unwieldy names burdening the orange-faced Ammodramus in the AOU Check-list are replaced by the elegant and simple “Nelson’s Sparrow” and “Saltmarsh Sparrow” (for which thanks!).
The names on this list are “English” names, but it must be recalled that English is a language spoken in many places–and in many ways. Where British and North American (or British and US) usage conflict, the committee’s choices have been eclectic, sometimes opting for the Old World preference, sometimes for the name in use in North America, and sometimes combining the two: the gaviids are all known as “Loons,” but the most widespread species is listed as “Great Northern Loon.” We have the British-style “Grey Plover” alongside the American “Red Phalarope,” and if we have to call our Bank Swallow “Sand Martin,” then at least they are going to have get used to calling out “Long-tailed Bushtit”! The spelling “grey” is incongruous in the names of such North American endemics as Grey (!) Jay.
Although the list is intended as a purely nomenclatural document, some of these interventions have taxonomic implications. Where Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers are allowed to keep the names familiar to North American birders, Pomarine becomes “Pomarine Skua,” in line with British usage and with recent research suggesting its greater affinity to the “bonxie” skuas. The slender North American phalacrocoracids have become “Pelagic Shag” and “Red-faced Shag.” Lucifer Hummingbird is called “Lucifer Sheartail,” reflecting its close affinity to the tropical sheartails, and our Blue-throated Hummingbird is made a “Mountaingem” for similar reasons. Unfortunately, the bustard/korhaan divide is not aligned with the genera involved, and it is utterly unclear why Clay-colored Robin has become a “Thrush” but Rufous-backed should remain a “Robin.”
The list proper is followed by a beautifully laid-out index of species names, both English and scientific. A cd tucked inside the back cover provides Excel files containing the complete list of 10,068 species, along with more extensive range information than could be provided in the printed text.
The printed list and these downloadable files are a spectacularly useful resource for anyone who writes, reads, or thinks about birds outside of his or her own region. Minor inconsistencies are inevitable in a project of this enormous reach, and the committee and the editors are to be congratulated for producing a useful and useable work.