The Official English Names of North American Birds


Normal people, on pulling into a rainy New Jersey parking lot, may remark on the abundance of seagulls lurking in hopes of a french fry. But birders maneuver their Subarudes and Prii into the middle of the flock and right away start identifying, aging and sexing the birds they would never, ever, not ever call “seagulls.”

Giving the birds their official labels, applying the official names to the things in front of us, is quite simply what birding is in post-Griscom American culture. Indeed, our stubborn insistence on the link between objects and their names has completely elided the difference between the word and the thing it is meant to denote, such that using the wrong name for a bird has become tantamount to misidentifying the bird — two mistakes that to my mind should be considered as belonging to entirely different classes of error.

An illustration: You may know those two small black and white grebes backwards and forwards, but I defy you to always, without fail, pin each of the names auritus/nigricollis/Slavonian/horned/eared/black-necked to the right bird. It is too easy in the heat of the seawatching moment, especially if you happen to be watching a different sea from the one you’re used to, to blurt out the wrong name even when you have correctly recognized the bird. Only a naive kind of linguistic realism could account that a “misidentification,” but that is precisely the conclusion most birders would come to.

Horned Grebe

American ornithology has always been more sensible — in principle, at least — in its approach to the function and value of names. The latest, 1998 edition of the AOU (now AOS) Check-list retains the traditional salutary reminder on its title page,

asserted in 1886 as literally the organization’s First Principle in matters nomenclatural. In that same year and in that same document, the AOU (one’s fingers always yearn to type “the fledgling AOU,” don’t they?) affirmed that “zoological nomenclature is the scientific language of systematic zoology, and vernacular names are not properly within its scope,” a principle adhered to in practice by Check-list committees (and their Check-lists) for the next sixty years.

Things appear to have changed in the 1940s (a fascinating story in itself), and by 1957, when the fifth edition of the Check-list finally appeared, the AOU had made its claim to be the authoritative issuer of English names. There was an attempt in the late 1970s by the American Birding Association to reassign that responsibility (remember the “Northern Junco”? The “Thin-billed Murre”?), but    in spite of its adoption in the “new” Peterson of 1980, that alternative list of vernacular names never caught on.

white-winged junco

Now, the AOU/AOS committee may be ruing the long-ago day that Eugene Eisenmann and colleagues sat down to produce that first list of “official” English names. The past several years have seen more and more formal proposals submitted to the committee urging the alteration of English names for one reason or another, proposals supported with arguments ranging from the more or less cogent to the downright silly. A few have been ratified by the committee, most rejected — but all take time and attention away from the real work of the committee, the assessment of evolutionary relationships and the alignment of scientific nomenclature to reflect those relationships.

Already this fall two proposals have been published to change English names. One, to rename the Saltmarsh Sparrow as the “Peterson Sparrow,” is entirely gratuitous and will, I trust, be dismissed out of hand by the committee. The other may turn out to be more difficult.

McCown's Longspur

The stunning and little-known McCown Longspur is named for the man who first collected it, in 1851. Ten years later, John P. McCown would join the ranks of traitors who took up arms against their country in defense of slavery.

My first reaction matches that of the proposal’s authors: McCown’s is not a name we should commemorate, especially given that –incredibly, shockingly — there are those who still openly celebrate his role in a treasonous uprising to keep a people enslaved. Elliott Coues, who served on the right side of the Civil War, ultimately called the bird the Black-breasted or (far better) the Bay-winged Longspur, and I now plan to follow his lead in the field.

But it is hard to guess whether the AOS committee will make the same change — not because I suspect the committee of anything like ill will or a lack of understanding, but because the committee is constitutionally (and in most cases properly) so faithful to the ideal of stability in naming. While change has only justified revulsion on its side, there are several plausible arguments in favor of the status quo (slippery slope arguments aren’t convincing):

Lawrence did not claim to be “honoring” McCown when he named the bird; McCown’s subsequent biography is entirely unknown to virtually all those who use the English name; bird names do not positively celebrate their sources as statues and other memorials do.

And then there’s the big one.

A name, the committee pronounced 132 years ago,

is only a name, having no meaning until invested with one by being used as the handle of a fact; and the meaning of a name so used, in zoological nomenclature, does not depend on its signification in any other connection.

Even if saying it didn’t make it so, that statement should be philosophically incontrovertible to all but the most benighted linguistic realists.

And yet: while all can agree that there is nothing essentially McCownian about the longspur, labeling it officially with that name inevitably calls to mind the man and his crimes, even for us good nominalists out there.

Whatever the committee’s decision, this proposal may finally be what breaks the  seventy-year hold of the AOS on the English names of North American birds, freeing field guide authors, birders, even normal seagull watchers to make wise and informed decisions about what they want to call their birds.




Bohemian Chatterers

Bohemian waxwing

I read on twitter the other day that the Bohemian waxwing takes its English name from the species’ “Bohemian” habits — not living in garrets and painting derivative kitsch with gelid little hands, of course, but rather wandering restless from place to place, never truly at home, always eyeing the next mountain ash or crabapple.

I happily recognize in twitter the fons totius veritatis, and yet… and yet.

It is so easy to look these things up.

The OED tells us with shocking exactitude that “Bohemian” in the sense of a “vagabond, adventurer, person of irregular life or habits” was introduced into our language by Thackeray in Vanity Fair, published in 1848. And it informs us, too, that the bird name “Bohemian waxwing” antedates Becky Sharp and her gang by at least seven years — and in its older form “Bohemian chatterer” is found as early as 1772.

“Bohemian,” disappointingly, really means nothing more romantic than “from Bohemia,” the speculative breeding range assigned this species by virtually all pre-Linnaean ornithologists. Indeed, one of the vernacular names listed by Conrad Gesner in 1555 is “Behemle,” the “little Bohemian,” and Aldrovandi notes that though every winter it seems to fly into neighboring regions, even on occasion to Italy, “the waxwing is otherwise unique to Bohemia.”

In England, Frances Willughby and John Ray accepted the range statements given by their continental colleagues, noting — Willughby in English, Ray in Latin — that the bird is “said to be peculiar to Bohemia.”

The name stuck, even after we learned that these waxwings breed far from Bohemia. It has nothing to do with the bird’s behavior, and everything to do with a stage in the history of ornithology when we were still trying to figure out just where these winter nomads came from.


A Whooping Crane in London

One hundred fifty years ago today, the menagerie of the Zoological Society of London received its first whooping crane, an immature bird purchased from the Antwerp zoo.


I’m happy to admit that I hadn’t known there were any, ever, in European collections, though a bit of google “research” discovers this useful chart:

Note, though, that the Antwerp Zoo goes unmentioned, and that the birds (a second was soon added) held by the Zoological Society of London are listed here with no details — it seems as if another look using the new “full text” search option at the Biodiversity Heritage Library might well produce more records and deeper details.

Have at it!


It’s a Date

rosy-faced Lovebird

It’s annoying enough to set the clocks back and “lose” that hour of evening sunshine — but it’s downright disruptive when you also have to nudge the dog’s schedule at each end of the day so that he neither fears starvation in the morning nor expects undeserved seconds in the evening.

The brute beasts just don’t get it.

With an important exception, that is. In 1590, eight years after the promulgation of the new Gregorian calendar, the Austrian polymath Johann Rasch observed that

they say as a general rule that the birds marry every year on St. Vincent’s Day…. When last year and in the years before that certain people carefully monitored the birds, they found that they gathered into pairs and perched together on St. Vincent’s Day according to the new calendar, not according to the old one.

How did they do it? According to Rasch, these were

Catholic birds, so much more intelligent than so many coarse and stupid humans! They pair up on the day assigned by the Church and thus honor the new calendar.

Maybe Gellert should convert.



A Is For Ibis

“The ibis — the first letter invented by Mercury.”

Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath best known today for his early efforts to transcribe bird song on the musical staff, explains why the Egyptians called the first letter of their alphabet “Ibis“: After the first king of Egypt, Osiris, had seen the land drained for cultivation,

a huge number of serpents was hatched out of the putrifying mud, and every day many people died from their bites…. Great Osiris sent a number of ibis into those areas, which ate the serpents and in short order made the area free of danger. Afterward it was remarked that the ibis, which had multiplied, made with their spread legs and bill … a shape not unlike that of the Latin A, which they called Ibin and was placed by Mercurius [the inventor of the Egyptian writing system] as the first of the list of sacred characters.

Kircher cites no less an authority than Plutarch for this story, which was widespread elsewhere in the fanciful Egyptological literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As it turns out, François Gaudard tells us that the Egyptians did in fact assign each letter of their alphabet the name of a bird, obviously for mnemonic purposes. Alongside the ibis, they had letters named for herons, doves, geese, hens, swans, quails, kites, sparrows, and (they have wings and fly) mosquitoes.

Even more charming, Gaudard reports on a papyrus of the fourth or third century BC in which neophyte readers and writers were coached in the demotic alphabet using a paired list of bird and plant names, each beginning with the same letter:

The Ibis [hb] perched upon the ebony tree [hbyn]

and so on.

Somebody needs to write a children’s book.