Sunday, 22 July 2012

What's in a name?

If you could change the English name of just one bird, which one would it be and what new name would you choose?

There are plenty to pick from aren’t there?  Lots of birds seem to be stuck with names that are inappropriate in some way.  What about Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus -  a bird that never has a black head and has a name designed to confuse, a name that is simply wrong?  Obvious possible alternative names would be Brown-headed Gull or Brown-hooded Gull but those already belong to C. brunnicephalus and C. maculipennis, so we would have to think of something else.  Why not Chocolate-headed Gull?

Continuing to think of birds that have names that describe them inaccurately, what about Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina?  That’s one that we find particularly irritating!  Orange-headed maybe, but never in your wildest imagination is it Red-crested!  The most obvious and striking feature of the drake is its coral-red bill – so why not Red-billed Pochard?  Maybe for some that’s too similar to Rosy-billed Pochard N. peposaca but at least it’s accurate.

Lots of birds have names that include reference to features that may be real but which aren’t easily seen in the field or they’re features that aren’t the most obvious.  We’re thinking, for instance, of Orange-crowned Warbler, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker and several that apparently have short toes.  And what about Ring-necked Duck?  And what about those species that have inappropriate geographical references in their names, such as Kentish Plover, Nashville Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Sandwich Tern and others.

We could go on in this vein for quite a while – there are so many candidates for a name change!  However, when the International Ornithological Congress set about compiling a list of recommended English names for all the world’s birds one of their starting principles was that existing names should prevail.  In other words, long-established names would not be changed just to correct a perceived inaccuracy or wrong description.  They even quoted the examples of Dartford Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo that they had no intention of interfering with. 

It was against this background that we were more than a little surprised recently to see a formal proposal being made to the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature for the name of Columbina inca to be changed from Inca Dove to Aztec Dove.  This was based on the fact that the Inca Empire was centred on the Andes in South America whereas the range of the Inca Dove doesn’t extend beyond North and Central America.  Yes, on that basis, the name is clearly wrong but we weren’t aware of many people being offended by it and, as we have noted above, it’s only one of many candidates for re-naming and hardly a priority.  It really did sound like the proposal for change was made by someone with too much time on his hands and thankfully we’ve just heard that it was defeated.

At the same time as opting to retain the name Inca Dove, the AOU Committee also decreed that there must be more changes to the taxonomic order in which we list our birds.  In these days of DNA analysis there are bound to be such changes.  However, some of us who have spent years using field guides that start with divers and grebes and end with buntings and sparrows find all these changes a bit irritating!  If you’re still struggling to find your way around a list that now starts with swans and geese, watch out, there’s more trouble on the way!  The latest changes result from recent genetic studies that have found that falcons are much more closely related to songbirds than they are to other “hawks”!  You might want to read that last sentence again.  Yes, according to this new research, falcons' closest relatives are a group consisting of the parrots and the songbirds.  As a result, the new AOU check list sequence inserts the falcons and the parrots between the woodpeckers and the passerines.  Whatever next?  Can we expect the BOU to go along with this?  Probably.

Another decision of the AOU Committee was to split what they call Gray Hawk, but which according to the IOC is really Grey Hawk, into two separate species.  These are Grey Hawk, now re-named Buteo plagiatus, which is the bird you might have seen in Arizona or Texas or as far south as the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica and Grey-lined Hawk B. nitidus which is resident from southern Costa Rica south through much of South America.  For Peter this represents an ‘armchair tick’, an addition to his life list without leaving home, based on birds seen when leading more than a dozen Avian Adventures tours in Costa Rica and during an October 2004 trip to Suriname.

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