May 20, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Friday, 14 November 2008 09:58
In many natural history pursuits, knowing the scientific name is essential to knowing what you are seeing. In the case of birds, however, knowledge of scientific names is not as critical as it is with, say, plants.
The modern system of classifying and naming of all life, called taxonomy, was developed by a Swede named Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). It gives scientists an orderly and defined way of not only naming, but also relating and ranking the world’s plants and animals. The system is of immense value to the scientist and of some value to the layman.
Most scientific names have two words. The first word is the generic name, used to define a genus, which is usually a group of species with similar characteristics. (However, a genus may have only one species — it’s then “monotypic.”) The second word is the specific name, defining a species within the genus. A localized subspecies or race may be further defined by a third word. Thus, the western subspecies of the Evening Grosbeak is called Coccothraustes vespertinus montanus. Coccothraustes (“berry breaker”) is the generic name, vespertinus (“evening”) the specific name, and montanus (“mountain”), the subspecific name. Many species have no subspecies, and even for those that do, subspecies names are rarely given in field guides.
A scientific name offers an agreed-upon, defined label for a species, and indicates its connection to similar species. If you were a serious wildflower aficionado, positively identifying a plant by English name could be a task of dizzying difficulty. A single, widespread species may have acquired 30 or 40 English names, and there’s no agency to declare which is the “right” one to use. What’s worse, one name may apply to three or four different plants, some not even closely related. In the wildflower world, knowing the scientific name is essential to identifying the plant.
In the bird world, however, there’s a big difference. The English names of birds are carefully selected and watched over by the scientific community — specifically, the Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union. The committee maintains an official checklist of bird species and makes certain that only one English name is officially applied to each.
Sometimes, the committee will change names. For instance, in 2002, the Rock Dove (Columba livia) — what we commonly call a “pigeon” — became a Rock Pigeon.
Still, confusion can occur when dealing with birds that range well beyond North America. For instance, what we call a European Starling is, in Europe, the Common Starling. Our Rough-legged Hawk is called a Rough-legged Buzzard in England. Knowing that the starling is Sturnus vulgaris and the hawk/buzzard is Buteo lagopus avoids any confusion. Redstarts in North America are members of the Warbler family while in Europe, Redstarts are Thrushes. “It would be a comfort to those with orderly minds if the English and Americans could have more uniformity with ornithological nomenclatures,” wrote Dr. Ernest A. Choate in his book, The Dictionary of American Bird Names.
Knowing the scientific names — or at least, delving into their origins — can add to the enjoyment of the hobby and might even tip you off to some interesting characteristics. For instance, the Eastern Kingbird is scientifically named Tyranus tyranus to reflect its very aggressive or “tyrannical” nature.
The common American Robin is Turdus migratorius, which, despite what you might think, means only a thrush that migrates. The Whip-poor-will is known as Caprimulgus vociferus, which means “noisy goatsucker.” Goatsucker? Centuries ago, people believed that birds of this genus would sneak up and suck milk from goats.
As for Sturnus vulgaris, it is not, as a wag has suggested, the scientific name for radio personality Howard Stern. It means only “common starling.”
Little-Known Owls, with Trudy Battaly and Drew Panko on saw-whet owls, Friday, Nov. 21, 7:30 p.m., $5, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Route 117 between Pleasantville and Sleepy Hollow, reservations required, 914-631-1470 ext 0.
Coastal Holiday Birding, along the shore from Old Lyme to Groton, Wednesday, Dec. 17, noon to evening, with dinner at inn, $40/$45, Connecticut Audubon, 800-996-8747.
Bird walks with Luke Tiller, mostly Saturdays at 8 a.m., $10 each; to register, www. sunrisebirding. com/ walks.htm; 203-981-9924, luke.tiller @ gmail.com.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] yahoo.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877; or call 203-438-1183, extension BIRD (2473), and leave a message with your report, spelling your first and last names and telling us your town. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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