New Standard Bird Names - do we need them?
New bird names are like a bad virus attack ~
they come uninvited and leave a trail of dead books behind
Ed. note: This article was originally written in 2009 but, perhaps, remains relevant
A few weeks back I received a request for bird images from a leading publisher. A quick look at the list and I figured that I did not have many in my collection. That surprised me as I had always thought that I was well stocked in diversity at least and know my bird names. But a 'Kurrichane Buttonquail' or a 'Brown Bush-hen' may well have been birds that occur in deepest Tasmania as far as I was concerned.
Welcome to very special activity of 'Common (English) Bird Name Changes' – an almost ritualistic obsession for those who spend time or make a living from birds and bird related activities.
However, before you start looking for a Tasmania bird list let me quickly take the pain out – both these are well known birds that occur in India. The 1st is popularly known as Small Buttonquail, Turnix sylvatica and the 2nd is the Brown Crake, Amaurornis akool. That the Small Buttonquail could be the 'Little Bustard-quail' to some or the 'Andalusian Hemipode' to others is neither here or there. Just goes to show how vigorous and dynamic the whole bird naming process is! (Incidentally, the Brown Crake is no less popular with re-namers. At different times and places it has been variously referred to as the Brown Swamphen, Crimson-legged Crake, Brown Waterhen – and this is by those who use English only!)
Standard (English) names are in common usage and apply to everything around us. They are there to facilitate communication across English speaking people and are expected to cut across barriers of distance and culture. By and large the use of standard English names has succeeded. I say 'by and large' because some still insist that 'check' is the same as a 'cheque' and 'roos' are incorrectly called kangaroos.
I am not a linguist nor am I anything close to a scientist – so my thoughts are of a common man dealing with common things and concerned about common usage of common names. A typical common birder in short. One of the common enough thoughts that I had was that to succeed in communicating there has to be enduring commonness. If my dad called a chair a chair, I will find it easier to remember that I am sitting on a chair as I type this. Thus, everyone understands that a tiger is a large carnivore with stripes and some even know that it is found in Asia outside of circuses and zoos. Should we choose to rename the tiger as the 'Sundarbans Striped Lion', a name very descriptive (tigers are found in the Sundarbans, have stripes and are sympatric with lions) - we would instantly loose the commonness associated with the word 'tiger' though we may have a more appropriate name. If we agree that a tiger is not a lion and that I am making a wild comparison - then please bear with me and read on. There is a common bird belonging to the starling family found in the subcontinent and South-east Asia. It was known to all as the Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) describing aptly its south and south-east Asian range, its pied appearance and its sturnus (or starling ) family classification. The bird is now renamed a 'Pied Myna' perhaps in light of new scientific thinking that suggests its strong affinities with the myna family* . That the acridotheres family is considered to be related to the starlings, and is indeed a offshoot of the same family is the final twist in this naming game's tail. The tiger is related to the lion and since just striped lion is not descriptive enough, a 'Sundarbans Striped Lion' would be an easy and logical step for scientists or taxonomists who give us these names. So my suggestion may not be as stretched as it sounds, at least not when it comes to bird names. Here appropriateness, as decided by some, rules - not what is commonly used.
Bird renaming it seems is not a task, but a passion. Year after year birds are renamed by whoever has the ability to get anything printed. Some birds are particularly at risk and go through name changes as fast as their numbers decline. The only relief for them may be extinction – but that may still not be 'name-change' relief for us. We may suddenly be told that it was not a yuhina that went extinct - but was an epornis all the time! I am still waiting for someone to propose that the Dodo is entirely inappropriate (especially as there are some suggestions that the etymology of the word 'dodo' may have derogatory connotations associated with it) and the bird should certainly be called a 'Mauritius Flightless Pigeon' and we will soon learn that 'as dead as a Mauritius Flightless' is more appropriate usage over 'as dead as a dodo'. It is coming, believe me!
And the sad thing is there was no need for this! No one has started calling the Clouded Leopard a Clouded Large Cat just because it is evident that Neofelis nebulosa belongs to the pantherinae family rather than being a true felidae like lions, leopards, tigers etc. It is a common or standard name which goes with the animal and no improvement in communication and understanding will be achieved by renaming it. In fact renaming it would loose the commonness associated with the name. Such maturity, however, is unexpected from people who name birds. Birds are often renamed by those who work for years on papers which read like 'Intercondylar fossa analysis of cage bred common mynas under laboratory conditions' . They may not know the distinction between a sparrow and a petronia (sorry, the petronia is now a sparrow again, my apologies) but are deemed knowledgeable enough about the wide subject to be able to contribute with authority and exclusivity on name changes even when they may often be the least qualified for the job (and active field scientists have little time for these things anyway).
There are others too in the naming game - top field scientists, people who are legends in their lifetime. They too propose names and often these appear in new books written by them. But their good work is usually upstaged in the final analysis by the laboratory experts who draw strength from numbers and seem to use Machiavellian tactics when it comes to getting what they want. Add to this the bias of those who invented the language, the fierce independence of those who use it and the big money involved in all this, and it is easy to reach the conclusion that bird renaming is a mug's game for the innocent bystander – you loose all the time! Buy new books, learn to pronounce kurrichane, get stinkers from e-group moderators for using old names – dear common birder, you may not realize it, but you have been had!
And we do nothing about it, of course, as we only care about birds – least the who, why, what of renaming them. Because if we did, we would have stood up and said that it is wrong to rename the Great Crested Tern as the Swift Tern just to please those who are accustomed to using that name. For if the decision makers had been following common sense, had field experience and were not biased, they would have first renamed the Lesser Crested Tern the Lesser Swift Tern to reflect that the birds are almost indistinguishable in the field. How on earth can you expect an amateur birder or enthusiast to remember that two identical species are so differently named? But you see it is not a re-namer's problem. Those who chose the name Swift Tern had only have one species to deal with or care about.
And if you thought that the exercise is aimed at making everyone speak the same language, you are right. Except it may be someone else's language. Take this example: The Himalaya has four species of Bush Robins all belonging to the tarsiger family and descriptively named to aid identification - like Golden Bush Robin to highlight the bright yellow colours of the bird. Unfortunately, some of these little birds chose to stray from their secure mountain kingdom all the way to Europe and were promptly named the Red-flanked Bluetail there. Their relatives in the Himalaya meanwhile continued to be called Orange-flanked Bush Robins reflecting their affinity with other members of the family and also appropriately recognizing that the tail colour was not a diagnostic feature in the Indian/Asian context. But this was too good to last - a red rag to bird re-namers. Red-flanked Bluetail was an established standard name - how could the Himalayan bird be called a Bush Robin? It beat all logic and was scientifically corrected as Himalayan Bluetail even though, thanks to a split, taxonomically it no longer remained the same species as the European bird and could very well have retained its popular name without conflict. So here is the logic - the Swift Tern has to remain the Swift Tern because some use it. By the same logic the Bush Robin has to be renamed a Bluetail because it is in common usage for some others, appropriateness or the user's problems be damned. And such myopic thinking may well affect birders in other English speaking countries as well - after all 'Kurrichane' may not be an everyday word in New Zealand or Scotland ! These examples about sum up the methodology, fairness and usefulness of the renaming exercise for me - you are, of course, free to draw your own conclusions.
So, dear common birder, how do you feel about bird name changes? Do you think that these exercises are more in the nature of arriving at 'New Appropriate Names' rather than standardizing 'Common Names'? These are questions which will not be answered before the next set of 'New Standard Bird Names' appear on the horizon and it is my ardent hope that such a thing should not happen. Good or bad, this must be the last exercise to change existing standard names of birds – if for nothing else but for the sake of the common birder who has to keep on dealing with uncommon names for common birds.
Szechenyi's Monal-Partridge for dinner, anyone?
Sumit K. Sen
1. Kurrichane stands at an elevation of 5,000 feet and is 480 kms from Maputo Bay area of South Africa. Turnix sylvatica occurs in the area.
2. The views contained here are of the author alone and does not reflect the website's opinion on the matter.
The author would like to hear about any comments that you may have and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org