Thursday, February 4, 2010

What's in a name?

When I began this blog and wrote about a bird seen or photographed, I included the bird's common name followed by the Latin name in parenthesis and italics - just like in a real field guide. With this effort my goal was to try to learn Latin names of some birds at least, if not most. This effort fell by the wayside when there were too many birds to be mentioned and confirming and including the Latin name became excessively time-consuming. Just making sure the spelling was correct was a challenge. I always think that I will go back and edit to add in the Latin name, but I never do.

Lately I've been doing some research on birds in Great Britain for an upcoming trip in June and I am, again, reminded of the importance of the Latin names of birds. In fact, Great Britain has many of the same birds we have, but their common names are different.

In the family Gaviidae, take three of our loons: Gavia stellata, Gavia arctica and Gavia immer; our Red-throated, Arctic and Common loons respectively are, in Great Britain, the Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver and the Great Northern Diver.

But that was easy. How about these two birds in the family Podicipedidae, starting with the British common names, Slavonian Grebe and the Black-necked Grebe? Podiceps auritus and Podiceps nigricollis respectively are our Horned Grebe and our Eared Grebe.

In the family Anatidae, amongst the geese and ducks, the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) is our Brant. Many of the ducks are the same: Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), Gadwall (Anas strepera), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Greater Scaup (Aythya marila - apparently they do not have Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis making their scaup ID somewhat easier), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), and Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis). Mallard, as always, is just a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), actually belongs with the other Anas sp. above.

But many are not: Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra) and Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca) are our Black Scoter and White-winged Scoter. Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) is our Common Goldeneye, but then they don't have a Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) that they need to differentiate. Another quite different common name is Goosander (Mergus merganser), our Common Merganser.

In the family Phasianidia, our Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) is Britain's Red Grouse. I've never seen a Willow Ptarmigan, but it appears, by the range map in the field guide I am using, that I may have at least some chance to see a Red Grouse.

In the family Accipitridae, this continues with the harriers and hawks (in Britain called buzzards - I seriously like our word hawk much better) where there is the Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or our Northern Harrier. My favorite, the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) is the Rough-legged Buzzard in Britain. As I said, I seriously like hawk much better. For a photo of Britain's Rough-legged Buzzard or our Buteo Lagopus see Thomas Krumenascker's action shot linked from the RSPB's on-line newsletter, BirdGuides: better birding through technology.

Moving on to shorebirds, in the family Charadriidae their Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) is our much better named Black-bellied Plover. Similar, but not quite, in the Scolopacidae family, their Knot (Calidris canutus) is our Red Knot and their Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) is our Ruddy Turnstone. Their Grey Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) is our Red Phalarope. Huh?

No this is not a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), but rather a Little Owl (Athene noctura) in the family Strigidae. Photo by Cliff Young of Leamington Spa.

The differences continue with fewer of the little birds, but there are a couple of quick examples worth noting. In the Troglodytidae family, our Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is Britain's Wren. While the latin name is shared, Britain's Wren has quite different habits than our Winter Wren. In the summertime it is quite tame in peoples' gardens and is vociferous like our House Wren (Troglodytes aedon). Their Shore Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is our Horned Lark and this makes sense. Our Horned Larks are readily found on the shore at Whitefish Point, for example.

Have a look at this photo by Bryan Wright, again linked from the RSPB's on-line newsletter, BirdGuides: better birding through technology, of Regulus regulus. Would you think this was our Regulus satrapa? There are some identifiable differences.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. A review of the myriad families of seabirds, gulls and terns would require even more spelling scrutiny. In addition to the ducks, other birds with exactly the same name - Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Sanderling, Barn Owl, Barn Swallow - see, I've tired of writing the Latin names again. And then there are the birds in the same genus but different species; our Redhead, their Common Pochard; their Grey Heron, our Great Blue Heron. They also have a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), but it looks nothing like our cuckoos (Coccyzus sps.), more like a nightjar or a dove. However, its call really is "cuckoo". They have a Magpie (Pica pica) that looks very much like our magpies (also Picas sps.).


Above: Grey Heron (Aedea cinerea) not our Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias); however, apparently just as common. Photo by Cliff Young of Leamington Spa. This bird caught Cliff by surprise when he saw it perched over his garden pond. He grabbed his camera and got off two quick shots before the bird flew.

In the Paridae family, our seven chickadees (Poecile sps.) look like their six tits (Parus sps.). They also have a Panurus sp. tit and an Aegithalos sp. tit both of which are very different from each other and from the Parus sps. tits. In the Picidae family, they have no Picoides woodpeckers. In the family Turdidae, their Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) looks like our Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) but is in the same genus as our American Robin (Turdus migratorius). They have seven Turdus sps. Even their Blackbird (Turdus merula) is a thrush. And, I haven't written anything about the buntings, the warblers, the crows, the finches ...

So, what's in a name? Now there's a loaded question, but the Latins saved the day. Please don't look for spelling errors!


Here's a Black-necked Starling (Sturnus nigricollis) taken in Shenzhen, China this past December by my friend Harold Eyster of Chelsea, Michigan. If we had starlings like this, would we complain about starlings? And, the latin name for their/[now our] European Starling (Sturnis vulgaris).

Information obtained from the dated Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland, published by Larousse, 1995 - not a great, but a serviceable field guide with some interesting tidbits of information. There is a new Princeton field guide just coming out, Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson, that I have on order and am looking forward to receiving.

1 comment:

Laurent said...

Great post Cathy!

Never realized the winter wren was the same species of the european wren I had in my yard when I was a kid. One less species on my world life list....sight....


Bird names are really funny, specially If you try to translate them from other languages, I remember having found about 10 different french names for the long-tailed duck!

Jochen did a great post about "backtranslated" german bird names, a few weeks ago

http://belltowerbirding.blogspot.com/2009_08_01_archive.html