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Nomenclature

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, February 24, 2011 

A Redwing, not to be confused with Red-winged Blackbird.
Via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about nomenclature. Bird names follow a certain nomenclature that has been prodded, and pinched, and flipped, and flopped over time. We have gotten to a point where the vast majority of bird names are standardized and will not change. There are certain species which seem to change every couple years; there are species splits which create new names for now multiple species; there are delistings where similar species are again grouped and now share one common name; there are strange changes some due to science that may precipitate a name change every so often; and there the occasional decisions to change whole groups of birds common names for one reason or another (take the robins that are now thrushes in central America).

In any case back to that first point—that most bird’s common names have been decided upon and are not changing. I have to admit I have a pretty big pet peeve when it comes to bird names, and that is when birders use the incorrect nomenclature when posting about birds, or listing sightings. Here are a few of my personal “favorites” from recent years—many of which get used on a regular basis:

Redwing Blackbird - as opposed to - Red-winged Blackbird (use those hyphens)
Greenwing Teal - as opposed to - Green-winged Teal (use those hyphens)
Buffalohead - as opposed to - Bufflehead (although the name is derived from Buffalo)
Icelandic Gull - as opposed to - Iceland Gull (named for, not from)
Redhead Duck - as opposed to - Redhead (no need for the duck at the end)
Herman’s Gull - as opposed to - Heermann's Gull (double "E", double "N")
Stellar’s Jay - as opposed to - Steller's Jay ("E" not "A")
Crystal Thrasher - as opposed to - Crissal Thrasher (not named after a gem)
Albert’s Towhee - as opposed to - Abert's Towhee (no "L")

The term “blue jay” - This is a species and doesn't encompass all jays that are blue.

What bring this to my attention? There was a post on the Idaho Birding List this morning about 3 “Redwings” visiting a feeder. My immediate thought was the species “Redwing”, and in Idaho Falls close enough for a quick drive up to see a lifer and a mega rarity. But I quickly gained my composure and emailed the person who wrote the email and asked if the meant “Red-winged Blackbirds”. After a few minutes I received a reply, “Yes, Redwing Blackbirds.”.

I was slightly bothered in the fact that mixing up those two species is a pretty big deal. You are comparing the most widespread native bird in North America to a mega rarity. I was more bothered at the response, when they still typed out “redwing” which is not the correct nomenclature. Call me grumpy; call me a stickler; whatever. As a birder I think it is important to learn, promote, and use the correct nomenclature when sharing information about birds. I can understand the occasional slip up like Great-horned Owl, or American Three Toed Woodpecker, but in general these are avoidable

I myself am far from perfect and have on numerous occasions spelled species names incorrectly, forgotten a hyphen, forgotten to capitalize something, or just blatantly butchered a bird name. It happens. My challenge to you is to take pride in those bird names and make sure the hyphens are where they need to be, the capital letters are in the right place, and everything is spelled correctly. Not only does it show that you have taken the time to learn the bird names, it also adds a bit of credibility to reports. After all the kind of Redwings I want to see are something very different from the Red-winged Blackbirds found everyday all over the country; and that is the kind of posting mistake that can lead to a number of issues with other birders

For the most recent ABA checklist click here. This will be more up-to-date than any field guide you are currently using. Now be kind to me, this is just a commentary, as I am sure I will now be pointed out every time I mess up a bird name!

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17 Comments:
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

Pretty funny! I know I mess them up often, especially shortening names like Red-winged Blackbird to Redwings. I saw that Albert's Towhee recently on the Utah Bird Talk and had a good laugh. I'd like to see duck added back to Redhead, so as not to confuse it with red-headed woopecker.

I think the Brits got their Golfinch all wrong and ours are much more appropriately named. Their's is a beautiful bird and needs a more appropriate name like Sangria-faced Finch. Now their blackbird is more closely related to our Robin, but not at all related to our blackbirds. And their red-breasted robin is nothing like our red-breasted robin, but the twitchers would truly go bonkers for a Rufous-backed Robin should one appear in the UK! Confused yet? Yeah, me too. (and how come spell check doesn't know the word rufous?) I think we should drop the robin name in the Americas and go with Red-breasted Thrush. Think of the public outcry that would cause!

February 24, 2011 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

I'm surprised to not see "Mallard Duck" on your list!

February 24, 2011 at 8:57 PM  
Anonymous David H said...

"Red Cardinal" is another that I've heard fairly often.

February 24, 2011 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Red Cardinal is actually just fine, if you're willing to rename Pyrrhuloxia Gray Cardinal, which I am.

February 24, 2011 at 9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Usually I can tell how serious a birder someone is by whether they say Canada Goose or Canadian Goose.

@Rick, I'm sorry, but I for one am not willing to re-name Pyrrhuloxia "Gray Cardinal". The name is too much of an oxymoron. Plus that's sort of akin to calling them the "Crappy Cardinal." Pyrrhus are WAY too cool for that!

And isn't "Red Cardinal" a tad bit redundant?

February 24, 2011 at 10:14 PM  
Anonymous Chris W said...

A few of my favorites:

Canadian or Canada Jay = Gray Jay
Snowbirds = Dark-eyed Juncos, not Snow Buntings as you might suspect
Blue Bunting = which of course where I live is Indigo Bunting

Red-bellied Woodpeckers consistently get called Red-headed Woodpeckers. I suppose they do have red on their heads....

Great-horned Owl which certainly does not have "great horns"

House Sparrows and Eurasian Tree Sparrows and English Sparrows are all interchangeable.... they think.

and my all time favorite:
Inevitably, every year, at the same time, someone asks about seeing "Whopping" Cranes. I mean, they are our largest birds and all, but Whopping?

February 24, 2011 at 10:58 PM  
Blogger CarlIngwell said...

In chatting with people about raptors, I always hear people say "Swanson's Hawk."

February 24, 2011 at 11:24 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

One of my all time favorites: kaleidoscope hummingbird.

February 24, 2011 at 11:44 PM  
Blogger byard said...

But you left out Great Blue Herring, which is what they say in Alabama. They also call them Fish Cranes.

February 25, 2011 at 7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Morning Dove".

They even named a street like that in California where I used to live. Drove me nuts every time I passed it. See it here: http://goo.gl/maps/We5t

February 25, 2011 at 7:18 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Rick, Oh we can't do that my friend! Haha, Pyrrhuloxia is one of the coolest bird names in North America. Plus those pesky female Cardinals would lead to all kinds of issues for beginners!

@Bilsky I forgot about that one, haHaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

@Ryan That is really annoying. Adding Duck to any duck takes away fromt eh names. Gadwall, Redhead, Mallard--just plain cool names, no need for the duck!

@Anonymous #1, The Canada Goose thing gets me, it's like the Icelandic Gull.

@Anonymous #2, ooh that's another good one, I mean I do see so many of them in the morning...

@Chris W, I love those Whopping Cranes :)

@Carl, on that note, you got me thinking about birds of prey, and people calling Turkey Vultures Condors bugs me!

@Robert, The Thrushes things is interesting, although I am not sure I agree with it--I just see the robins as being fundamentally different from the thrushes we are used to in North America.

@byard, Haha Great Blue Herring, hearing that one would drive me nuts!

February 25, 2011 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger CarlIngwell said...

I hate it when people call vultures "buzzards." In Australia what they call "Robins" look more like flycatchers to me.

February 25, 2011 at 9:22 AM  
Anonymous Norm Jenson said...

@birdingisfun wrote: I saw that Albert's Towhee instead of the correct Abert's Towhee recently on the Utah Bird Talk and had a good laugh.

Did you take the time to send a correction to the person who misused it? If not why not?

February 25, 2011 at 1:19 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

@Norm - no offense Norm...I just thought it was a typo and never gave it second thought 'til I saw it here. I love your photos and posts at Utah Bird Talk. Keep up all the great birding and bird photography!

February 25, 2011 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Norm, you or not the first and will not be the last to do that. I usually personally don't email people when bird nomenclature is incorrect, only because it happens at least once a week if not more. Some times it may be a simple typo as well. I will however email if it is something really wrong or misleading to most people. Just remember we are all still students and learning.

February 25, 2011 at 4:38 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Thanks guys, I appreciate the kind words.

February 27, 2011 at 5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are mallards legal to keep as pets in Utah county?

March 28, 2011 at 12:27 AM  

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