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Bird Names

October 7, 2010

Last winter when I heard that the brainiacs responsible for naming birds were going to split the Winter Wren into two species, my biggest fear was that they were going to name one of them the Wilson’s Wren. It all goes back to the time they changed the Common Snipe into the Wilson’s Snipe. Why not just call it a Snipe – like every gullible Boy Scout who ever hunted one?
If ever there was a guy who didn’t need another bird named after him it was this guy Wilson.
Think of it: Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Wilson’s Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Thrush (now, thankfully, Veery).
Over sixty North American birds are named after people, and ten percent of them are named after Wilson. His two nearest competitors have only three – Cassin (Murrelet, Finch and Sparrow) and Swainson (Hawk, Thrush and Warbler). Do the namers have no imagination?
I realize that Alexander Wilson was one of America’s great early ornithologists and painters. In his ground-breaking (pre-Audubon) work, the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814), he illustrated 268 species of birds, 26 of which had not previously been described. So, it’s good that we honor him. I just hope that we don’t end up someday with all 26 bearing his name!
A friend of mine once facetiously suggested that we name birds more accurately or more phylogenetically-aligned. He proposed the House Weaver, Rose-breasted Cardinal, and Canada Brant; then he got carried away and proposed the White-headed Fish-Eagle, the Rusty-bellied Lawn Thrush (Robin), and the Orange-crowned Chicken-strutting Ground-warbler (the Ovenbird). It’s an amusing game.
When I get to be president of the AOU, I’m going to order the checklist committee to start re-naming birds. First rule: no more than one species can have a person’s name attached to it. Maybe even drop all surnames attached to birds. Think of all the publicity it’ll generate and all the fun we’ll have cooking up more imaginative, helpful and apt names!
As for the Canada Brant instead of Canada Goose: I’d rather we changed the name to the New Jersey Brant or the Lawn-fouling Brant. The blasted birds have become such a menace in parks and golf courses that we Canadians want to disown it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kent permalink
    October 7, 2010 10:59 am

    Laughed a lot on this one Gene. Brilliant. I actually can’t stand anything named after a person. I know we have had some great people, but let’s celebrate nature for nature’s sake. No more people names at all! Thanks for a fun essay. Oh, and you have my vote for AOU Pres.!

  2. October 7, 2010 6:49 pm

    Don’t forget Cassin’s Kingbird and Cassins’ Vireo, Gene! That makes it a tie, at least as names in current use go.

    We’re rather fond of Mr. Cassin’s birds down here in the Southwest (though we don’t see much of his auklet), but I feel your frustration – the history behind the names is often interesting, but it doesn’t add to our understanding and appreciation of the organism (nor does “Common,” but that’s a subject for another post). Could be worse, though: Imagine McDonald’s Warbler, American Airlines Avocet, CitiBank Swallow, and Scottrade Oriole.

    I also have a long list of more appropriate names I’d like to propose for some of our badly-named birds, but that’s a comment for another time.

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