You Name It


(This 974th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 22, 2009.)


What's in a name?


There are good reasons for assigning standard names for birds. It is misleading to have the same bird referred to differently. An example of the resulting confusion is the species the Committee on Classification and Nomenculture of the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) and most birdwatchers know as the Northern flicker. My wife and other Southerners call this same bird the golden-winged woodpecker and, as the state bird of Alabama, it is designated the yellowhammer. It is often also called by its subspecies names: yellow-shafted flicker in the east and red-shafted flicker in the west.


We're better off with just one name. However, as the committee itself notes: "Proposals to modify English names are nearly always contentious and involve weighing competing factors to determine whether the changes proposed improve accuracy and clarity sufficiently to outweigh the cost of the instability they would cause."


That AOU committee has responsibility for establishing the currently accepted English names for bird species. The only change the most recent report made that affected birds seen locally renamed the rare Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow simply Nelson's sparrow. That same report added the now accepted French Canadian names for birds: for example, in Quebec the American black duck is canard noir.


Accepting this standardization as a necessary evil, birders follow the current AOU-assigned names. That means changing their check-lists and bird books every few years. It has never been easy for me to make these changes and I often find myself stuttering between old names and new.


There are many reasons for the changes. Sometimes they are made to conform to the names of the same species occurring in Europe. An early example of this was supported by Roger Tory Peterson with his early field guides. He renamed our falcons: duck hawk became peregrine falcon; pigeon hawk, merlin; sparrow hawk, kestrel. The marsh hawk was changed to harrier as well. Those are European bird names, but the changes served another purpose: they each removed the designation hawk at a time when hawks were being hunted nearly to extinction. (Today they are protected by international law.)


Consider a more recent change. The feral pigeons we see regularly were for many years designated rock doves. No longer. Today they are called rock pigeons. This particular change caught Broadway unprepared: the title of a 2007 play was The Rock Dove. Perhaps the name change hurt as the play's run was very short.


Sometimes the committee itself cannot make up its mind. It enacts a change and immediately runs into so much flack that it returns the name to the original. Two recent examples come to mind. A common bird of our local marshes was called the green heron for much of my lifetime. The committee changed it to the green-backed heron but the name didn't stick. Thankfully the little bird is again the green heron.


So too the Baltimore oriole was changed to the Northern oriole. Good sense prevailed and it is again the Baltimore oriole, honoring Lord Baltimore's colorful coat of arms. Sometimes tradition wins out.


This same committee also addresses serious issues related to the scientific status of the over 2000 species and subspecies of North American birds. For example, one proposal currently under consideration is to recognize a new crossbill species. That may not mean much to general bird watchers since crossbills are only rare winter visitors to this region from the far north but, if that proposal is accepted, it will add another difficult identification problem for us when they do appear.


Decisions about such matters are increasingly made on the basis of genetic tests. In recent years such studies have resulted in major changes in the assignment of the evolutionary order of birds. For example, until very recently loons and grebes were considered lowest in that order among birds seen in this region. Now they have been moved up past geese, swans and ducks as well as game birds like pheasants, quail and turkeys.


Scientists avoid English names in their own formal activities. They use the Latin names that have been assigned to animals and plants since Linnaeus developed the genus species representation in his 1735 Systema Naturae. But those change as well. When I was a youngster the robin was Plantesticus migratorius; today it is Turdus migratorius. It even migrated to a different genus.-- Gerry Rising