What’s in a (Bird) Name? Part 2: Embrace Hypocrisy and Promote Ambiguity

Steve N. G. Howell

To read part I of this three part series, head here

The Two-sided Sword of Ambiguity

All else being equal, it doesn’t hurt if a bird’s English name is descriptively accurate, informative, or memorable – and preferably unambiguous. But ambiguity is an interesting double-edged sword. In Britain, where I started birding, if you said you had just seen a Ringed Plover (= Charadrius hiaticula) nobody would be confused and ask: “Do you mean a Common Ringed Plover or a Little Ringed Plover?” If they did, you would wonder what asylum they had escaped from, and, with the utmost of patience, you might reply: “No, if I had meant Little Ringed Plover I would have said Little Ringed Plover…” The same with White-fronted Goose, yet some people (at least in North America) have decided, in their infinite wisdom, that the English names should be made longer, hence Greater White-fronted Goose and Common Ringed Plover.

If this were a photo of a Ringed Plover, I would have said so. This is a Little Ringed Plover. Lesvos, Greece, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

If this were a photo of a Ringed Plover, I would have said so. This is a Little Ringed Plover. Lesvos, Greece, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

OK, I can see the benefit to removing ambiguity, and in the field you would still say “There’s a flock of White-fronts” not “Greater White-fronts” in the same way we talk about rough-winged swallows without having to say “Northern Rough-winged Swallow” every time. But why, then, do we not have North American Dipper or North American Coot? Well, we’re humans, and if we do anything well it’s embrace hypocrisy.

Lets’ face it: Few English bird names are “perfect” for every age, sex, season, and population, at least those names that try to convey some visible (or audible) feature of the bird. In fact, how many can you think of? Quick, name five “perfect” English bird names…

Red-tailed Hawks have rufous or orange (not red) tails, and only as adults; Scarlet Tanagers are only scarlet as breeding males (and even then they have black wings and tails); Blue Jays are blue-and-white-and black (Steller’s Jay would be a better candidate for the name); White-rumped Sandpipers actually have black (!) rumps – the uppertail coverts are white, but White-uppertailcoverted Sandpiper would be a bit of a mouthful. And so on…

Some “perfect” names? Well, Least Sandpiper is actually the smallest sandpiper, Chestnut-backed Chickadees do have chestnut backs, and American Kestrel occurs throughout the Americas, where it is the only kestrel. There are others out there, but they are in the minority.

 

Cut by the Sword of Taxonomy

When ornithologists decide that such-and-such species is actually better treated as two or more species, the coin of ambiguity for English names is seemingly flipped at random. An outside observer might think it would be less confusing if none of the “new” species has the same English name as the “parent” species, or perhaps the parent species’ name could be incorporated into the new. Imagine that “Bluebird” was split into eastern and western species; these could be named Eastern Bluebird and Western Bluebird. Makes sense, and gives an idea of geography and relatedness. What could be easier?

Roseate Spoonbills aren’t wholly pink, but unless perhaps you are colorblind the English name is still a good one that actually makes sense (other spoonbills are white). Jalisco, Mexico, Jan 2007. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Roseate Spoonbills aren’t wholly pink, but unless perhaps you are colorblind the English name is still a good one that actually makes sense (other spoonbills are white). Jalisco, Mexico, Jan 2007. © Steve N. G. Howell.

Particularly when one or more of the newly split species are migratory and could occur together in the same area, unambiguous names would seem to be even more of a good idea. Imagine splitting Yellow-rumped Warbler into two species and calling one Myrtle Warbler and the other Yellow-rumped Warbler. Yet this stupid (sorry, can’t think of a softer word: Stupid = “lacking intelligence or common sense” according to my dictionary) scenario is not hypothetical.

Not too long ago, Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis was split into two species, and the orange-billed birds were called Clark’s Grebe A. clarkii. However, the same English (and scientific) name (Western Grebe A. occidentalis) was retained for the yellow-billed birds. How confusing is that? Why not call the latter Lewis’s Grebe, or anything other than Western? Besides promoting confusion and ambiguity, retaining Western Grebe for one of the species is annoying and inefficient in the field – but what do ornithologists who make these proclamations care about field birding?

It can be done! When Plain Titmouse was split into two species, neither of the two “new” species retained the (albeit appropriate) old name. While this Juniper Titmouse isn’t in a juniper, the new name does give an idea of ecology and habitat. Grand Canyon, Arizona, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

It can be done! When Plain Titmouse was split into two species, neither of the two “new” species retained the (albeit appropriate) old name. While this Juniper Titmouse isn’t in a juniper, the new name does give an idea of ecology and habitat. Grand Canyon, Arizona, May 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

So, when observers see a flock of Aechmophorus (quite a mouthful) grebes they often say “There’s a flock of Western Grebes; well, when I say Western, some might be Clark’s.” Wouldn’t it be easier to retain “Western Grebe” for the species-pair and have unique names for the two “new” species. In this case, an unidentified Clark’s/Lewis’s Grebe could be simply referred to as a Western Grebe. Amazingly, this logic prevailed recently with the split of Xantus’s Murrlet into Scripps’s Murrelet and Guadalupe Murrelet. But for wrens? Not so much.

 

Now is the Winter Wren of Our Discontent

The common and widespread “The Wren” (Troglodytes troglodyes) of the Old World has long been known in North America as Winter Wren because white people who live in The East (of North America) see it mainly in winter. OK, fair enough. Not the greatest name, but reasonable. And all of a hundred years’ worth of North American literature has talked about Winter Wren, from eastern Canada to California.

Any thinking person might conclude the two “new” species of “Winter Wren” in North America would benefit from common English names that avoid ambiguity with the “parent” Winter Wren. Perhaps Eastern Winter Wren and Western Winter Wren, or even Boreal Wren and Redwood Wren? But no, western birds became Pacific Wren (apparently the powers that be were unaware that the Pacific is a vast ocean, a habitat not frequented by eminently terrestrial wrens) while the migratory eastern birds retained the name Winter Wren. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

You might logically call this a Western Winter Wren or, if you don’t know that the Pacific is a bloody great ocean, how about Pacific Wren? Marin County, California, Nov 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

You might logically call this a Western Winter Wren or, if you don’t know that the Pacific is a bloody great ocean, how about Pacific Wren? Marin County, California, Nov 2012. © Steve N. G. Howell.

So, should we get prepared for Marsh Wren and Swamp Wren, and perhaps Warbling Vireo and Burbling Vireo? Sometimes, unrelieved by originality isn’t such a bad thing, and Western Marsh Wren and Eastern Marsh Wren, or Eastern Warbling Vireo and Western Warbling Vireo would seem like logical English names. Instead, however, it seems that such logic in committees is like the proverbial acorn found by the blind squirrel.

A blind squirrel’s acorn? The Chestnut-backed Chickadee does have a chestnut-back, unlike other New World chickadees. It’s a useful and accurate name, for once. Marin County, California, Aug 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.

A blind squirrel’s acorn? The Chestnut-backed Chickadee does have a chestnut-back, unlike other New World chickadees. It’s a useful and accurate name, for once. Marin County, California, Aug 2013. © Steve N. G. Howell.