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Scientific bird names explained

For all too many birdwatchers, the Latin names of birds found in books are a waste of space – or at best an esoteric puzzle of interest only to the denizens of ivory towers. Even people who appreciate their use often wonder what on earth they really mean.

In fact scientific names are vital to our being able to make sense of the world’s flora and fauna. In this article I explain briefly why scientific names exist, and then have a look at their meaning.

Contents

  Purpose and History   What do they mean?
  Are scientific names really unique?   Pronunciation of scientific names
  Scientific or Latin names?   Meanings of a few scientific bird names
  Where do they come from?   References and further reading

Purpose and History

In the various books I own, I can find listed amongst the doves: Palm Dove, Little Brown Dove, Senegal Dove and Laughing Dove. Clearly a mixed bunch. But in fact these are all the same bird, for which different people have invented their own names. And these are just the English names which are sufficiently official to have made it into a book. Add to them “Palmtortel”, “Palmtaube” and “Tourterelle mailée”, add other names in Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew, multiply this by 300 species of dove in the world and the possibilities for confusion should be clear.

The converse also happens of course: names like Robin, Redstart, Tree Sparrow, Black Vulture and Mourning Dove are applied to two or more different species, which often aren’t even closely related.

Linnaeus

The problem was even worse in the eighteenth century, when communication was more limited than now and there could be many names in use for the same bird. The solution was proposed by the Swedish biologist Carl van Linné, usually known (appropriately) by the Latin version of his name – Linnaeus.

He proposed that all species of plant and animal should be identified by a unique Latin name in a standard form. This consists of two parts: the name of the genus, or group of organisms, followed by a name identifying the species within the genus.

So for example the Green Woodpecker is allocated to genus Picus (“woodpecker”) and is called Picus viridis – “green woodpecker”. The Latin generic name is a noun and the specific name an adjective, just as in English, only in Latin the noun comes first.

Subspecies

This system was extended in the nineteenth century to include the possibility to split a species into subspecies: if this is done a third name is added, identifying the subspecies (or race – the terms are interchangeable). The subspecies of Green Woodpecker which occurs in Britain is called Picus viridis pluvius, though field guides don’t usually bother with subspecies.

One of the subspecies always takes the specific name: i.e. there is bound to be a Picus viridis viridis. This is called the nominate subspecies.

International Code

Linnaeus’ rules have since been formalised and since 1901 have been governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which is recognised throughout the world. The Code takes as its basis the tenth edition of Linnaeus’ book Systema Naturae, published in 1758. The rules are largely concerned with what constitutes a valid name, and which name should be used if an animal has ever been given more than one. Normally the name to be used is the one which was published first, but there are some exceptions. The fact that another name would be more accurate or appropriate does not however qualify as an exception, and some scientific names are fairly meaningless, or even daft. (My unfavourite in this direction is the use of ‘affinis’ as in Apus affinis, or ‘related swift’ – which seems to be the taxonomic way of saying “I suppose I’ve got to call it something”. Even dafter, but at least slightly amusing, is Monarcha infelix, or ‘unhappy monarch’, so named because the original specimen was particularly tatty.)

Generic names are always written with a leading capital letter; specific and subspecific names always in lower case. Scientific names are normally written in italics: this isn’t actually a demand of the Code, but is required by most journals.

The generic name must be unique in the entire animal kingdom. (This explains incidentally why the Duck-billed Platypus no longer has the generic name Platypus but is called Ornithorhynchus instead – it was discovered that the name had already been given to some obscure invertebrate.) It does not however have to be unique across all kingdoms, so Prunella for example is a genus of birds (including the Dunnock) and also of plants (including Self-heal). The species and subspecies names only need to be unique within the genus.

So the result of all this is that the dove I started with above is Streptopelia senegalensis for everyone, regardless of which language or country they are writing in.

Are scientific names really unique?

So once we’ve defined the scientific name for a bird, we can discuss it with everyone in the whole world without risk of confusion, because everyone calls it by the same name. Well ... not quite! A bird can still have different scientific names.

This happens in the case of splitting and lumping. If two races of a species are split, i.e. considered to be separate species, then one of them gets a new name. Assuming it was already identified as a separate subspecies (which is virtually always the case) the subspecific name becomes the specific name. For example, when the cachinnans race of the Herring Gull, Larus argentatus, was split off (the Yellow-legged Gull), it acquired the name Larus cachinnans. The race michahellis was placed with it. However some people now also consider michahellis to be a species in its own right (the Steppe Gull or Pontic Gull) which means that the same bird may be referred to as Larus argentatus michahellis, Larus cachinnans michahellis or Larus michahellis in different publications.

The same thing can happen with genera. For example some taxonomists place the gannets with the boobies in genus Sula, and some give them their own genus Morus. If a species is moved to a different genus, the specific name must remain the same. Except that, as we are dealing with Latin grammar, it may decline differently if the new genus has a different gender from the old one. So the Gannet is Sula bassana or Morus bassanus. And similarly albus may become alba, ater may become atra etc.

If you are really unlucky, there may be differences of opinion on both the genus and species of a bird, so both names can change. This however is fairly uncommon.

However at least one source of confusion is ruled out: one scientific name cannot be applied to two or more different bird species.

Scientific or Latin names?

Should the names be referred to as scientific names or Latin names? I prefer the term “scientific name” as many of the words involved are not originally Latin. Many are Greek (classical rather than modern) and several other languages also feature, such as Norwegian, Russian, Malay and various South American native languages. Even Old English gets a look-in, with Sterna for tern coming from stearn. Other names are names of people, and some are purely fantasy names (the genus Dacelo is just an anagram of Alcedo).

But regardless of their origin, generic names are required to have the form of a Latin noun, with a defined gender, and the specific names are required to decline according to the rules of Latin adjectives. The concept was after all invented at the time when Latin was still the lingua franca of international communication, even if no-one spoke it any more as their mother tongue. (There are just a few names which are not Latin at all, which crept in before the formal rules of the international convention were introduced.) So the term “Latin name” is not incorrect.

Where do they come from?

A few names are genuinely the original Latin used by the Romans for the birds concerned. These are usually used as generic names, such as Cygnus (swan), Columba (pigeon), Passer (sparrow) or Ardea (heron), but sometimes as specific names, such as monedula (jackdaw) or palumbus (wood pigeon). Others are Latin bird names, but we are not sure which bird the Romans used them to refer to, and so the meaning has only been fixed relatively recently. Examples are Mergus (now used for mergansers), Larus (now used for gulls) and Fringilla (now used for the chaffinch).

Some names come from classical Greek in the same way, such as Halcyon and Alectoris, but generally the choice of names gives the impression that Linnaeus used Latin as much as possible, and resorted to Greek when the Latin ran out. Aristotle seems to have named a good few birds that no-one could identify afterwards, such as the kerthios. Linnaeus and other writers gratefully borrowed these to apply to otherwise anonymous birds, having turned them into a Latin form. In this case kerthios became Certhia and was deemed to be a treecreeper.

Given however that in Roman times people were not familiar with more than a few score species of birds, while there are around 9000 species of birds in the world, many names have had to be invented more recently.

There are many different sources for names. As noted above, some are purely the fantasy of the taxonomist concerned. But the major groups are:

What do they mean?

Some words or prefixes turn up in several different bird names, and I cover some of these here. Here I have concentrated on names which describe appearance. They are Latin unless stated otherwise.

Adjectives: colour, pattern and size

albus/albawhite; cf albino
ater/atramatt black
brachy-short (Greek)
brunne-brown
caeruleusblue
canusgrey
chloro-green or yellow (Greek)
cinerea-grey or ash-coloured; cf cinders
erythro-red (Greek)
flavayellow
fuscus/fuscadusky
guttatusspeckled or spotted
haema-blood-red (Greek); cf haemoglobin
leuco-white (Greek)
liviablue-grey
longi-long
luteus/luteayellow
majorgreater
mega-great (Greek)
melasblack (Greek); cf melanistic
minorlesser
niger/nigraglossy black; cf negro
punctatusspotted; cf punctuation
pusillatiny
rosearosy
ruberred
rufus/rufared
striatus/striatastriped
viridisgreen

Parts of the body

caudatail
-cephalushead (Greek)
-cepscapped, headed
cillatail
collisneck
dactylfinger or toe (Greek)
fronsfront, i.e. forehead
-gularisthroat
-opseye
-opsisface
pennisfeather
pterawing (Greek)
-rhynchosbill (Greek)
-rostrisbill
torquatuscollared

Just by putting the bits together you can make sense of a lot of scientific names. Certhia brachydactyla for example, literally just means “short-toed treecreeper” and matches the common English name.

In other cases however, the scientific and English names do not match up. For example the scientific name for Little Tern, Sterna albifrons, means white-fronted tern. This is a perfectly good name – one of the features of the Little Tern is that it retains its white forehead in breeding plumage – but quite different from the English name.

A particularly entertaining example is formed by the gulls. Larus melanocephalus is applied to the bird known in English as the Mediterranean Gull, but actually means black-headed gull. The scientific name for the Black-headed Gull is Larus ridibundus, which means laughing gull. The scientific name for the Laughing Gull is Larus atricilla, which means black-tailed gull. The scientific name for the Black-tailed Gull is Larus crassirostris, which means large-billed gull. The scientific name for the Large-billed Gull is Larus pacificus, which means (of course) Pacific Gull. At this point a disappointing touch of sanity intervenes, because Pacific Gull is another name for Larus pacificus.

Incidentally, if you have ever wondered why the word “front” gets applied to the forehead (as in white-fronted goose, for example) just consider a skin lying stretched out on an ornithologists work-bench. The forehead is then indeed the front.

Learning more

If you want to learn more about the subject, or want a comprehensive reference for all scientific bird names, easily the best book available on the subject is “A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names” by James Jobling (see references below).

Pronunciation of scientific names

Although the written form of scientific names is strictly controlled, there is no such agreement over their pronunciation. People with different mother-tongues tend to pronounce them somewhat differently. Even within English there are (at least) two schools of thought. However a couple of sites which describe the most usual pronunciations, at least for English-speakers, are:

Pronunciation of Biological Latin
Scientific Names of Plants – how to say them and what they mean

Meanings of a few scientific bird names

Here are translations of the scientific names of some of the European birds, together with my comments on their suitability, memorability or singular lack thereof. The meanings of many other names can be deduced by combining the translations below with the tables given above.

Several of the explanations are based on Jobling (and most of the others I checked in Jobling to make sure I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself!). I have simplified the meanings in several cases: if you want the full information, you will need the book.

English NameScientific Name Meaning
Red-throated diverGavia stellata starred diver
Little grebeTachybaptus ruficollis red-collared fast-sinker. The two roots of the generic name are also found in ‘tachograph’ and ‘baptism’.
Great crested grebePodiceps cristatus Podiceps comes from podicis and pes, vent and foot, referring to the fact that grebes feet are far back on the body. cristatus = crested.
Slavonian grebePodiceps auritus eared grebe. Note that this is not the American eared grebe!
Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis icy fulmar
Manx shearwaterPuffinus puffinus One of the world’s easiest quiz questions: what is the English name for Puffinus puffinus? Easiest to get wrong, that is. (Puffin used to mean shearwater.)
Storm petrelHydrobates pelagicus marine water-dweller
GannetSula bassana or
Morus bassanus
One every British birder should know, as bassana refers to the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Sula is Norwegian for gannet. Morus means ‘foolish’ and like the English name ‘booby’ refers to the ease with which they can be caught.
Common cormorantPhalacrocorax carbo charcoal cormorant. The Latin word phalacrocorax, meaning cormorant, derives from two Greek words meaning bald raven.
ShagPhalacrocorax aristotelis Aristotle’s cormorant
Grey heronArdea cinerea grey heron
Whooper swanCygnus cygnus swan (well, all right: swan-swan). The word cygnet is of course still used in English.
Mute swanCygnus olor And this one means swan-swan as well!
Greylag gooseAnser anser goose
Pink-footed gooseAnser brachyrhynchus short-billed goose
Brent gooseBranta bernicla barnacle goose (!). Branta is Old Norse for this goose.
Barnacle gooseBranta leucopsis white-faced goose
Egyptian gooseAlopochen aegyptiacus Egyptian fox-like goose
Common shelduckTadorna tadorna from the French tadorne
WigeonAnas penelope duck-duck, I’m afraid (Latin and Greek respectively)
GadwallAnas strepera noisy duck
TealAnas crecca crecca comes from the Swedish name for this duck: kricka.
MallardAnas platyrhynchos broad-billed duck
PintailAnas acuta sharp-pointed duck
ShovelerAnas clypeata shield-bearing duck
PochardAythya ferina ferina = game. Aythya is an unidentified seabird (Greek) and now means pochard.
Tufted duckAythya fuligula sooty-throated Aythya
ScaupAythya marila charcoal Aythya
EiderSomateria mollissima very soft woolly body
Common scoterMelanitta nigra black black duck (someone wanted to make the point)
Velvet scoterMelanitta fusca dusky black duck
Ruddy duckOxyura jamaicensis Jamaican pointed-tail
White-tailed eagleHaliaeetus albicilla white-tailed sea-eagle
Hen harrierCircus cyaneus blue harrier. The only blue harriers I’ve seen came off an aircraft carrier, but never mind.
SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus Accipiter = hawk, nisus = sparrowhawk. Accipiter comes from accipere, which derives from capere: to seize or capture. The root has also found its way into the word ‘accept’.
Common buzzardButeo buteo buzzard
Golden eagleAquila chrysaetos golden eagle
Common kestrelFalco tinnunculus Falco = falcon, tinnunculus = kestrel
MerlinFalco columbarius pigeon falcon
PeregrineFalco peregrinus wandering falcon
Red-legged partridgeAlectoris rufa red hen
Grey partridgePerdix perdix partridge
QuailCoturnix coturnix quail
PheasantPhasianus colchicus Colchis pheasant: Colchis is a town on the Black Sea
CorncrakeCrex crex It doesn’t mean anything at all – it is onomatopoeic. It also the shortest scientific name of any bird, equal with several others.
MoorhenGallinula chloropus little green-footed hen
Common cootFulica atra black coot
OystercatcherHaematopus ostralegus oyster-catching blood-foot
Golden ploverPluvialis apricaria Pluvialis means pertaining to rain. No-one seems to know for certain why it got applied to plovers, although several speculative suggestions have been made. Apricaria means ‘sun-kissed’ – referring to the golden upperparts. The concept of sun-kissed rain seems mildly amusing.
Black-tailed godwitLimosa limosa The scientific name for godwit comes from Limosus, the Latin for mud.
Bar-tailed godwitLimosa lapponica Lapland godwit
CurlewNumenius arquata arquata means bow-shaped, referring to the bill. Numenius is another of these Latinised Greek bird names for which the original meaning is not known; however as the Greek appears to mean ‘new moon’, possibly referring to a crescent shape, it may have referred to the Curlew originally. In any case, it does now.
Common sandpiperActitis hypoleucos white-underneath coast-dweller. ‘hypo’ also occurs in words like ‘hypothermia’ – low temperature – and is not to be confused with ‘hyper’, which means the opposite.
Red-necked phalaropePhalaropus lobatus lobed coot-foot.
KnotCalidris canutus Calidris is a bird mentioned by Aristotle, but it is not known for certain which. Canutus refers to King Canute. I have frequently seen it claimed that this is in reference to Canute getting his feet wet, having commanded the tide to go back. However Jobling says that Canute regarded Knot as a delicacy. Take your pick.
RuffPhilomachus pugnax Another tautology: a combative combatant, the two parts being based on Greek and Latin respectively. ‘phile’ occurs in numerous English words, such as audiophile. ‘machus’ appears to have given us ‘macho’, though I haven’t managed to confirm the connection. And ‘pugnax’ of course is the root of ‘pugnacious’.
Herring gullLarus argentatus silver gull
Greater black-backed gullLarus marinus sea gull (so if you hear someone telling off a novice that there is no such bird as a ‘sea-gull’, you can now correct them)
Black-headed gullLarus ridibundus laughing gull
KittiwakeRissa tridactyla three-toed kittiwake (Rissa comes from Icelandic rita).
Wood pigeonColumba palumbus Columba = dove, palumbus = wood pigeon
Turtle doveStreptopelia turtur Streptopelia = collared dove; turtur = turtle dove (presumably onomatopoeic)
Ring-necked parakeetPsittacula krameri Kramer’s little parrot. Wilhelm Kramer was a (fairly obscure) eighteenth-century Austrian naturalist.
Barn owlTyto alba white owl
Common swiftApus apus footless. Presumably this was intended to mean legless, referring to the very short legs of swifts.
HoopoeUpupa epops The Latin and Greek names for the Hoopoe respectively. Curious that a bird with such a striking appearance should be named exclusively for its call.
Green woodpeckerPicus viridis green woodpecker
Great spotted woodpeckerPicoides major greater woodpecker (Picoides actually means ‘like a woodpecker’ – superficially a curious name for something which clearly is a woodpecker, but intended to convey ‘like the genus Picus’)
Sky larkAlauda arvensis field lark
SwallowHirundo rustica rural swallow (or rustic swallow)
House martinDelichon urbica urban swallow (Delichon is a fantasy name, being an anagram of Chelidon).
Sand martinRiparia riparia ‘ripa’ is Latin for a bank of a river; the word is used in terms like ‘riparian woodland’ – trees along the course of a river.
Grey wagtailMotacilla cinerea This is a curious one. I always thought it literally meant grey wag-tail, but I see from Jobling that I was making a historic mistake. Originally Motacilla just meant “little mover” but certain medieval writers also thought it meant wag-tail, and suddenly the Latin word ‘cilla’ for tail was born. ‘Mota’ is of course related to ‘motor’.
Meadow pipitAnthus pratensis meadow pipit (though Jobling says that Anthus probably originally referred to the yellow wagtail).
Tree pipitAnthus trivialis common pipit
Great grey shrikeLanius excubitor sentinel shrike
WaxwingBombycilla garrulus chattering silk-tail
WrenTroglodytes troglodytes cave-dweller
Dunnock Prunella modularis little brown singer (though if one follows the grammar faithfully ‘singing little brown job’ is arguably a more accurate translation).
Black redstartPhoenicurus ochruros ochre-coloured redstart
StonechatSaxicola torquata collared stone-dweller
WheatearOenanthe oenanthe Oenanthe is one of those Greek bird-names where we don’t know what it originally referred to, but it was later attached to the Wheatear.
BlackbirdTurdus merula Turdus = thrush, merula = blackbird
Song thrushTurdus philomelos nightingale thrush. The word philomela for nightingale appears itself to mean darkness-loving.
Mistle thrushTurdus viscivorus mistletoe-eating thrush – hence the English name as well, of course
Cetti’s warblerCettia cetti Named for Francesco Cetti, an Italian naturalist (1726-1778).
Grasshopper warblerLocustella naevia spotted little grasshopper
Reed warblerAcrocephalus scirpaceus Acrocephalus = pointed-headed or sharp-headed (cf ‘acrid’); scirpaceus = pertaining to reeds.
WhitethroatSylvia communis common wood-warbler
Garden warblerSylvia borin No, not a typo for Sylvia boring. ‘Borin’ is an Italian local name for a type of warbler.
ChiffchaffPhylloscopus collybitus Phylloscopus = leaf-watcher. Apparently collybitus comes from a word meaning money-changer, and the song was supposed to resemble the sound of coins being clinked together. I can’t say I’d ever spotted the resemblance myself.
GoldcrestRegulus regulus prince
Spotted flycatcherMuscicapa striata striped flycatcher
Great titParus major great tit (that was easy)
Blue titParus caeruleus blue tit
Marsh titParus palustris marsh tit
Crested titParus cristatus crested tit (starting to spot a pattern here?)
Willow titParus montanus No! – not willow tit. Mountain tit. Frequently encountered in the mountains of Holland.
Coal titParus ater black tit
TreecreeperCerthia familiaris common tree-creeper
YellowhammerEmberiza citrinella little yellow bunting (the name Emberiza is derived from German, for a change).
ChaffinchFringilla coelebs bachelor finch
LinnetAcanthis cannabina cannabis linnet (Jobling gives ‘hemp’ but my version is easier to remember). Acanthis originally referred to some small bird, possibly the linnet, possibly not.
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Carduelis is Latin for Goldfinch. Note that Carduus is a thistle.
Red crossbillLoxia curvirostra Loxia means crosswise, curvirostra means curve-billed.
Scottish crossbillLoxia scotica guess!
HawfinchCoccothraustes coccothraustes An old Greek bird name. No-one knows what it originally referred to, but as it means kernel-breaker, someone decided it was appropriate for the hawfinch. Has the distinction of being the longest scientific name of any European bird.
House sparrowPasser domesticus domestic sparrow
Tree sparrowPasser montanus mountain sparrow
Common starlingSturnus vulgaris common starling
JayGarrulus glandarius acorn-eating chatterer
MagpiePica pica magpie
Carrion crowCorvus corone Corvus is the Latin for crow, korone is Greek for crow
JackdawCorvus monedula monedula = jackdaw.
RookCorvus frugilegus fruit-gathering crow
RavenCorvus corax corax = raven

References and further reading

  1. "A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names” by James Jobling (Oxford University Press 1991, ISBN 0 19 854634 3).
  2. "A Dictionary of Birds” by Bruce Campbell & Elizabeth Lack (T&AD Poyser 1985, ISBN 0 85661 039 9) section “Nomenclature".

The following sites have comprehensive lists of scientific bird names and further information on taxonomy etc.
http://www.zoonomen.net/
http://www.ornithology.com/names.html

Gluttons for punishment can order the full Code from the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. A draft version of the text is available on-line here. Reading the Code will appeal especially to lawyers who can solve the Times crossword in their heads while playing blindfold chess matches.