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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
|albus/alba||white; cf albino|
|chloro-||green or yellow (Greek)|
|cinerea-||grey or ash-coloured; cf cinders|
|guttatus||speckled or spotted|
|haema-||blood-red (Greek); cf haemoglobin|
|melas||black (Greek); cf melanistic|
|niger/nigra||glossy black; cf negro|
|punctatus||spotted; cf punctuation|
|dactyl||finger or toe (Greek)|
|frons||front, i.e. forehead|
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.
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).
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:
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 Name||Scientific Name||Meaning|
|Red-throated diver||Gavia stellata||starred diver|
|Little grebe||Tachybaptus ruficollis||red-collared fast-sinker. The two roots of the generic name are also found in ‘tachograph’ and ‘baptism’.|
|Great crested grebe||Podiceps 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 grebe||Podiceps auritus||eared grebe. Note that this is not the American eared grebe!|
|Fulmar||Fulmaris glacialis||icy fulmar|
|Manx shearwater||Puffinus 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 petrel||Hydrobates pelagicus||marine water-dweller|
|Gannet||Sula bassana or |
|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 cormorant||Phalacrocorax carbo||charcoal cormorant. The Latin word phalacrocorax, meaning cormorant, derives from two Greek words meaning bald raven.|
|Shag||Phalacrocorax aristotelis||Aristotle’s cormorant|
|Grey heron||Ardea cinerea||grey heron|
|Whooper swan||Cygnus cygnus||swan (well, all right: swan-swan). The word cygnet is of course still used in English.|
|Mute swan||Cygnus olor||And this one means swan-swan as well!|
|Greylag goose||Anser anser||goose|
|Pink-footed goose||Anser brachyrhynchus||short-billed goose|
|Brent goose||Branta bernicla||barnacle goose (!). Branta is Old Norse for this goose.|
|Barnacle goose||Branta leucopsis||white-faced goose|
|Egyptian goose||Alopochen aegyptiacus||Egyptian fox-like goose|
|Common shelduck||Tadorna tadorna||from the French tadorne|
|Wigeon||Anas penelope||duck-duck, I’m afraid (Latin and Greek respectively)|
|Gadwall||Anas strepera||noisy duck|
|Teal||Anas crecca||crecca comes from the Swedish name for this duck: kricka.|
|Mallard||Anas platyrhynchos||broad-billed duck|
|Pintail||Anas acuta||sharp-pointed duck|
|Shoveler||Anas clypeata||shield-bearing duck|
|Pochard||Aythya ferina||ferina = game. Aythya is an unidentified seabird (Greek) and now means pochard.|
|Tufted duck||Aythya fuligula||sooty-throated Aythya|
|Scaup||Aythya marila||charcoal Aythya|
|Eider||Somateria mollissima||very soft woolly body|
|Common scoter||Melanitta nigra||black black duck (someone wanted to make the point)|
|Velvet scoter||Melanitta fusca||dusky black duck|
|Ruddy duck||Oxyura jamaicensis||Jamaican pointed-tail|
|White-tailed eagle||Haliaeetus albicilla||white-tailed sea-eagle|
|Hen harrier||Circus cyaneus||blue harrier. The only blue harriers I’ve seen came off an aircraft carrier, but never mind.|
|Sparrowhawk||Accipiter 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 buzzard||Buteo buteo||buzzard|
|Golden eagle||Aquila chrysaetos||golden eagle|
|Common kestrel||Falco tinnunculus||Falco = falcon, tinnunculus = kestrel|
|Merlin||Falco columbarius||pigeon falcon|
|Peregrine||Falco peregrinus||wandering falcon|
|Red-legged partridge||Alectoris rufa||red hen|
|Grey partridge||Perdix perdix||partridge|
|Pheasant||Phasianus colchicus||Colchis pheasant: Colchis is a town on the Black Sea|
|Corncrake||Crex crex||It doesn’t mean anything at all – it is onomatopoeic. It also the shortest scientific name of any bird, equal with several others.|
|Moorhen||Gallinula chloropus||little green-footed hen|
|Common coot||Fulica atra||black coot|
|Oystercatcher||Haematopus ostralegus||oyster-catching blood-foot|
|Golden plover||Pluvialis 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 godwit||Limosa limosa||The scientific name for godwit comes from Limosus, the Latin for mud.|
|Bar-tailed godwit||Limosa lapponica||Lapland godwit|
|Curlew||Numenius 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 sandpiper||Actitis 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 phalarope||Phalaropus lobatus||lobed coot-foot.|
|Knot||Calidris 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.|
|Ruff||Philomachus 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 gull||Larus argentatus||silver gull|
|Greater black-backed gull||Larus 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 gull||Larus ridibundus||laughing gull|
|Kittiwake||Rissa tridactyla||three-toed kittiwake (Rissa comes from Icelandic rita).|
|Wood pigeon||Columba palumbus||Columba = dove, palumbus = wood pigeon|
|Turtle dove||Streptopelia turtur||Streptopelia = collared dove; turtur = turtle dove (presumably onomatopoeic)|
|Ring-necked parakeet||Psittacula krameri||Kramer’s little parrot. Wilhelm Kramer was a (fairly obscure) eighteenth-century Austrian naturalist.|
|Barn owl||Tyto alba||white owl|
|Common swift||Apus apus||footless. Presumably this was intended to mean legless, referring to the very short legs of swifts.|
|Hoopoe||Upupa 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 woodpecker||Picus viridis||green woodpecker|
|Great spotted woodpecker||Picoides 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 lark||Alauda arvensis||field lark|
|Swallow||Hirundo rustica||rural swallow (or rustic swallow)|
|House martin||Delichon urbica||urban swallow (Delichon is a fantasy name, being an anagram of Chelidon).|
|Sand martin||Riparia 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 wagtail||Motacilla 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 pipit||Anthus pratensis||meadow pipit (though Jobling says that Anthus probably originally referred to the yellow wagtail).|
|Tree pipit||Anthus trivialis||common pipit|
|Great grey shrike||Lanius excubitor||sentinel shrike|
|Waxwing||Bombycilla garrulus||chattering silk-tail|
|Dunnock||Prunella modularis||little brown singer (though if one follows the grammar faithfully ‘singing little brown job’ is arguably a more accurate translation).|
|Black redstart||Phoenicurus ochruros||ochre-coloured redstart|
|Stonechat||Saxicola torquata||collared stone-dweller|
|Wheatear||Oenanthe 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.|
|Blackbird||Turdus merula||Turdus = thrush, merula = blackbird|
|Song thrush||Turdus philomelos||nightingale thrush. The word philomela for nightingale appears itself to mean darkness-loving.|
|Mistle thrush||Turdus viscivorus||mistletoe-eating thrush – hence the English name as well, of course|
|Cetti’s warbler||Cettia cetti||Named for Francesco Cetti, an Italian naturalist (1726-1778).|
|Grasshopper warbler||Locustella naevia||spotted little grasshopper|
|Reed warbler||Acrocephalus scirpaceus||Acrocephalus = pointed-headed or sharp-headed (cf ‘acrid’); scirpaceus = pertaining to reeds.|
|Whitethroat||Sylvia communis||common wood-warbler|
|Garden warbler||Sylvia borin||No, not a typo for Sylvia boring. ‘Borin’ is an Italian local name for a type of warbler.|
|Chiffchaff||Phylloscopus 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.|
|Spotted flycatcher||Muscicapa striata||striped flycatcher|
|Great tit||Parus major||great tit (that was easy)|
|Blue tit||Parus caeruleus||blue tit|
|Marsh tit||Parus palustris||marsh tit|
|Crested tit||Parus cristatus||crested tit (starting to spot a pattern here?)|
|Willow tit||Parus montanus||No! – not willow tit. Mountain tit. Frequently encountered in the mountains of Holland.|
|Coal tit||Parus ater||black tit|
|Treecreeper||Certhia familiaris||common tree-creeper|
|Yellowhammer||Emberiza citrinella||little yellow bunting (the name Emberiza is derived from German, for a change).|
|Chaffinch||Fringilla coelebs||bachelor finch|
|Linnet||Acanthis 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 crossbill||Loxia curvirostra||Loxia means crosswise, curvirostra means curve-billed.|
|Scottish crossbill||Loxia scotica||guess!|
|Hawfinch||Coccothraustes 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 sparrow||Passer domesticus||domestic sparrow|
|Tree sparrow||Passer montanus||mountain sparrow|
|Common starling||Sturnus vulgaris||common starling|
|Jay||Garrulus glandarius||acorn-eating chatterer|
|Carrion crow||Corvus corone||Corvus is the Latin for crow, korone is Greek for crow|
|Jackdaw||Corvus monedula||monedula = jackdaw.|
|Rook||Corvus frugilegus||fruit-gathering crow|
|Raven||Corvus corax||corax = raven|
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.