Name That Bird

Peter Harrison|August 16, 2007|Blog Post

Is it a loon or a diver? The United States and Britain had different names for the same bird which a new book, 16 years in the making, now standardizes. Until recently it all depended on which side of the pond you were from. A birder from Britain on our current Spitsbergen and White Sea expeditions would call the duck-like bird paddling around in front of him a red-throated diver. To the birder from New York standing at his side however, the same bird would be a red-throated loon.

The correct English name for any of the world’s currently recognized species has been the topic of heated debates for many years and has caused much confusion for the entry-level birder. All that has recently changed however with the publication of Birds of the World, a 272-page compendium that now gives the correct English name to every bird species in existence—10,068, give or take a few, depending on your taxonomic bias. In the case of diver versus loon alas, the English lost out. There are no divers anymore, they are now currently referred to as loons. The Brits also lost out on those common and Brunnich’s guillemots some of our travelers were looking at on a recent Fire and Ice Expeditions in Russia. They are now known by their American names common and thick-billed murres. But the American birders also had to make some concessions. Gone for instance is your American dovekie, it is now known by its British name the little auk. Also, your common gallinule, as you Americans call the plump, chicken-like swampland bird, is now the moorhen, a name that we Brits held onto tenaciously.

After all is said and done, putting the correct English name on a bird raised quite a squawk! The multinational project was launched in 1990 at the behest of the prestigious International Ornithological Congress. The French took just three years to agree on standardized French names. The Spanish were a little longer, four years. Alas, standardization for English names was vexed and required delicate negotiations not just on whether it was an Arctic skua or a parasitic jaeger (one and the same and now correctly referred to as the latter) but to the use of hyphens and spellings. Should the new list, for instance, use British grey, or American gray?

All this and more can now be found in Birds of the World, published by Princeton University press and compiled by Frank Gill and Minturn Wright. We have these gentlemen to thank for at last guiding us down the correct path of ornithological English. I fear however that there will be a certain amount of sadness at the passing of such names as dovekie and gallinule. Thankfully, the American backyard, with its chickadees and wrens remain intact. And that bird that goes bob-bob-bobbin’ along is still an American robin which surprises me because it's actually a thrush—but then I am a Brit and old habits die hard.