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Re-name that bird!


Step back in time to the 18th century. You have just been appointed to the first AOU Classification and Nomenclature Committee (some 100 years before the AOU was even organized!). You get to name all the birds!
The ambitious IOC World Bird List has a set of 10 laudable principles for assigning a single, official name for every species. Among them: “Existing usage would be a predominant guideline. A long-established name would not be changed just to correct a perceived inaccuracy or misdescription.”

A fine rule, as there is much to be said for stability in long-standing names. Still…some bird names are real head-scratchers as they simply do not describe the bird at all. Ouzel. Pipit. Erne. Great words for crossword-puzzlers but they tell you nothing about the bird. Dipper is a vast improvement over water ouzel, especially as ouzel was the name for the Common Blackbird.

Even worse, some names are inaccurate and misleading. As Elliott Coues, a member of the first checklist committee noted in the case of the oystercatchers, “Oyster opener would be a better name, as oysters do not run very fast.” (And here you thought that Coues had no sense of humor).

What would you call an insectivorous bird that is not related to hawks, that does not resemble hawks, that is not active at night, and flies much like a bat? Common Nighthawk, of course.

What if we were the ornithologists of the 1700s who first described and named the birds? What if you could re-name them all? What would you call that Common Nighthawk?

This irregular feature will keep us busy for years. As Ludlow Griscom argued in 1947, some 80% of the vernacular names of North American birds would have to be junked. Of course, he also argued against the value of the effort, saying that vernacular names should be scrapped:

“If we had a Gallup poll, and a thousand bird students of proper geographic distribution sent in a name on a postcard1, it would be very surprising if a hundred of them picked the same one. Meanwhile the A.O.U. Committee has agreed to provide a species name; whatever one they dig up, my guess is that they will be soundly denounced by a certain percentage of students.”

So…get ready to re-name and get ready to denounce the names proposed for Chordeiles minor. Submit your ideas in the comments section.


1 Like a tweet, but on a small piece of stiffened paper and sent through the U.S. mail, an ancient form of transmitting information. It also required a small piece of paper fastened to the corner of the stiffened paper. Known as a stamp, it signified that the fee for transmittal had been paid to the U.S. Postal Service, which would then physically carry the postcard to the recipient.


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