Sunday, 4 August 2019

What's in a bird name? - the dummies guide to scientific names of birds

It has been a long time that I have posted to my blog in the recent past. The reason has been due to a double whammy, the great Indian Circus, elections was on - and the entire nation was out on the streets for three full months trying to pick up - who will rule the nation for the next five years, second was that in between this schedule I had tied up a trip to Borneo for birdwatching with some members of Chandigarh Bird club. The preparation, trip and the aftermath has been very tiring. Though I had intended to pen down the experience of the visit too, seeing my routine and engagements I relegated it to some time in the near future.

I have no formal training in any ornithological studies but I was always intrigued by the scientific names of the birds I used to come across during birdwatching. So I have been on to this task of learning more about how the birds are named and what is the logic behind the naming them. I am sharing the studies that I have done for past almost six months and tried to lay them down for everyone to understand in as easy a language and explanation as possible.

Firstly, the moot question - do we address these names as scientific? or Latin names? Calling them the Latin names is how we address them fairly commonly, though that may not be any longer true. Many languages have contributed to names of the birds, Latin is/was very common, but many names of birds are now Greek, from Old English, Russian, Malay, South American native languages etc. That being said, regardless of the origin, generic names are required to have a form of a Latin noun, with defined gender and specific names are required to decline according to rules of Latin adjectives. This is a fact as the system was at that time when Latin was the language of International Communication. However, in today's sense calling them as Scientific Names may be correct as some names are not Latin at all.

There are in all four parts of the full scientific name. The first part of the name describes the genus that distinguishes a group of isolated, distinctive species. This must be a form of a noun or a substantivised adjective treated as a noun. This has to begin with an Upper-case letter. The second part of the name begins with a lower-case letter and describes the species within the genus and may take many forms though it is commonly an adjective or a noun in the genitive case. The third and the fourth part reveal the name and the year in which that name was first validly published as a Binomen.

Now that we know that the scientific names are to be addressed as 'Scientific Names', the names were and are coined using different criteria. These categories/criteria are as given below: -

1. Morphonym(Gr. morphē form: onuma name) Based on plumage, colours and physical characteristics of the birds and is the largest category accounting for over half of all specific names and nearly half of all generic names.

White-bellied Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis pallidipes)
As an example, this endemic bird of India, the White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, whose scientific name is Cyornis pallidipes. Here Cyornis is derived from the Greek kuanos meaning Dark Blue and ornis for bird. pallidipes  in Latin stands for pale and pes for the foot. So the name describes the plumage and physical characteristics as a Dark blue bird with the pale foot.

2. Eponym(Gr. epōnumos named after) eponym commemorates a person real, mythical or fictional. These mostly honour the name of the collector or the discoverer of species, but at other times just to honour to a person.

Grey-breasted Prinia (Prinia hodgsonii)
The example of this bird is Grey-breasted Prinia, whose scientific name is Prinia hodgsonii,  Here Prinia is a Javanese name Prinya and hodgsonii is name given in honour of Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894), and English diplomat, resident of Nepal from 1833 to 1844 who was an ethnologist and a collector. His name figures in a number of species scientific name as hodgsoni / hodgsoniae / hodgsonii / Hodgsonius etc.

3.  Autochthonym(Gr. autokhthōn indigenous, native; onuma name) Based on indigenous or the native name. They are used generically than specifically mostly.

Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar)
An example of this bird is the beautiful Chukar Partridge whose scientific name is Alectoris chukar, with Alectoris is a derivation of Greek word alektoris meaning farmyard fowl/chicken and chukar a derivative of Hindi name Chukor.

4.  Toponym(Gr. topos place; onuma name) These have been proved more popular as specific names than generic names. There are over 1,100 specific toponyms or geographical epithets.

Black-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense)
As an example of this category I have picked out Black-rumped Flameback (Dinopium benghalense) where Dinopium is derivative of Greek deinos meaning might, ōpos is appearance. The Toponym part is benghalense depicts Bengal - historically large part of India and Bangladesh.

5.  Taxonym(Gr. taxis arrangement; onuma name) This is based upon suggestive relationship or resemblance.
Golden Babbler (Stachyridopsis chrysaea)
Here the Stachyridopsis is derivative from genus Stachyris that roughly translates stakhus as ear of wheat and rhis refers to nostrils; reference to the shape of opercula or scales almost closing the nostrils.  opsis  means appearance. chrysaea meaning Golden.

6.  Bionym(Gr. bios life; onuma name) The popularity of habitat names reflects this diversity.

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

The birds are very mobile and occur in a large variety of habitat. As an example of this category, I have picked out this bird, Black-tailed Godwit, the scientific name of which is Limosa limosa,  limosa is Latin derivative of limosus that means muddy. This bird, true to its name is found on the muddy ocean or lake shores.

7. Ergonym(Gr. ergon work, occupation; onuma name) This category refers to display, typical habits, temperament, mode of flight, parasitism or breeding behaviour.

Streaked Weaver (Ploceus manyar)
Like explained above the name is a derivation of the work or accupation. As an example here, Streaked Weaver's Scientific name is Ploceus manyar, with ploceus being a Greek derivative of a word plokeus that means weaver, braider or a plaiter (plekō being to plait, or to entwine). manyar, on the other hand, is the Tamil name Manja for various weavers (Ploceus)

8.  Phagonym: (Gr. phagein to eat: onuma name) The names in this category reveal the variety of food items or prey of birds, including spiders, bananas, carrion, crabs, lizards etc.

Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra)
The scientific name of Little Spiderhunter is Arachnothera that literal translation of Greek word, arakhnēs meaning spider and -thēras meaning hunter. longirostra is a derivation of Latin longus long; -rostris means billed. So all in all - the scientific name means - spiderhunter that has a long bill.

9.  Phononym: (Gr. phōnē voice, sound: onuma name) This category uses the names based upon the sounds/songs of the birds. Surprisingly, this category has yielded relatively few names inspite of the fact that the birds are so many a times associated with the songs, calls and has been admired throughout the ages.

Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
Like described above, inspite of the birds being so closely related to their songs - it is not common to come across bird's scientific name based on this aspect. As an example here is Common Chiffchaff whose scientific name is Phylloscopus collybita. The first part pholloscopus is derived from two Greek words, phullon meaning leaf; skopos meaning seeker. It is the second word, collybita that is based on Latin name collybista money-changer. In Normandy, Common Chiffchaff is called 'Compteur d'argent' from its song that resembles the clinking of coins.

This article just about scratches the convention of Scientific naming of birds and one the places where I have found my solace is after I purchased a book to learn about birds and bird names. The link to the book is given next (Click Here)