Working for birds in Africa

Birds of the World: Recommended English Names

Fri, 12/21/2012 - 12:17 -- abc_admin
Frank B. Gill & Minturn Wright (on behalf of the International Ornithological Congress), 2006. London: Christopher Helm. 259pp + CD. Softback. ISBN 0–7136–7904–2. UK£19.99.
page 232

This list of globalised English bird names, produced by a committee under the chairmanship of Frank Gill, has been almost 20 years in the making. Given the extensive name differences between various parts of the English-speaking birding world, many originally doubted the feasibility of the project, whilst its point was also queried on the grounds that scientific nomenclature already provided a set of unique species names. But regional differences have now been reconciled or submerged, and this book is the result. The list is not set in stone, but is offered as a work in progress, to benefit from evaluation and future feedback. It is bound to require frequent revision as species limits are steadily modified in this age of DNA-based taxonomic investigation.

A brief introduction outlines the history of the project and the principles followed in naming. Decisions on thorny issues such as hyphenation, capitalisation and spelling are explained. Then follows the list of species, giving the recommended English name and scientific name with an indication of geographic region of occurrence. Finally, there is a comprehensive alphabetical index of generic and English group names.

This is not primarily a taxonomic work. Family order and species classification are based on the third edition of Howard and Moore's world checklist (Dickinson 2003), but several additional species splits are included, some of them informed by recent molecular studies.

The authors have succeeded in preserving most of the names in common usage in each world region but choices have been unavoidable and the resulting compromise is sometimes unsatisfactory, particularly where genera have been allocated between different regional names. Thus, in Stercorarius, we have the North American Parasitic Jaeger and Long-tailed Jaeger but also Pomarine Skua, which is very misleading because the Catharacta species are also skuas. The African bustards appear as a mix of bustards and korhaans, and here we find two taxa recently considered conspecific now named as Buff-crested Bustard Lophotis gindiana and Rufous-crested Korhaan L. ruficrista. Elsewhere, the approach is different, and naming guided by generic classification. Thus, all Tauracos are turacos (louries having disappeared) and theVanellus plovers are strictly lapwings.

Compound group names are always contentious, but their treatment here is good. Hyphenation is limited to double bird names such as Harrier-Hawk and Sparrow-Lark, and to cases such as Thick-knee or White-eye where removal would produce an awkward result. Double group names are elsewhere either combined without a hyphen or, more frequently, retained as two capitalised words (as in Rock Thrush).

In Africa, the compilers and the regional committee appear to have steered a reasonable course between names traditionally used in the south and those used in the east and west tropics. We generally observe a mix of southern and eastern names, but in cases of conflict the latter have usually been preferred. Some unfortunate choices include Fork-tailed Drongo for Dicrurus adsimili, hardly appropriate in a global context, and the uninspiring African Pipit for Anthus cinnamomeus. And, given that some well-established local single word names have been retained elsewhere, the rejection of Lammergeier in favour of Bearded Vulture for Gypaetus barbatus seems regrettable. A number of names have been improved. Thus brevity has wrought Ruppell's Vulture for Gyps ruppellii, Blue-eared Starling for Lamprotornis chalybaeus, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting for Emberiza tahapisi and Scarlet-tufted Sunbird for Nectarinia johnstoni, and the welcome removal of the 'African' qualifier has given us Mourning Collared Dove forStreptopelia decipiens and White-winged Collared Dove for S. reichenowi. Moustached Grass Warbler for Melocichla mentalis is a good name lifted from Birds of Africa. Hyphens have been removed from most compound family names, so that we have buttonquails, helmetshrikes and bushshrikes. Some species splits are not yet, I think, generally accepted. In particular, I note the recognition of two carmine bee-eaters, two hoopoes in Africa, three East African bulbuls and three East African montane white-eyes.

The list should aid international communication between birders and it should help bring greater consistency into regional English naming, although I wonder how quickly its suggestions will be taken up. It is unlikely that names like loon, Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes and Mew Gull Larus canus will enter British birding parlance in the short term, or that robin-chat and turaco will be used in South Africa. For now, some continued divergence of regional lists seems inevitable, and I see no problem in giving alternative as well as preferred English names where space permits.

Almost inevitably, some mistakes have crept in. Two noted are: a) Stenostira scita appears in the list twice: as Fairy Flycatcher (in Muscicapidae) and as Fairy Warbler placed Incertae sedis near Cisticolidae and Pycnonotidae; only the latter is in the index so is presumably the preferred one; and b) two species are known as Violet-eared Waxbill: Uraeginthus granatinus in Africa and Poephila acuticauda of Australia. I recommend this book to any English-speaking birder. It is very good value and comes with a useful CD containing the list as printed in a MS Excel file along with, albeit briefly, a little additional geographical information.

David Pearson
References: 
Dickinson, E. C. (ed.) 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Third edn. London, UK: Christopher Helm.

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