Saturday, 21 January 2012

Why Simon Barnes is a bad birdwatcher

I was recently given a copy of ‘How to be a bad bird watcher’ by the Times journalist Simon Barnes. (No, I don’t mean he gave it to me — I mean he wrote it.)

I had always thought of Barnes as a “good” rather than a “bad” birdwatcher, since he has for years been writing interesting and knowledgeable pieces about birds in the Times and in the RSPB’s Birds magazine. So I was surprised to see that his book makes a fundamental error with the naming of common birds.

Since the book’s aim is to offer general guidance on how to enjoy birds, it does not actually mention many species by name. But it does includes three references to the “great-crested grebe”. The insertion of a hyphen in this name is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The hyphenated structure suggests that the bird is a grebe with a huge crest. But the Great Crested Grebe was given its name because it is the largest of several European grebes that display crests in the breeding season. Admittedly the GCG’s crest is more prominent than those of the Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, the Black-necked Grebe and the Red-necked Grebe, but it is the size of the bird, not the size of its crest, that gave it its name.

(Note the correct use of hyphens in the names Black-necked Grebe and Red-necked Grebe in the preceding paragraph. These are two species that in summer can be distinguished because one has a red neck and the other has a black neck. The hyphen makes this clear. Without a hyphen the names would imply a black grebe with a neck and a red grebe with a neck.)

Barnes’s book also mentions the “great-spotted woodpecker”, a monicker that suggests a woodpecker with large spots. Wrong again. The Great Spotted Woodpecker was given that name to distinguish it from two other species, the Middle Spotted Woodpecker (found only in continental Europe) and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The names are confusing enough anyway, since none of the birds appear spotty, but the inclusion of that hyphen only increases the confusion.

Does all this matter? I think it does. This is partly because the correct use (or non-use) of hyphens provides a more accurate description of the species. But also, in the internet age, it is increasingly important to employ officially recognised names when making entries into databases or when researching such resources. If you search a database for “great-spotted woodpecker” you may find a handful of entries that include the unwarranted hyphen, but a search for “great spotted woodpecker” will detect the bulk of the entries for this bird and thus provide more detailed and more accurate information about it.

So, Simon, you have produced an interesting book that should help birding beginners, but it could have been a little better.

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