Friday, 1 February 2013

Renaming bird species

I have found conflicting information in two books published by Collins. Try to look up any species of diver in the index to the well-known Collins Bird Guide, and you won’t find it. This is because the current (2nd) edition has unhelpfully dropped “diver” in favour of the American name “loon”, which is favoured by interfering taxonomists. Ironically, the Collins English Dictionary defines “loon” as “the US and Canadian name for diver”, without acknowledging any use of the word on this side of the Atlantic. 

And divers are not the only birds lost from the bird guide index. For example, there is no entry for Fan-tailed Warbler, because the taxonomy gestapo tell us that we should use the stupid name “Zitting Cisticola” to avoid confusion with a tropical American species also known as a Fan-tailed Warbler. 

But how can confusion arise? If anyone this side of the Atlantic refers to a Fan-tailed Warbler, the reference is obviously assumed to be to the Old World species. If the American bird is meant, it will clearly be identified as such.

Also missing from the Collins index is the Bearded Tit, because it now has to be called a Bearded Reedling on the ground that it is not a true tit but is more closely related to the larks. Do you know the expression "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck"? Well the Bearded Tit looks like a tit and it behaves like a tit, so why not call it a tit? 

The book’s editors have also behaved like tits, since, although they refuse to call the Beardie a tit, they have still placed its monograph in among the tits, where it sits nearly 100 pages after the larks! 

What’s more, many well-known bird species are now supposed to have their names burdened by qualifiers such as “Common” or “European”. If we just look at the waders, we find “Eurasian” Oystercatcher, “Pied” Avocet, “Northern” Lapwing, “European” Golden Plover, “Common” Ringed Plover, “Eurasian” Dotterel, “Eurasian” Woodcock, “Common” Snipe, “Eurasian” Curlew, “Common” Redshank, “Common” Greenshank, “Ruddy” Turnstone and “Red” Knot. These added adjectives are unnecessary because when we talk or write about such birds, the listener or reader will naturally assume we are referring to the regular European species. 

And some of the names that are supposed to avoid confusion are actually misleading. More than 300,000 “Red” Knot visit Britain every winter, when their plumage is predominantly grey, with not a trace of red. It is only while they are breeding in the high Arctic that they have a brick-red chest, belly and face. So why should British birders have to describe a clearly grey bird as red?

A similar situation applies to the rare winter visitor we know as the Grey Phalarope. This too develops a red undercarriage only while summering in the Arctic, but we are now expected to call it a “Red” Phalarope — a name that risks confusion with the less rare Red-necked Phalarope. 

Luckily, unlike those tits at Collins, most British birders have sensibly resisted attempts to bludgeon them into abandoning bird names that have been familiar for many, many years. We continue to talk about Bearded Tits, Fan-tailed Warblers and Grey Phalaropes without any risk of confusion. Long may we continue to do so.