The conundrum of bird common names

I have two ongoing lab projects that look like they will involve splitting up one bird species into two or more species. These projects are in North and Central America, so all the species already have scientific names of some sort. Assigning Latin names will be a matter of sorting out priority, a matter of which came first.

This is the case for most ornithological research in North America these days. Most of what we study has already been described at a lower taxonomic rank. The only place left for us to get creative is with common names.

There are great articles, resources, and blog posts out there on what certain birds’ common names mean, or whom they are named for, or on the older (often incorrect or racist) names for birds that have been lost to antiquity and enlightened thinking. There aren’t nearly as many posts on what makes for a good common name today.

I’ve been spending some time pondering common names for the aspiring new species. Unlike most taxonomic groups, ornithologists have a governing body (the American Ornithologists’ Union) that considers requests to bequeath a common name or change one, in addition to weightier issues with potential legal and conservation ramifications like whether or not to name a new species at all. (Not having such a body can lead to all kinds of problems like taxonomic vandalism.)

The debates can get a little intense. Jerry Brown, who studied Mexican Jays for many years, told me that the decision to change its common name to Grey-breasted Jay was solely driven by a “one-armed trial lawyer from New York”. I’ve never looked into the veracity of this story, but it is so preposterous I’m hoping it’s true. The common name changed back to Mexican Jay years later.

I’ve added a new common name to the bird world myself, without much controversy. In 2010, based on my dissertation research and a resulting paper, I put in a proposal, which was accepted, to split Mexican Jays into two species. One I proposed to keep as Mexican Jay. The other I proposed to name the Transvolcanic Jay, because of the mountain range it calls home in central Mexico. I admit, I also liked the word Transvolcanic. It was memorable, without being too odd.

Best of all, it wasn’t a cold description of the bird. I’ve always been perplexed by the desire to give birds long, compound, hyper-descriptive common names. Field guides are littered with “rufous-vented” this and “scribble-tailed” that. I realize there is a logic to it, and it comes from a good place. Yet, I find it off-putting, especially to the beginning birder who finds herself already awash, not just with new birds, and new colors (e.g., rufous), but with all those hyphenated modifiers. Aren’t the field marks better illustrated by the picture in the field guide?

So what makes for a good common name? In my opinion, common names should be memorable, facilitating ease of communication, full stop. The better part of being memorable is being easily differentiated from other names and being stable. So while it’s ok that we have some birds whose common names contain a descriptive field mark (Red-Shouldered Hawk), we also need a healthy mix of common names that reflect the names of people (Anna’s Hummingbird), places (Louisiana Waterthrush), habitat (Oak Titmouse), and – my favorite – quirky facts about the species.

For example, one of the 15 new species described by Louisiana State University scientists in South America is named the Predicted Antwren, because it was predicted to exist before it was actually found.

As for being stable, I don’t think we should change common names unless the current name is utterly misleading or culturally insensitive. Thus, Cape May Warbler might be viewed as silly because it only passes though Cape May, New Jersey during migration. Could there be a better common name? Probably. But changing it now would undermine the primary directive of being memorable and facilitating communication.

Some also feel that common names should reflect evolutionary relatedness, like Latin names do. These folks feel that our Summer Tanagers should be called something else – maybe  Summer Pirangas – because DNA research shows that they are more related to cardinals than they are to the true tanagers in the family Thraupidae. There are grosbeaks and buntings in multiple families of birds, why not tanagers? Again, here I would defer to stability. We already have a system of nomenclature for depicting evolutionary relatedness. And what is more memorable than a tanager that is not a tanager?

(Note: Jerry wrote to confirm the story of the Mexican Jay. His wonderful wife Esther adds that the story makes her cringe because it makes Jerry seem prejudice against one-armed people, which he is not, while Jerry requested that I keep the descriptor, but insert an ellipses before it, to suggest the editorial omission of an expletive.)