Bird watching: what’s in a name? There are so many factors


A couple of Shoveler ducks are swimming in 2006. The Shoveler is scientifically named Spatula clypeata, which seems perfect for a duck with a spectacularly large beak. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As a word lover, I am fascinated by the scientific names of organisms, especially birds. The Swedish naturalist, Karl Linnaeus, started the tradition of giving each species a binomial name, a genus and a species. Generally, these names are based on Greek or Latin roots.

A taxonomist who finds an undescribed species prepares a description of the species, explaining how it differs from others. The taxonomist is happy to assign the species name and, if the species is sufficiently distinctive, the genus name. The only rule in choosing a scientific name is that a taxonomist cannot give his name to a new species.

Sometimes the name can be frivolous. I know of a sea worm from Florida that was described by a visiting Brazilian taxonomist as Zygonemertes cocacola after the soft drink she enjoyed during her visit.

Sometimes a genus or species name is a surname, named after another scientist or friend. Thus, the scientific name for Wilson’s plover is Charadrius wilsonia, honoring the first American ornithologist Alexander Wilson, and Sabine’s gull is Xema sabini, honoring British ornithologist Joseph Sabine.

However, I appreciate genus and species names that are based on some aspect of a bird’s behavior or appearance. Consider the Shoveler, a duck with a spectacularly large beak. Its scientific name is Spatula clypeata. The genus name comes from the Greek for spoon and the species name is Latin for shield. Together, these terms sum up this bird’s oversized beak.

How about the blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata? The genus name means dark blue in Greek and the species name means crested in Latin. That’s perfect: a dark blue crested bird.

My enthusiasm for deciphering the meanings of genera and species led me to take a year of Latin as an undergraduate. But there are easier ways to decipher scientific names. James Jobling wrote a book called Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. You can download this informative book for free from the Internet Archive (search for “helm dictionary” on

One of my favorite genus names in the bird world is Wrens, a genus that includes the house wren and the winter wren. The genus name comes from the Greek for cave dweller. Most wrens nest in cavities or create domed nests with a roof and a side entrance. A domed nest seems to have many advantages. They are warmer, provide protection from the sun and rain, and provide better protection from predators.

Generally, species with domed nests have larger clutch sizes than related species with open nests. For example, the prothonotary warbler, one of the few cavity-nesting warblers, lays an average of one or two more eggs than other open-nest warblers. The risk of losing a brood to the elements or predators is less in a domed nest, which has the advantage of increasing brood size.

However, open nests are much more common among songbirds. How to explain this pattern?

To explore this problem, an international team of ornithologists, led by Dr Iliana Medina, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, collected data on nest design, construction time and geographic distribution of 3,175 species. of songbirds.

The authors correlated their different measures to look for suggestive relationships. Open-nested species generally had larger ranges and lower extinction rates. A lower rate of extinction is not surprising since species with larger ranges tend to have larger population sizes and spread the risk of extinction over a wider area.

Birds with open nests were also more likely to live in urban areas. Since most birds with domed nests build their nests on or near the ground, there are few safe nesting opportunities in urban settings. The authors found that domed nests take longer to build and are therefore more expensive. In terms of defense, domed nests provide a barrier against predators, but escaping from an open nest may be quicker.

This study clearly demonstrates the power of comparative biology.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes comments and questions from readers to [email protected]

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