This story originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Even the most ornithologically challenged individual can usually identify a pigeon, a duck, a starling or a sparrow. Devoted bird watchers can, without reaching for a guidebook, identify many more of the birds they see. We take pleasure in seeing “old friends,” such as goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula). We’re willing to travel, sometimes great distances, for the chance to see new species; we get really excited when we observe a rare species.
The Genesis of Scientific Naming
Understanding the scientific names of birds helps us understand the species. Early European naturalists and scientists faced a welter of confusion regarding species names. A single kind of bird might be known by many local and regional names, in multiple languages and dialects. Discussions among colleagues speaking different languages were difficult at best—they could never be certain they were discussing the same organism.
In 1758 Carolus Linneaus proposed a binomial (two-part) naming system that is still used today. All discovered, described, living (or once living) organisms now have unique, two part names. You needn’t be a language expert to understand scientific names; most consist of compound words using segments derived from Latin (L) and Greek (G) roots, prefixes, and suffixes.
Do you remember your first introduction to scientific naming? One of my science teachers, in a discussion about dinosaurs, explained that the name of that greatest of dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex, accurately describes the animal itself. In Latin, tyrannus means tyrant or monarch; saurus means lizard, and rex means king, thus “tyrant lizard king.”
Most evolutionists consider Archaeopteryx to be the first bird. Its fossil documents a transitional form between birds and reptiles and provided one of the first clues leading to the realization that birds are descended from dinosaurs. The name comes from the Greek archaios, ancient + pteryx, feather or wing.
Using Linneaus’ basic system, taxonomists (those who study, classify and name organisms) can sort, split, and group species by their common characteristics, then assemble the genera into complex family trees that graphically display their interrelationships. The genus name identifies the greater group containing the organism, based on common characteristics. The species name is unique to a particular type of organism in that genus.
This may seem all neat and organized, but taxonomy is never static. New species are discovered, new information added, errors corrected. New information may result in a species being moved from one genus to another, or several differently named species found to be variants of just one. This is why you may discover different names given for the exact same bird—those names previously recognized, and the name currently accepted.
Deconstructing Scientific Names
We don’t need to understand scientific names, but having some knowledge of their origin and meaning provides us with a greater appreciation and understanding of the birds we so enjoy. To begin, think of a scientific name not as two words, but as two aggregations of syllables, each of which may be important.
You may notice that many Latin names contain familiar root forms. For example, the terms for “foot”, pod (G) and ped (L), gave us “podium” and “pedestrian.” Other Latin-derived terms: brevi, short; longi, long; prolifica, abundant. From Greek: macro, large; mega, powerful or of great size; micro, small, a little bit; poly, many.
You may also recognize some of the color names: alb/albus (L) and leuco (G) white or colorless; aur/aurum (L) and chrysos (G) for gold; rhodo (G) red; cyanos (G) kyanos, dark blue; viridi (L) viridus, dark green; or melanos (G) black, very dark. And most of us know at least some of the Latin terms for numbers: tri, three; quad, four; and penta, five, for example.
Some genus names are simply that: names given to a group of birds. For example, in Latin, Passer is sparrow; Turdus is thrush; Anas is duck; Columba means pigeon or dove; Buteo is buzzard;–aetus is eagle; and Strix, owl.
A Few Examples of Names
Let’s look at one of our most common birds, the common house sparrow, Passer domesticus. We can guess at the meaning of domesticus, since it is similar to the English “domestic”, giving us sparrow “of the house” or house sparrow. The American robin is Turdus migratorius. You may be able to work out the meaning of the species name, since the English word “migrate” came from the Latin term migrato. The robin, then, is the “migrating thrush.”
Everyone knows the mallard. Named for its beak, its scientific name is Anas platyrhynchos: (G) platy, flat + rhyncos, snout. The northern pintail, A. acuta, is named for its pointed tail (L) acuta, acute, pointed. Since the pintail belongs to the same genus as the mallard, we abbreviate the genus name.
How about northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis? The Latin word refers to the red robes of the Catholic prelate, but which came first, the color or the prelate? The harlequin duck is Histrionicus histrionicus. The word means dramatic, as in acting, just like our English word “histrionic.” The harlequin duck is doubly dramatic!
The rock pigeon is Columba livia. In Latin, lividus means bruised, aka black and blue, which accurately describes the original color of the wild rock pigeon. The species name of another member of the genus, the white-crowned pigeon, is also descriptive; C. leucocephala translates roughly into “white head”: leuco (L), white + cephala (G), head.
In Greek, hali means at sea; thus, Haliaeetus leucocephalus is the white-headed sea eagle, also known as the bald eagle. Lineatus means lined in Latin. Buteo lineatus is the red-shouldered hawk, referring to its broad tail bands. Its cousin the broad-winged hawk is B. platypterus; ptero is Latin for wing, making it the flat-winged buzzard. The redtailed hawk is B. jamaicensis, the Jamaican buzzard.
Scientific names may derive from many sources. The osprey’s genus is Pandion, the name of a legendary king of Athens; its species is haliaetus, of the sea.
Some bird names seem fairly obvious. Examples: The northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, was named for its habit of mimicking other bird calls (L) mimus, mime + poly, much, many + glottis, tongue.
Various prefixes and suffixes can be diminutives and superlatives. Suffixes such as –ina and –inna mean small or little. Add “-ina” to passer (sparrow) and it modifies the meaning to “little sparrow.” Thus we have the indigo bunting, Passerina cyanea (cyanea is dark blue) and the lazuli bunting, P. amoena, the charming or pleasant little sparrow.
Many scientific names honor a specific individual, often the person who collected a vital specimen, a respected colleague, or a beloved family member. Naming a species after a person provides the honoree with what passes in the scientific world as immortality. If the honoree is female, the usual ending will be –a or –ae. If male, the name will usually end in –i or –ii. As examples, consider the Kirtland’s warbler, Setophaga kirtlandii, or Swainson’s warbler, Limnothlypis swainsonii.
All of this can be pretty heavy stuff—particularly if you’ve never encountered the concept of binomial naming before. There is a lighter side. Carolus Linneaus dubbed an amoeba Chaos chaos. Others have cheerfully followed his lead. The scientific name of a spider is Draculoides bramstokeri. We can assume that Arnold Menke and David Vincent are Star Wars fans: They named two new wasp species Polemistus chewbacca and P. yoda. Terry Erwin of the Smithsonian Institution named two species of ground beetles Agra vation and Agra phobia.
Whenever you come across the scientific name of a bird—or other organism—don’t dismiss it as arcane or nerdy. Study it for a few minutes. It might reveal something about the species that will help you understand it better, whether it is its family, its appearance, or its history.
Donna Recktenwalt is a graphic artist/writer/editor from Dayton, Ohio. She lives quietly with two cats, writing, reading and tending her garden and a slew of orchids.