Crows 1

Carrion CrowThere are currently 46 species of Corvus crows on the IOC World Bird List. Of these only 8 species show any amount of white or off-white coloration in their plumage. This leaves us with 38 different black crows, 38 shades of black. How have they been described? In short: with little reference to colour.

Taking all Corvus species, here is a list of the scientific names with translations.

  • House Crow – Corvus splendens = Brilliant Crow – from Latin splendens = brilliant, shiny.
  • New Caledonian Crow – Corvus moneduloides = Jackdaw-like Crow – from Latin monedula = Jackdaw (literally, money-eater) and Greek -oidēs = resembling.
  • Banggai Crow – Corvus unicolor = Plain Crow – from Latin uni- = single, and color = colour. (First described by Rothschild and Hartert in 1900, this Sunda endemic was ‘rediscovered’ in 2007 after a 100 year absence.)
  • Slender-billed Crow – Corvus enca = Enca Crow – enca is a Javanese name for crow.
  • Violet Crow – Corvus violaceus = Violet-coloured Crow – from Latin viola = violet, and -cues = like.
  • Piping Crow – Corvus typicus = Typical Crow – from Latin typicus = typical, type.
  • Flores Crow – Corvus florensis = for Flores, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
  • Mariana Crow – Corvus kubaryi = patronym for Polish naturalist Jan Stanisław Kubary (1846-1896).
  • Long-billed Crow – Corvus validus = Strong Crow – from Latin valere = to be strong.
  • White-billed Crow – Corvus woodfordi = Woodford’s Crow – patronym for British naturalist Charles Morris Woodford (1852-1927).
  • Bougainville Crow – Corvus meeki = patronym for English bird collector and naturalist Albert Stewart Meek (1871-1943).
  • Brown-headed Crow – Corvus fuscicapillus = from Latin fuscus = brown, and -capillus = capped.
  • Grey Crow – Corvus tristis = Sad Crow – from Latin tristis = sad.
  • Cape Crow – Corvus capensis = for Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
  • Rook – Corvus frugilegus = Fruit-eating Crow – from Latin frugis = fruit, and leger = to pick.
  • American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos = Short-billed Crow – from Greek brakhus = short, and rhunkhos = bill.
  • Northwestern Crow – Corvus caurinus = from Latin caurus = north-western wind.
  • Tamaulipas Crow – Corvus imparatus = Unprepared Crow – from Latin imparatus = unprepared.
  • Sinaloa Crow – Corvus sinaloae = for the Free and Sovereign State of Sinaloa, Mexico.
  • Fish Crow – Corvus ossifragus = Bone-breaking Crow – from Latin os, ossis = bone, and frangere = to break.
  • Hispaniolan Palm Crow – Corvus palmarum = Palm Crow – from Latin palma = palm tree. (A recent split, endemic to Hispaniola.)
  • Cuban Palm Crow – Corvus minutus = Little Crow – from Latin minuere = to make smaller. (A recent split from Corvus palmarum s.l., endemic to Cuba.)
  • Jamaican Crow – Corvus jamaicensis = for Jamaica.
  • Cuban Crow – Corvus nasicus = Large-nosed Crow – from Latin nasus= nose.
  • White-necked Crow – Corvus leucognaphalus = White-mouthed Crow – from Greek leucos = white, and gnaphos = mouth.
  • Hawaiian Crow – Corvus hawaiiensis = for Hawaii, U.S.A.
  • Carrion Crow – Corvus corone = Crow – from Greek korōnē = crow (derived from onomapopoeic krōzō = to croak).
  • Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix = Crow – from Latin cornix = crow (synonymous with corvus).
  • Collared Crow – Corvus torquatus = from Latin torques = collar. (Was Corvus pectoralis = Pectoral Crow – from Latin pectoralis = of the breast.)
  • Large-billed Crow – Corvus macrorhynchos = from Greek makrorrhunkhos = long-billed.
  • Eastern Jungle Crow – Corvus levaillantii = Levaillant’s Crow – patronym for French ornithologist François Levaillant (1753-1824). (A recent split.)
  • Indian Jungle Crow – Corvus culminatus = Culmen Crow (Thick-billed Crow) – from Latin culmen = culmen. (Split from Corvus levaillantii.)
  • Torresian Crow – Corvus orru = unknown, probably based on a Papuan name for crow.
  • Bismarck Crow – Corvus insularis = Island Crow – from Latin insula = island. (Split from Corvus orru.)
  • Little Crow – Corvus bennetti = Bennett’s Crow – patronym for Australian naturalist George Bennett (1804-1893).
  • Forest Raven – Corvus tasmanicus = Tasmanian Raven – for Tasmania.
  • Little Raven – Corvus mellori = Mellor’s Raven – patronym for English chemist Joseph William Mellor (1869-1938).
  • Australian Raven – Corvus coronoides = Carrion Crow-like Raven – from Corvus corone = Carrion Crow, and Greek -oidēs = resembling.
  • Pied Crow – Corvus albus = White Crow – from Latin albus = white.
  • Brown-necked Raven – Corvus ruficollis = Rufous-necked Raven – from Latin rufus = red, rufous, and collum = neck.
  • Somali Crow – Corvus edithae = Cole’s Crow – matronym for British bortanist and entomologist Edith Cole (1859-1940).
  • Northern Raven – Corvus corax = Raven – from Greek korax = raven.
  • Chihuahuan Raven – Corvus cryptoleucus = Covert White-feathered Raven – from Greek kruptos = hidden, and leukos = white.
  • Fan-tailed Raven – Corvus rhipidurus = from Greek rhipis = fan, and oura tail.
  • White-necked Raven – Corvus albicollis = from Latin albus = white, and collum = neck.
  • Thick-billed Raven – Corvus crassirostris = from Latin crassus thick, heavy, and rostrum = bill.

Gulls 3

Great Black-backed GullFor non-birders, the fact that there is no such a bird as a sea-gull is sometimes hard to comprehend. Looking at the scientific names, Sea Gull is in fact Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus, from Latin mare = sea). However, proper sea-gulls are quite possibly just Sabine’s Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake, as they tend to be truly pelagic during the non-breeding season.

There is some fun to be had with gull names. Take, for instance, the next quartet of misnomers: Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Laughing Gull and Black-tailed Gull.

The specific epithet of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) refers to its black head (from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head), which would make it, literally, Black-headed Gull. At some point in the second half of the twentieth century the then-known Mediterranean Black-headed Gull had its ‘black-headed’ adjective dropped to avoid confusion with ‘Common’ Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). The latter’s scientific epithet (ridibundus) translates, generally, as ‘laughing’, i.e. Laughing Gull. However, Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) is a locally common New World species, whose scientific name refers not to laughing but to a black tail (from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail). Black-tailed Gull (Larus crassirostris), on the other hand, is a mainly Pacific species with a black tail in adult plumage; crassirostris, however, stems from Latin crassus (thick or heavy) and rostrum (bill), which would make this Thick-billed Gull.

Looking at the names of two of these species in a bit more detail, a few surprises appear.

Black-tailed Gull was first described by French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1818 as Larus crassirostris (Thick-billed Gull) and Goéland de Naugasaki (Nagasaki Gull) in French. Ten or 20 years later, it was Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck who named this gull Larus melanurus and Mouette queue noir (Black-tailed Gull) without any reference to Vieillot. Long known as Temminck’s Gull, it is from his description that the English name of Black-tailed Gull stems. A second name is widespread, Japanese Gull, although, perhaps not surpisingly, not in Japan.

  • Black-tailed Gull = Gaviota Colinegra (ES), Goéland à queue noire (FR), Gabbiano codanera (IT), Juodauodegis kiras (LT), Zwartstaartmeeuw (NL), Чайка чернохвостая (RU), Čajka čiernochvostá (SK), Svartstjärtad mås (SV), นกนางนวลหางดำ (TH), Mòng bể đuôi đen (VI), 黑尾鸥 (ZH).
  • Japanese Gull = Racek japonský (CS), Japanmåge (DA), Japanmöwe (DE), Jaapani kajakas (ET), Japaninlokki (FI), Japanmåke (NO), Mewa japońska (PL).
  • Sea Cat = ウミネコ (JA).

The description of Mediterranean Gull by Temminck can be found in his Manuel d’ornithologie as Larus melanocephalus and Mouette à capuchon noir, from a bird collected by Austrian naturalist Johann Natterer (who, like Temminck, has been blessed by various patronyms, such as Natterer’s Slaty Antshrike – Thamnophilus stictocephalus – and, more widely known, Natterer’s Bat – Myotis nattereri). Mediterranean Gull is mainly known around the Western Palearctic as Black-headed Gull, although Black-Sea Gull seems to be quite widespread – but not so much in languages around the Black Sea. It is known as Mediterranean Gull in Turkish, Ukranian and Welsh.

  • Mediterranean Gull = Gwylan Mor-y-Canoldir (CY), Akdeniz Martısı (TR), Мартин середземноморський (UK).
  • Black-headed Gull = Чорнагаловая чайка (BE), Малка черноглава чайка (BG), Racek černohlavý (CS), Sorthovedet måge (DA), Schwarzkopfmöwe (DE), Μαυροκέφαλος Γλάρος (EL),
    Gaviota Cabecinegra (ES), Mouette mélanocéphale (FR), שחף שחור-ראש (HE), Crnoglavi galeb (crnoglavi also means ‘pied’) (HR), Juodagalvis kiras (LT), Melngalvas kaija (LV), Zwartkopmeeuw (NL), Mewa czarnogłowa (PL), Чайка черноголовая (RU), Pulëbardha kokëzezë (SQ).
  • Black Sea Gull = Mustanmerenlokki (FI), Svartehavsmåke (NO), Gaivota-de-cabeça-preta (PT), Čajka čiernohlavá (SK), Svarthuvad mås (SV).

There are quite a few unique names for Mediterranean Gull:

  • Arabic: المتوسط, نورس البحر = Common Gull;
  • Estonian: Karbuskajakas = Hooded Gull;
  • Hungarian: Szerecsensirály = Saracen Gull;
  • Icelandic: Lónamáfur = Lagoon Gull;
  • Italian: Gabbiano corallino = Coral Gull, after its bill colour.

Black-headed Gull and Laughing Gull will be dealt with another time.

Gulls 2

Comparing English and scientific names can be confusing in gull species. The agreed classification for gulls at this point in time is to have four larger genera, and a set of smaller ones. The gulls that have been classified by the IOC on their World Bird List as non-single or non-dual genus species have been grouped into Chroicocephalus, Leucophaeus, Ichthyaetus and Larus.

Here is a list of generic and specific scientific names with their translations.

Chroicocephalus = coloured head; from Greek chroa = colour, and cephalus = head.

  • Slender-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus genei = Gené’s Gull – patronym for Italian naturalist Giuseppe Gené (1800–1847).
  • Bonaparte’s Gull – Chroicocephalus philadelphia = Philadelphia Gull – for Philadelphia, PA, USA.
  • Red-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus scopulinus = Cliff Gull – from Latin scopulus = cliff.
  • Silver Gull – Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae = Western-Australian Gull – name given to Western Australia by early Dutch explorers.
  • Black-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus bulleri = Buller’s Gull – patronym for New Zealand ornithologist Walter Lawry Buller (1838–1906).
  • Andean Gull – Chroicocephalus serranus = Mountain Gull – from Portuguese serra = mountain (range).
  • Brown-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus = from Latin brunneus = brown, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Brown-hooded Gull – Chroicocephalus maculipennis = Spotted-winged Gull – from Latin macula = spot and penna = wing.
  • Black-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus ridibundus = Laughing Gull – from Latin ridere = to laugh.
  • Grey-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus = from supposedly fake Latin cirrhus following Greek kirrhos = grey, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Hartlaub’s Gull – Chroicocephalus hartlaubii = patronym for German ornithologist Karl Johann Gustav Hartlaub (1814–1900).
  • Saunders’s Gull – Chroicocephalus saundersi = patronym for British ornithologist Howard Saunders (1835–1907), an authority on gulls.

Leucophaeus = brown and white – from Greek leucos = white and phaios = dusky.

  • Dolphin Gull – Leucophaeus scoresbii = Scorebi’s Gull – patronym for English Arctic scientist William Scoresby (1789–1857).
  • Lava Gull – Leucophaeus fuliginosus = Sooty Gull – from Latin fuligo = sooty.
  • Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla = Black-tailed Gull – from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail.
  • Franklin’s Gull – Leucophaeus pipixcan = pipixcan seems to be an Aztec word of unknown meaning.
  • Grey Gull – Leucophaeus modestus = Plain Gull – from Latin modestus = plain, modest.

Ichthyaetus = after syn. Larus ichthyaetus, Pallas’s Gull – from Greek ichthys fish and aetos eagle.

  • Relict Gull – Ichthyaetus relictus = from Latin relictus = relict.
  • Audouin’s Gull – Ichthyaetus audouinii = patronym for French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin (1797–1841).
  • Mediterranean Gull – Ichthyaetus melanocephalus = Black-headed Gull – from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head.
  • Pallas’s Gull – Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus = Fish-eagle Gull – from Greek ichthys = fish and aetos = eagle.
  • White-eyed Gull – Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus = from Greek leukos = white and ophthalmos = eye.
  • Sooty Gull – Ichthyaetus hemprichii = Hemprich’s Gull – patronym for German naturalist Friedrich Wilhelm Hemprich (1796–1825).

Larus = from Greek laros = gull or other seabird.

Herring Gull

  • Pacific Gull – Larus pacificus = for Pacific Ocean.
  • Belcher’s Gull – Larus belcheri = patronym for British naval explorer Edward Belcher (1799–1877).
  • Olrog’s Gull – Larus atlanticus = for Atlantic Ocean.
  • Black-tailed Gull – Larus crassirostris = Thick-billed Gull – from Latin crassus = thick or heavy, and rostrum = bill.
  • Heermann’s Gull – Larus heermanni = patronym for US field naturalist Adolphus Lewis Heermann (1827–1865).
  • Mew Gull – Larus canus = Grey Gull – from Latin canus = grey.
  • Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis = for Delaware River, USA.
  • California Gull – Larus californicus = for California, USA.
  • Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus = Sea Gull – from Latin mare = sea.
  • Kelp Gull – Larus dominicanus = Dominican Gull – for black and white habits or robes of the Dominican Order.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull – Larus glaucescens = Blue-grey Gull – from Latin glaucescens = somewhat glaucous, bluish-grey.
  • Western Gull – Larus occidentalis = from Latin occidens = west.
  • Yellow-footed Gull – Larus livens = Bluish Gull – from Latin livens = bluish.
  • Glaucous Gull – Larus hyperboreus = Northern Gull – from Latin hyperboreus after Greek hyperborea = northern.
  • Iceland Gull – Larus glaucoides = Glaucus-like Gull – from Larus glaucus (syn. Larus hyperboreus = Glaucous Gull) and Greek oides = resembling.
  • Thayer’s Gull – Larus thayeri = patronym for US ornithologist John Eliot Thayer (1862–1933).
  • European Herring Gull – Larus argentatus = Silver Gull – from Latin argentatus = ornamented with silver.
  • American Herring Gull – Larus smithsonianus = patronym for British mineralogist and chemist James Smithson (1765–1829).
  • Vega Gull – Larus vegae = named for exploration vessel Vega used by Finnish Artcic explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjøld (1832–1901).
  • Caspian Gull – Larus cachinnans = Laughing Gull – from Latin cachinnare = laughing loudly.
  • Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis = misspelling of michahelles, patronym for German zoologist Karl Michahelles (1807–1834)
  • Armenian Gull – Larus armenicus = for Armenia.
  • Slaty-backed Gull – Larus schistisagus = from Latin schistus = slate, and sagus = cloak.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull = Larus fuscus = Dark Gull – from Latin fuscus = dark, swarthy.

Robin 2

Novitates ZoologicaeGerman ornithologist Ernst Hartert (1858–1933) was the first to describe the subspecies of Robin present in the British Isles (Erithacus rubecula melophilus). The German description appeared in the 1901 issue of the zoological journal of the Tring Museum (now the Natural History Museum at Tring) in London, Novitates Zoologicae, vol. VIII, p. 317.

Hartert was a master of systematic ornithology, with particular detail for subspecific features. He travelled far and wide to collect birds in the late nineteenth century and wrote extensively for various publications, such as Novitates Zoologicae, Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, Ibis, Journal für Ornithologie, Genera Avium. An elected member of the BOU since 1893, he published the second version of the British List in 1915. His magnum opus, Die Vogel der paläarktischen Fauna, was published in three volumes between 1910 and 1922. It is a highly descriptive work, shorter than Johann Friedrich Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands, still as impressive. Both titles are precursors to Urs Glutz von Blotzheim’s Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas and Stanley Cramp’s Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic, which were published in the late twentieth century.

Hartert’s description of the British Robin is part of a larger account of his journeys through ‘Africa, Asia and America’. In a chapter about the breeding birds of the Canary Islands, a large section is devoted to Robins, with most space devoted to Tenerif Robin (E.r. superbus). The debate at the time was whether this subspecies was different from the ones found in the British Isles and the nominate form.

The following is an English translation of the original German text.

Erithacus rubecula melophilus subsp. nov.
Differs from [E. r. rubecula] by deeper, russet upper parts, particularly obvious on the rump and uppertail coverts, and by a much darker, rusty throat in fresh plumage. The flanks are a deeper colour and there is more extensive brown, resulting in less white coloration on the belly; the undertail coverts are light rusty. The song is very well developed. This form is an indefatigable singer, especially during the ‘autumnal song’, which is sung with perseverance and much fire. Starting in September, it is already in full song by October. It has a preference for sitting on the roofs of buildings and on fences, and belts out its delightful song into the autumnal air. In general, it does not reside solely in forests and woods but occupies also gardens and likes the vicinity of houses. The nest is often placed in a higher spot, and can be found against buildings, in haystacks, in ivy against walls and tree trunks, in open tree holes, even in greenhouses, and to a lesser extend in unused barns, if it can enter through an open window. It is one of the commonest birds in England, and very much loved by the population, known and loved by everyone, and to which no one wants to bring harm. It plays a widespread role in poetry and nursery rhymes. Because of its conspicuous love of singing, I have attached the above-mentioned name.
Breeding area: To my knowledge only the British Isles.
I do not know the Andalusian specimen mentioned by Tristam.
At times the throats of older birds are so dark that they resemble closely the Canary Islands superbus, but they can always be identified by other features when the throat colour does not suffice.
Ernst Hartert, ‘Aus den Wanderjaheren eines Naturforschers. Reisen und Forschungen in Afrika, Asien und Amerika’, Novitates Zoologicae, VIII (1901), 221–355, 383–393 at 317.

Robin 1

RobinIt’s coming on Christmas, and there will be Robins everywhere. Cards decorated with this chat in snow, in trees, in Holly, will grace many a room and mantelpiece.

Robin taxonomy is fuzzy and in flux. Current debate seems to focus on the Western-Palearctic, European Robin belonging to an African-based subfamily named Cossyphinae, part of the larger Old-World Flycatchers family of Muscicapidae. The other two species traditionally grouped into the Erithacus genus, Japanese Robin E. akahige and Ryukyu Robin E. komadori, might well become part of a different genus. John Boyd summarizes the debate openly and with erudition. Time will tell what and where these birds will be and end up.

Robin morphology is seemingly clinal. The orange-red frontal colour features most prominently in names across the Western Palearctic.

Scientific name:
genus: Erithacus, from εριθακος – an unidentified bird, later assigned to Robin;
species: rubecula – red breast.

Linnaeus described Robins first in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae as Motacilla Erithacus, where Motacilla stems from Greek μύττηξ (myttēx) an unidentified bird mentioned by Hesychius in his lexicon. Erithacus is first mentioned by Aristotle in his History of Animals, where he describes Robins as the ‘winter version’ of Redstarts, birds that appear as Robins in winter and as Redstarts in summer – a misidentification of migration, as Redstarts would migrate south at about the same time when Robins would move in from the north.

Zoonomen recognizes 8 subspecies, differentiating them geographically (caucasicus = Kaukasus, Trans-Kaukasus, west of Caspian Sea; hyrcanus = referring to Caspian Sea (Mare Hyrcanus), North Iran, distr. south of Caspian Sea; tataricus = West Siberian lowlands, east of Caspian Sea), descriptive (nominate = red breast; microrhynchos = small bill; superbus = splendid, referring to the darkest breast colour; valens = powerful, the largest subspecies, Crimean subcontinent), and patronymical (witherbyi = Harry Witherby, English ornithologist).

The only reference to the song is in the subspecies breeding in the British Isles, where E. r. melophilus = song-loving redbreast, so named by German ornithologist Ernst Hartert.

Further references to the colour red:

  • Red breast: roodborst (NL), readboarstke (FY), brongoch (CY), petirrojo europeo (ES), pettirosso europeo (IT), אדום החזה (HE), mалиновка (RU), punarinta (FI), glóbrystingur (IS).
  • Red throat: Rotkehlchen (DE), rougegorge (FR), kοκκινολαίμης (EL).
  • Red crop: Vörösbegy (HU), guşă-roşie (RO), rödhake (red chin) (SV).

An interesting name is the Portuguese pisco-de-peito-ruivo, as here redbreast is an adjective to pisco, a name used for a number of old-world chats such as robins, bluethroats, robin-chats, alethes. But there are exceptions to this naming tradition.

  • Czech: červenka = ruddock (červenka -ka diminutive suffix, červený relates to ruddy).
  • Slovak: červienka.
  • Polish: rudzin = ruddock rudz (-in seems to be a diminutive suffix).

These West-Slavic languages refer to older, probably more widespread names, which are etymologically related to the English naming tradition of Robin. ‘Robin’ is a fairly recent invention. In 1100 the bird was called ruddock (rudduc, Old English), where rud(d) = red and -ock a suffix; by 1401 it was recorded as redbreast (Middle English).

Ruddock remains in use locally. Robin is first recorded in combination with redbreast in the first half of the fifteenth century as robyn redbreast, a bit of alliterative fun. Whether robin is a diminutive of Robert or was transferred from Frisian robyntsje (which actually denotes Linnet) is unclear. Robin and Redbreast existed as names alongside each other until the late-nineteenth century, by which time Redbreast became less used and Robin became the established name. The first, 1883 BOU British List still carried Redbreast; by the second British List of 1915, it had been replaced by Robin.

Anagrammatic naughtiness

anagramsAfter the strict scientific naming revolution of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century gave way to a bit more word-play. Anagrams, for example, became one way of lightening the mood and of stretching an existing scientific name into related species groups.

An example can be found in two kingfisher anagrams. Both Lacedo (L. pulchella, Banded Kingfisher) and Dacelo (kookaburras, e.g. D. leachii, Blue-winged Kookaburra) are anagrams of the Alcedo generic epithet. Other existing examples are the single-species genera Nilaus (African bushshrike Brubru, Nilaus afer) after Lanius shrikes and Tabara (Latin America’s Great Antshrike, Tabara major) after Batara (Giant Antshrike, Batara cinerea).

A further two generic names look like anagrams but are most likely unintended. Purnella, although seemingly an anagram of Prunella, is actually a patronym in honour of Australian naturalist Herbert A. Purnell. Cape Petrel (Daption capense) was given its generic name from the Greek daptes, little devourer, by James Francis Stephens, an English entomologist. Incidentally, it is also an anagram of the Portuguese name for Cape Petrel, pintado, for painted bird, although unintended.

And then there is the house martin epithet. The three species within the Delichon genus are blessed with an anagram of Chelidon, from Greek χελιδών, swallow. The first person to come up with this genius little word-play was one Frederic Moore, an English entomologist working as assistant curator for the museum of the East India Company. A specimen of a new species of Indian swallow had been taken to Moore by Brian Houghton Hodgson, naturalist and anthropologist, who has been homaged by many patronyms and described some 79 bird species (and discovered 39 species of mammals and 124 species of birds). Since Moore described the hirundine species, his name has been attached to the new genus. Although first published in the 1854 Catalogue of the Birds in the Museum of the Hon. East-India Company by Thomas Horsfield and Frederic Moore, it was intended to appear in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London first but was delayed. The notice in the Proceedings starts:

‘The subject that I beg to lay before the Meeting this evening, is a new form belonging to the family Hirundinidæ, lately collected in Nepal and presented to the Museum of the East India Company by B.H. Hodgson, Esq., which is allied to, but certainly distinct from, the genus Chelidon, and for which the following anagrammatic name is proposed. Delichon (nov. gen.).’

The establishment was not amused. Word-play in general had been condemned as early as 1842 by a Committee appointed ‘to consider the rules by which the nomenclature of Zoology may be established on a uniform and permanent basis’. It had appointed 13 members, among whom was Charles Darwin. Under the heading ‘Nonsense names’, which includes anagrams, the Committee states:

‘Such verbal trifling as this is in very bad taste, and is especially calculated to bring the science into contempt. It finds no precedent in the Augustan age of Latin, but can be compared only to the puerile quibblings of the middle ages. It is contrary to the genius of all languages, which appear never to produce new words by spontaneous generation, but always to derive them from some other source, however distant or obscure. And it is peculiarly annoying to the etymologist, who after seeking in vain through the vast storehouses of human language for the parentage of such words, discovers at last that he has been pursuing an ignis fatuus.’
H.E. Strickland et al., Report of the Twelfth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1842 (London: John Murray, 1843).

Many anagrams have since disappeared and only exist in the shadow-world of synonyms.

Great (White) Egret

Great White EgretIn a recent query on the Glamorgan Rarities Committee blog regarding Great (White) Egret, John Wilson asked whether Great White Egret should be down in the East Glamorgan Bird Report as Casmerodius albus, following the Collins guide, or as Ardea alba, following the BOU list. Both the BOU and the AOU have been convinced by DNA findings going back to the 1970s that Great White Egret belongs in Ardea, with all the larger herons, thus making Casmerodius albus obsolete.

That seems straightforward. Now for the confusion parts. The British English name for this heron is Great White Egret, whereas the international English name is Great Egret. Dutch Birding Association lists as the English name Western Great Egret, due to their recognition of the split from Eastern Great Egret in the Antipodes. (They do list Western Great Egret as Casmerodius albus though.) The IOC World Bird List has gone back to Great Egret Ardea alba since a relump with A. modesta. Further, there are some who call Great Egret Egretta alba, such as the Swedish Sveriges Ornitologiska Förening.

It does look like Great White Egret is prone to confusion. This is confirmed by the Association of European Record and Rarities Committees, who asked for clarification of placement in an earlier taxonomic recommendation document. Without quoting the entry verbatim, it seems that there are differences of opinion within the taxonomic subcommittee of the AERC. The BOU seems to be content about positioning Great White Egret in Ardea. The Dutch Commissie Systematiek Nederlandse Avifauna and the French Commission de l’Avifaune Française seem less satisfied with this conclusion. They follow the line that Great White Egret takes up a place half-way between herons Ardea and egrets Egretta. Because Great White Egret is not the only species to be in this position (Intermediate Egret and Cattle Egret are the other two species), they deem it better to place GWE in a separate genus Casmerodius until relationships between the various species have been clarified. Although the AERC seems to support the latter position, the Swedish SOF supports the status quo of Egretta alba.

Taking the three names, the language is not particularly dazzling. All three species names refer to the colour white of the bird (albus/alba). The genera are a bit more interesting:

  • Ardea = Latin for heron;
  • Casmerodius = contraption of Greek khasios, treasure, and erōdios, heron – referring to the value of the display feathers;
  • Egretta = from French aigrette, egret.

Heron and egret are related, egret being a small heron – from French aigrette being a diminuitive of aigron. Most European languages follow patterns into similar definitions.

There are references to the colour white: volavka bílá (CS), mjallhegri (IS), airone bianco maggiore (IT) – white heron; czapla biała (PL), garça-branca-grande (PT) – great white heron.
In addition, the adjective silver relates to the colour white (silver white, bright white) not to any valuable assets: sølvhejre (DA), Silberreiher (DE), egretthegre (NO), ägretthäger (SV) – silver heron; grote zilverreiger (NL) – great silver heron.
Further, great egrets are so named in Spanish (garceta grande) and French (grande aigrette), with Greek silver egret (αργυροτσικνιάς).

The odd one out here is the Finnish jalohaikara, noble heron. The nobility element refers to the egret’s elegance, but haikara refers to more birds than just herons (including bitterns and night herons). Storks (e.g. katohaikara – White Stork) and spoonbills (e.g. kapustahaikara, Eurasian Spoonbill) are named haikara too. This could be a result from it having a very long etymology, from possible pre-Germanic haigara or even pre-Proto Germanic kraikr, an onomatopœic representation of the harsh calls.

Gulls 1

Of the 54 gull species on the IOC world list, 24 are Larus gulls, 12 are Chroicocephalus, 5 Leucophaeus, 6 Ichthyaetus; the remaining 7 are single or dual species genera. The latter’s names are not always what they make out to be.

Pagophila eburnea = sea-ice loving ivory-coloured bird (Ivory Gull)
Generally, this gull is graced with the adjectives ivory (English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese), white (French), or ice (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic). It was first described as Larus Eburneus by British explorer Constantine Phipps in his 1774 A Voyage towards the North Pole. Subsequently, German naturalist Johann Jacob Kaup separated Ivory Gull from Larus and placed it in the monotypic genus Pagophila.

Xema sabini = Xema is a made-up name, sabini is a patronym (Sabine’s Gull)
Irish scientist Edward Sabine is often honored in this gull’s name (Norwegian, Czech, French, Spanish). Other European languages seem to refer to the forked tail and (more general) tern-like characteristics (Finnish, German, Dutch, Icelandic). Mysteriously elusive is the Polish ‘mewa obrożna’, plover gull.

Creagrus furcatus = hooked fork bird (Swallow-tailed Gull)
In most languages, reference is made in the name to the forked or scissor-like or swallow-like tail. One, rather obscure, exception is the Finnish ‘yölokki’, night gull.

KittiwakeRissa tridactyla = three-toed kittiwake (Black-legged Kittiwake)
Famous for its three toes, it is thus named three-toed gull or three-toed kittiwake, apart from in Nordic languages (sans Swedish):

  • Icelandic: rita = onomatopœia? (the origin of the scientific genus);
  • Danish: ride = from Icelandic rita;
  • Faroese: rita = from Icelandic rita;
  • Norwegian: krykkje = onomatopœia?
  • Finnish: pikkukajava = little kittiwake (kajava is also an old Finnish word for gull);
  • North Sami: skierru = onomatopœia?

Rissa brevirostris = short-billed kittiwake (Red-legged Kittiwake)
Spanish and West Slavic languages follow the scientific (short-billed gull: gaviota piquicorta – ES; racek krátkozobý – CS), but it is generally referred to as red-legged gull/kittiwake, except e.g. in Swedish (Beringmås = Bering gull), German (Klippenmöwe = cliff gull), French (mouette des brumes = misty gull).

Hydrocoloeus minutus = small web-footed water bird (Little Gull)
It doesn’t look like any language refers to the webbed features of the Little Gull’s feet – generally, the adjective to ‘gull’ refers to ‘little’ or ‘least’ or ‘pygmy’, as in minutus.

Rhodostethia rosea = rose-breasted bird (Ross’s Gull)
The scientific name is essentially a partial tautology, a combination of the Greek rhodon, rose (with stēthos breast), and the Latin rosea, rose-coloured. Incidentally, the patronym is only used in English and Dutch, other languages follow the scientific and refer to colour. It was Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray who first described this gull as Larus roseus in 1824. MacGillivray was very interested in taxonomy and the distinctions between species, and assigned this gull to its own monotypic genus Rhodostethia in 1842. James Clark Ross was an explorer of both the Arctic and the Antarctic and has had Ross Seal named after him as well.

Plant and Bird Names

There are quite a few examples of scientific names stretching across plants and animals (hemihomonyms). Most of the animals in question are insects and invertebrates, though some are fish, and occasionally mammals (Nelsonia) and birds (Archboldia, Leptosomus).

DunnockIn the Western Palearctic, we are blessed with two bird/plant hemihomonymic genera. Prunella can refer to either accentors (birds, e.g. P. modularis, Dunnock) or self-heals (plants, e.g. P. vulgaris, Common Self-heal). Similarly, Oenanthe can refer to wheatears (birds, e.g. O. oenanthe, Northern Wheatear) or water dropworts (plants, e.g. O. crocata, Hemlock Water Dropwort).

The origin of Prunella (plant) is uncertain, though most likely derived from Latin prunum (plum), thus transposing the colour of red plums to the flowers/petals. Prunella (bird) is first mentioned in Gessner’s 1555 Historiae animalium liber III qui est de Avium natura – the scientific term seems to be a Latinization of the German Braunelle (Dunnock).

Oenanthe‘s etymology is straightforward: it is a combination of the Greek oinos (wine) and anthos (flower). Its interpretation when applied to birds or plants is different though. The plant name is interpreted as scent: the flowers of water dropworts have a wine-like smell. The bird name is supposedly first mentioned as oinanthe in Aristotle’s History of Animals, although unidentified; it was thought to appear in the vintage season (Horace) when the dogstar appears (Aristotle), probably in the vicinity of vineyards.

Apart from these scientific hemihomonyms, an English-language species name is applied to two (related) birds and two plants in the British Isles. Redshank is generally used to refer to a bird with red legs (Tringa totanus, Common Redshank, and Tringa erythropus, Spotted Redshank), a plant with red stems (Persicaria maculosa) and a moss with red stems (Ceratodon purpureus). Incidentally, only the scientific name of the moss refers laterally to the colour red (in purpureus), with no reference to the shanks.

Marmora’s Warbler

Marmora's WarblerThe Marmora’s Warbler found near the Blorenge, Gwent, 3 June, is the latest in a series of megastar birds to hit the British Isles in the past weeks. If accepted it will be the fifth record for Britain and the first for Wales. A resident or short-distance migrant of Sardinia, Corsica and the western Italian islands, it is remarkable that this bird has arrived here. As it is a second calendar male, it is more understandable that it has overshot its migration course, most probably due to a lack of experience.

This is a species with a curious linguistic geography. First described by Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck on Sardinia in 1820 as Sylvia sarda, where Sylvia means ‘inhabitor of the woods’ (in this case, ‘wood warbler’) and sarda refers to Sardinia. The species is known in almost every European language as Sardinian warbler. Avibase lists 20 languages in which this is the case. The exceptions are:

  • English: Marmora’s Warbler;
  • Estonian: Vahemere-põõsalind = Mediterranean warbler;
  • Greek: Μολυβοτσιροβάκος = pencil warbler;
  • Hebrew: סבכי כהה = dark warbler;
  • Icelandic: Eysöngvari = island warbler;
  • Maltese: Bufula Griża = grey warbler;
  • Slovenian: otoška penica = island warbler;
  • Welsh: Telor Marmora = Marmora’s warbler.

A varied list, though colour and geography seem to dominate as adjectives. In English (and in its translation into Welsh) the bird is described through a patronym, in honour of Italian naturalist Alberto Ferrera La Marmora, who had associations with Francesco Cetti and Franco Andrea Bonelli, both of whom have been homaged by eponyms and patronyms.

The recently split Balearic Warbler, Sylvia balearica, has a range restricted to, indeed, the Balearics (excl. Menorca). Described by Jordans in Mallorca, in 1913, it was considered subspecific to Marmora’s Warbler for decades. Not so surprisingly since its recent split and restricted range, it is known in many European languages as Balearic warbler; apart from in Catalan, the language spoken in the Balearics, where it is known as Busqueret coallarge, i.e. long-tailed warbler. As Balearic Warbler is the only species within the longer-tailed clade of the genus Sylvia to occur within the Balearics, its Catalan name does make sense.