Wren 1

WrenDuring a long stretch of the twentieth century the widespread, Holarctic, (Winter) Wren was considered to be one species comprising various forms, collectively named Troglodytes troglodytes. An extensive species, it was divided into subgenera (such as Anorthura and Olbiorchilus) to deal with the diversity, demoted to subspecies rank since. (Anorthura = cocked tail bird – anorthos (ανορθos) = erect, oura (ούρά) = tail; Olbiorchilus = happy wren – Greek olbios = happy, orkhilus = wren.) The latest taxonomic shift seems to be towards three species, for which an old genus has been revived, Nannus (from Greek nannos = dwarf). The species are Nannus troglodytes, Nannus pacificus and Nannus hiemalis. Here I will have a look at their subspecific names, most of which relate to regions and persons although some diverge from this.

Eurasian Wren, Nannus troglodytes = cave-dwelling dwarf – nannus = dwarf, from Greek nannos, troglodytes = cave dweller, from Greek trōglodutēs – described by Linneaus as Motacilla Troglodytes in the 1758 edition of his Systema naturae10 (Holmiae: Impensis Laurentii Salvii, 1758) p. 188.

Winter Wren = Nannus hiemalishiemalis from Latin hiems = winter – described by Louis J.P. Vieillot as Troglodytes hiemalis, Troglodyte d’hiver, in Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle vol. 34 (1819) p. 514.

  • N.h. hiemalis = Winter Wren – nominate form – ascribed to Louis J.P. Vieillot for his description of the protonym Troglodytes hiemalis, above – range: east Canada, north-east USA;
  • N.h. pullus = Blackish Wren – from Latin pullus = dark-coloured, blackish – described by Thomas D. Burleigh as Nannus hiemalis pullus, Southern Winter Wren, in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington vol. 48 (1935) pp. 61–62 – range: mountains of West Virginia to Georgia (east-central USA).

Pacific Wren = Nannus pacificus – described by American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird as Troglodytes hyemalis var. pacificus in Review of American birds in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1864) p. 145–146.

  • N.p. alascensis = Alaska Wren – for Alaska – described by American naturalist Spencer F. Baird as Troglodytes alascensis in Transactions of the Chicago Academy of Sciences vol. 1, pt. 2 (1869) p. 315 – range: Pribilof Islands (south-west of Alaska);
  • N.p. helleri = Heller’s Wren – patronym for American zoologist Edmund Heller – Heller collected the initial five specimen with Wilfred H. Osgood, who described it as Anorthura hiemalis helleri, Kadiak Winter Wren, in Auk vol. 18 (1901), p. 181–182 – range: Kodiak and Afognak Islands (south of Alaskan Peninsula);
  • N.p. kiskensis = Kiska Wren – for Kiska – described by American ornithologist Harry C. Oberholser as Nannus troglodites kiskensis in Proceedings of the United States National Museum vol. 55 (1920) pp. 228–229, range: west Aleutian Islands;
  • N.p. meligerus = Melodious Wren – from Greek meligērus = melodious, sweet-voiced – described by American ornithologist Harry C. Oberholser as Anothura meligera in Auk vol. 17 (1900), pp. 25–26 – range: western-most Aleutian Islands;
  • N.p. muiri = Muir’s Wren – patronym for Scottish-American naturalist and preservationist John Muir – described by Amadeo M. Rea as Troglodytes troglodytes muiri, Muir’s Winter Wren, in Allan R. Phillips, The Known Birds of North and Middle America: Distribution and Variation, Migrations, Changes, Hybrids, etc.: Part I Hirundinidae to Mimidae, Certhiidae (Denver, CO: Denver Museum of Natural History, 1986), p. 140 – range: south-west Oregon to central California (west USA);
  • N.p. obscurior; = Dark Wren – from Latin obscurus = dark – described by Amadeo M. Rea as Troglodytes troglodytes obscurior, Central California Winter Wren, in Allan R. Phillips, The Known Birds of North and Middle America: Distribution and Variation, Migrations, Changes, Hybrids, etc.: Part I Hirundinidae to Mimidae, Certhiidae (Denver, CO: Denver Museum of Natural History, 1986), p. 140 – range: interior west USA, also coastal central California (west USA);
  • N.p. ochroleucus = Yellow-white Wren – from Greek ōkhros = yellow-ochre, leukos = white – described by Amadeo M. Rea as Troglodytes troglodytes ochroleucus in Allan R. Phillips, The Known Birds of North and Middle America: Distribution and Variation, Migrations, Changes, Hybrids, etc.: Part I Hirundinidae to Mimidae, Certhiidae (Denver, CO: Denver Museum of Natural History, 1986), p. 138 – range: islands south of Alaskan Peninsula;
  • N.p. pacificus = Pacific Wren – nominate form – ascribed to American naturalist Spencer F. Baird for his description of the protonym Troglodytes hyemalis var. pacificus, above – range: south-east Alaska, west Canada, north-west USA;
  • N.p. petrophilus = Rock-loving Wren – from Greek petros = rock, philos = loving – described by American ornithologist Harry C. Oberholser as Nannus troglodites petrophilus in Proceedings of the United States National Museum vol. 55 (1920) pp. 232–233 – range: Unalaska (east Aleutians);
  • N.p. salebrosus = Rough Wren – from Latin salebrosus = rough, rugged – described by Thomas D. Burleigh as Troglodytes troglodytes salebrosus in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington vol. 72 (1959) pp. 16–17 – range: interior north-west USA and south-west Canada;
  • N.p. seguamensis – Seguam Wren – for Seguam Island – described by American naturalist Ira N. Gabrielson and Frederick C. Lincoln as Troglodytes troglodytes seguamensis, Seguam Winter Wren, in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington vol. 64 (1951) p. 73 – range: central Aleutians;
  • N.p. semidiensis = Semidi Wren – for the Semidi Islands – described by Winthrop S. Brooks as Nannus hiemalis semidiensis, Semidi Winter Wren, in Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, in Cambridge vol. 59 (1915) p. 400 – range: Semidi Islands (south of Alaskan Peninsula);
  • N.p. stevensoni = Stevenson’s Wren – patronym for Donald H. Stevenson who collected specimen with O.J. Murie – described by American ornithologist Harry C. Oberholser in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington vol. 43 (1930) pp. 151–152 – range: Alaskan Peninsula (south-west Alaska);
  • N.p. tanagensis = Tanaga Wren – for Tanaga Island – described by American ornithologist Harry C. Oberholser as Nannus troglodites petrophilus in Proceedings of the United States National Museum vol. 55 (1920) pp. 230–231 – range: west-central Aleutian Islands.


GoldcrestSix species of kinglets occupy the northern hemisphere. The name kinglet is related to a story told in Pliny the Elder‘s Naturalis Historia in which a contest is held between birds where the one that could fly highest would be made king. The eagle was the bird that flew the highest, until a small bird ejected from its feathers and flew even higher. It is contested whether this was a wren or a kinglet, but as the highest flyer would become the king of birds it is thought to be a kinglet, the name being the diminuitive of king. Also, since kinglets are blessed with a striking crown they were thought to be the kings of birds, again kinglet referring to their diminutive stature. Regulus is derived from Latin rex = king, and -ulus = diminutive suffix.

  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula = Glowing Kinglet – calendula = glowing, from caleo = to glow, to be warm;
  • Common Firecrest – Regulus ignicapilla = Fire-capped Kinglet – from Latin ignis = fire, and -capilus = capped;
  • Madeira Firecrest – Regulus madeirensis = Madeira Kinglet – for Madeira;
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet – Regulus satrapa = Governor Kinglet – from Old Persian šaθrapāvan = protector of the province, via Greek σατράπης (satrápēs);
  • Flamecrest – Regulus goodfellowi = Goodfellow’s Kinglet – for English ornithologist Walter Goodfellow;
  • Goldcrest – Regulus regulus = Kinglet – tautonym of regulus.

Since the introduction of the binomial system, Regulus regulus has had a variety of names, including Motacilla Regulus (Linnaeus), Sylvia Regulus (Pennant), Regulus cristatus (Dresser), Regulus flavicapillus (Naumann) Regulus auricapillus (Meyer) and Regulus vulgaris (Olphe-Galliard), with Regulus always part of the binomial. French naturalist George Cuvier was the first to use it as a genus in his 1800 Leçons d’anatomie comparée, and Linnaeus the first to use it as a specific in his 1758 Systema Naturae10, creating the protonym Motacilla Regulus. Austrian ornithologist C.H. Othmar Reiser seems to have been the first to put the two together as Regulus regulus in his 1894 Ornis Balcanica.

For centuries Goldcrest was known under an adjectival moniker. It was already featured in John Ray‘s Ornithologiæ libri tres, edited mainly from notes by Francis Willughby and published in 1676, where it possibly gets the first mention in the English language, as ‘golden-crown’d Wren’. The golden crest or crown has featured as part of the name for a long time. It has been described as Golden Crested Warbler, Golden Crested Wren, Golden Crowned Wren, Golden Crested Regulus. Goldcrest must have been a synonym used more widely, though only by the mid-twentieth century was it used as an official name. Even Ernst Hartert and colleagues still talk about Golden-crested Wren in the 1912 Hand-List of British Birds. It wasn’t until Harry Forbes Witherby‘s 1941 Check-list of British Birds that the shortened Goldcrest was used officially. Of the earlier ornithologists only Henry Seebohm used Goldcrest in his 1883 History of British Birds.


  • IS: Glókollur = shiny crown – glóa = shining, kollr = crown;
  • NO: Fuglekonge = kingbird – fugle = bird, konge = king;
  • SV: Kungsfågel = kingbird – kung = king, fågel = bird;
  • DA: Fuglekonge = kingbird – fugle = bird, konge = king;
  • NL: Goudhaan(tje) = (little) golden-rooster – goud = gold, haan = cockerel, rooster, -tje = diminutive suffix;
  • FY: Goudtúfke = gold-tuft – goud = gold, túfe = crest, -ke = diminutive suffix;
  • DE: Wintergoldhänchen = winter little golden-rooster – winter = winter, gold = gold, hahn = cockerel, rooster, -chen = diminutive suffix.


  • BR: Dreolan kabell aour = gold-capped wren – dreolan = wren, kabell = hat, aour = gold;
  • CY: Dryw eurben = gold-crested wren – dryw = wren, aur = gold, ben = top, head;
  • GA: Cíorbhuí = yellowcrest – cíor = crest, buí = yellow;
  • GD: Crìonag bhuidhe = yellowcrest (?) – crìon perhaps from cìrean = crest, -ach = suffix, buidhe = yellow.


  • FI: Hippiäinen = little mitre – hiippa = mitre, -iäinen = (double) diminutive suffix;
  • ET: Pöialpoiss = Tom Thumb – pöial = thumb, poiss = boy;
  • HU: Sárgafejű királyka = yellow-headed kinglet – sárga = yellow, fejű = head, király = king, -ka = diminutive suffix.


  • LT: Nykštukas = Tom Thumb – nykšti = thumb, -ukas = diminutive suffix;
  • LV: Zeltgalvītis = little golden-head – zelts = gold, galv = head, -ītis = diminutive suffix.


  • RU: Желтоголовый королёк = yellow-headed kinglet – жёлтый = yellow, голова = head, король = king, -ёк = diminutive suffix;
  • PL: Mysikrólik = mousy kinglet – mysi = mouse or mouse grey, król = king, -ik = diminutive suffix;
  • BE: Жоўтагаловы каралёк = yellow-headed kinglet – жоўта = yellow, галовы = head, кароль = king, -ёк = diminutive suffix;
  • UK: Золотомушка жовточуба = yellow-crowned golden speckle – золото = gold, мушка = speckle, dot, жовтий = yellow, чуб = crown, = suffix;
  • CS: Králíček obecný = common kinglet – král = king, -íček = diminutive suffix, obecný = general;
  • SK: Králik zlatohlavý = golden-headed kinglet – král = king, -ik = diminutive suffix, zlato = gold, hlava = head;
  • SL: Rumenoglávi kraljiček = yellow-headed kinglet – rumeno = yellow, glava = head, kralj = king, -iček = diminutive suffix;
  • HR: Zlatoglavi kraljić = golden-headed kinglet – zlato = gold, glavi = head, kralj = king, -ić = diminutive suffix;
  • BG: Жълтоглаво кралче = yellow-headed kinglet – жълто = yellow, глава = head, крал = king, -че = diminutive suffix.


  • FR: Roitelet huppé = crested kinglet – roi = king, -(el)et = (double) diminutive suffix, huppé = crested;
  • IT: Regolo = kinglet – re = king, g = interfix, -olo = diminutive suffix;
  • RO: Aușel nordic = tiny northern bird – aușel = tiny bird (likely from Latin avus contracted to au with -uș diminutive suffix, -el = diminutive suffix), nordic = northern;
  • PT: Estrelinha-de-poupa = crested little star – estrela = star, -inha = diminutive suffix, poupa = crested;
  • ES: Reyezuelo sencillo = plain kinglet – rey = king, -ezuelo = diminutive suffix, sencillo = simple, plain.


  • SQ: Mbretëthi = kingbird – mbret = king, ë = evanescent letter, -thi = article.


  • Χρυσοβασιλίσκος = golden kinglet – χρυσο- = golden (prefix), βασιλιάς = king, -σκος = diminutive suffix.

FirecrestFirecrest has undergone a similar journey to Goldcrest, being the generally less common sister species. The only languages where the name is unrelated to Goldcrest are Polish (reference to candle, torch) and Italian (reference to flower).

  • IS: Gullkollur = golden crown – gull = gold, kollr = crown;
  • NO: Rødtoppfuglekonge = red-crowned kingbird – rød = red, topp = peak, summit, fugle = bird, konge = king;
  • SV: Brandkronad kungsfågel = fire-crowned kingbird – brand = fire, kronad = crowned, kung = king, fågel = bird)
  • DA: Rødtoppet fuglekonge = red-crowned kingbird – rød = red, toppet = peak, fugle = bird, konge = king;
  • NL: Vuurgoudhaan(tje) = fire golden-rooster – vuur = fire, goud = gold, haan = cockerel, rooster, -tje = diminutive suffix;
  • FY: Fjoertúfke = fire-tuft – fjoer = fire, túf = tuft, -ke = diminutive suffix;
  • DE: Sommergoldhähnchen = summer golden-rooster – sommer = summer, gold = gold, hahn = cockerel, rooster, -chen = diminutive suffix;
  • ET: Lääne-pöialpoiss = Western Tom Thumb – lääne = western, pöial = thumb, poiss = boy;
  • FI: Tulipäähippiäinen = fire-headed little mitre – tuli = fire, pää = head, hiippa = mitre, -iäinen = (double) diminutive suffix;
  • HU: Tüzesfejű királyka = fire-headed kinglet – tüze = fire, fejű = head, király = king, -ka = diminutive suffix;
  • SQ: Mbretëthi vetullbardhë = white-eyebrowed kingbird – vetull = eyebrow, bardhë = white, mbret = king, ë = evanescent letter, -thi = article;
  • RU: Красноголовый королёк = red-headed kinglet – kрасный = red, голова = head, король = king, -ёк = diminutive suffix;
  • PL: Zniczek = little torch – znicz = candle, torch, -ek = diminutive suffix;
  • CS: Králícek ohnivý = fiery kinglet – král = king, -íček = diminutive suffix, ohnivý = fiery;
  • SK: Králik ohnivohlavý = fire-headed kinglet – král = king, -ik = diminutive suffix, ohnivo = fiery, hlava = head;
  • HR: Vatroglavi kraljić = fire-headed kinglet – vatro = fire, glavi = head, kralj = king, -ić = diminutive suffix;
  • CY: Dryw penfflamgoch = flame-red crested wren – dryw = wren, pen = head, fflam = flame, goch = red;
  • GA: Lasairchíor = flamecrest – lasair = flame, cíor = crest;
  • LT: Baltabruvis nykštukas = white-browed Tom Thumb – balta = white, bruvis = brow, nykšti = thumb, -ukas = diminutive suffix;
  • FR: Roitelet à triple bandeau = triple-banded kinglet – roi = king, -(el)et = (double) diminutive suffix, triple = triple, bandeau = headband;
  • IT: Fiorrancino = orange flower – fiore = flower, arancio = orange;
  • PT: Estrelinha-de-cabeça-listada = stripy headed little star – estrela = star, -inha = diminutive suffix, cabeça = head, listada = striped;
  • ES: Reyezuelo listado = striped kinglet – rey = king, -ezuelo = diminutive suffix, listado = striped.


WaxwingThe recent irruption of Waxwings triggered my curiosity of the names of these tufted berry gobblers. The three species of waxwing are gathered under the genus Bombycilla; the name is a combination of Latin bombyx from Greek bombux = silk, and modern Latin cilla = tail, thus making silktail – widely used at present. The Western Palearctic species is known as Bohemian Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus = chattering silktail – from Latin garrulus = talkative, chattering. The Eastern Palearctic species is Japanese Waxwing, Bombycilla japonica = Japanese silktail – for Japan. In the Nearctic the predominant species is Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum = cedar silktail – from Latin cedrus = cedar.

Conrad Gessner described Waxwings as Garrulo bohemico in his 1555 Historiae animalium. Use of the Bohemian adjective refers to the perception that the birds originated in Bohemia (now western Czech Republic). German zoologist Ragnar Kinzelbach has written about older names for Waxwings and how the waxy tips to the secondaries captured the imagination as representing flames. Thus the birds were referred to in Greek as spintharís or spintúrnix, in Latin as avis incendiaria = arsonist bird by Gaius Plinius Secundus in his Naturalis Historia, and in Middle High German as Zünder(lin) = (little) igniter (-lin = diminutive suffix). By the time the plague struck Europe, Waxwings became known as Pestvogel = plague bird, as irruptions seemed to coincide with plague outbreaks. Seidenschwanz was the name of a German dress and became used as a bird name by the sixteenth century.

By 1735, Linnaeus gathered Waxwings under Ampelis in the first edition of his Systema naturea, and in the still pre-binomial 1746 Fauna svecica, classifying Ampelis as passerines. Ampelis was an unidentified bird in Aristophanes, of which Linnaeus thought it fed on grapes. By the time the binomial classification was published in the 1758 Systema naturea10, he had changed his mind. Ampelis had become Lanius (i.e. shrikes) under Accipitres. Waxwing had become Lanius Garrulus = chattering butcherbird, the protonym.

It was Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1808 who took the German Seidenschwanz and translated it into Latin as Bombycilla. He defined waxwings as generically separate from shrikes, thrushes and cotingas, although he thought they were closely related to the latter.

Perhaps not surpisingly, Bohemian Waxwings have stimulated the imagination of many, which is reflected in the official names in various languages. The following list is arranged synonymously if possible.

The largest group is represented by probable translations from the German:

  • Danish (DA) Silkehale = silktail – silke = silk, hale = tail;
  • German (DE) Seidenschwanz = silktail – Seiden = silk, Schwanz = tail;
  • Greek (EL) (Ευρωπαϊκή) βομβυκίλα = European silktail – Ευρώπη = Europe, -ϊκή = adjectival suffix (βομβυκίλα could be a transliteration into modern Greek of Bombycilla and thus meaningless?);
  • Estonian (ET) Siidisaba = silktail – siidi = silk, saba = tail;
  • Frisian (FY) Sidesturt = silktail – side = silk, sturt = tail;
  • Latvian (LV) Zīdaste = silktail – zīds = silk, aste = tail;
  • Norwegian (NO) Sidensvans = silktail – siden = silk, svans = tail;
  • Swedish (SV) Sidensvans = silktail – siden = silk, svans = tail.

A few languages refer to silk but not to tail:

  • Breton (BR) Seizeg sterenn = northern silky bird – seizeg = silky, sterenn = boreal, northern;
  • Catalan (CA) Ocell sedós = silky bird – ocell = bird, seda = silk, -ós = adjectival suffix;
  • Irish (GA) Síodeiteach = silkwing – síoda = silk, eite = wing, -ach = suffix;
  • Icelandic (IS) Silkitoppa = silky tuft – silki = silk, toppa from toppr = tuft;
  • Romanian (RO) Mătăsár = silky bird – mătase = silk, -ar = suffix.

References to the plague:

  • Dutch (NL) Pestvogel = plague bird – pest = plague, vogel = bird;
  • Croatian (HR) Kugara = plague bird – kuga = plague, -ara = feminine suffix.

Translations of Waxwing:

  • Welsh (CY) Adain gŵyr = waxwing – adain = wing, cwŷr = wax;
  • Manx (GV) Skian chereagh = waxwing – skian = wing, chereagh = wax;
  • Cornish (KW) Askel gor = waxwing – askel (also ascall) = wing, gor = wax.

References to the bird calls:

  • Finnish (FI) Tilhi = onomatopea;
  • French (FR) Jaseur boréal = northern chatterer – jaser = to chatter, -eur = suffix, boréal from Latin borealis = north;
  • Portuguese (PT) Tagarela-europeu = European chatterbox – tagarela = chatterbox, europeu = European;
  • Russian (RU) Cвиристель = whistler – свирель = (reed-)pipe, shortened to свир, double suffixes -ист and -тель = masculine suffixes.

At times confusion has crept in about the type of berries Waxwings eat in winter, hence mix-ups with Mistle Thrush in some languages:

  • Polish (PL) Jemiołuszka = mistletoe bird – jemioła = mistletoe, double suffixes -usz, -ka = feminine suffix;
  • Belarusian (BE) Амялушка = mistletoe bird – Амяла = mistletoe, шка = suffix;
  • Ukranian (UK) Звичайний омелюх = common mistletoe bird – Звичайний = common, омела = misteltoe, -юх = suffix.

According to an ancient Chinese legend, a crow rescued the emperor, after which the emperor showed his appreciation by turning the crow into a ‘bird of peace’, a ‘waxwing’; hence:

  • Mongolian (MN) Шивэр энхэтбялзуухай = Siberian peace bird – шивэр = thicket, but used as Siberian as faunal adjectiv, энхэт = peace, бялзуухай = small bird;
  • Chinese (ZH) 太平鸟 = peace bird – 太平 = peace, = bird.


  • Czech (CS) Brkoslav severní = northern magnificent feathers – brk = quill, feather, slav = magnificent, severní = northern (slav could be related to slovo = word, thus perhaps referring to bird calls, like in RU, FR, PT);
  • Spanish (ES) Ampelis = from scientific Ampelis, from Greek ampelis (ampelos = vine), unidentified bird in Aristophanes, of which Linnaeus thought it fed on grapes;
  • Basque (EU) Buztanoria = yellowtail (?) – buztan = tail, -ori = yellow (from hori), -a = article;
  • Faroese (FO) Reyðstapi = redhead (?) – reyður = red, stapi = thatch;
  • Gaelic (GD) Canarach-dearg = red canary (?) – canari = canary, -ach = suffix, dearg = red;
  • Hungarian (HU) Csonttollú = bony feathers (csontos = bony, tollú = feathers);
  • Italian (IT) Beccofrusone = grosbeak (becco = beak, frusone = grosbeak, from Latin ossifragus);
  • Korean (KO) 황여새 = sulphur-coloured bird – = sulphur, yellow, = augmentative suffix, = bird;
  • Lithuanian (LT) Paprastasis svirbelis = common staggerer – paprastasis = common, svirb = to stagger, -elis = suffix;
  • Sami (SE) Bealljerásttis = eared thrush – beallje from beallji = ear, rásttis loaned from Finnish rásttis = thrush (fieldfare);
  • Slovak (SK) Chochlač severský = northern tufted bird – chochlač possibly rhythmic contraction of chochol = tuft, with suffix, severský = northern;
  • Albanian (SQ) Çafkëlore bishtverdhë = yellow-tailed crested lark (Çafkë = crest, lore from laureshë = lark, bischt = tail, verdh = yellow, ë = suffix).

Finally a few asides:

  • in Dutch silktail = Zijdestaart = Hypocolius;
  • in Finnish the alleged onomatopea was first used by Finnish botanist and entomologist William Nylander, before that the bird was known from Meänkieli jouhilintu (horsetail bird) or tupsuniska (tufted neck/nape).

Nuthatches 1

Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch
Wondering where the nuthatch winters
Wings a mile long
Just carried the bird away

Eyes of the World by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter
© Ice Nine Publishing

True Nuthatches can be found in three ecozones, Indomalaya, Palearctic and Nearctic, with most species present in the Indomalaya zone. The IOC World Bird List assigns 28 species to the Sitta genus.

Sitta is assigned to Linneaus (of course) while the name was used by Conrad Gessner in reference to Aristotle‘s Sittē in his Historia animalium. The latter described nuthatches as follows: ‘The bird called sitta is quarrelsome, but clever and tidy, makes its living with ease, and for its knowingness is regarded as uncanny; it has a numerous brood, of which it is fond, and lives by pecking the bark of trees’ (transl. D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 1910). This reference could be to any of the three species found around the Greece of Aristotle: Eurasian Nuthatch, Krüper’s Nuthatch and Western Rock Nuthatch.

The 28 species translate as follows.


NightingaleThe three species within the Luscinia genus in the Western Palearctic represent only one third of its total number worldwide; the remaining Luscinia species occupy the Eastern Palearctic region. Luscinia members are quite diverse and (up till now) closely related to the Erithacus robins and Tarsiger bush robins. Reference to both throat colour and robins in Luscinias is a remnant of the time when they were lumped with Erithacus robins. The non-true nightingales are all still classified within Luscinia on the IOC World Bird List for now – but for how much longer?

  • Bluethroat – Luscinia svecica = Swedish Nightingale – from Latin svecica = Swedish.
  • Siberian Rubythroat – Luscinia calliope = Calliope’s Nightingale – for Calliope, muse of epic poetry, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne.
  • White-tailed Rubythroat – Luscinia pectoralis = Pectoral Nightingale – from Latin pectoralis = of the breast.
  • Rufous-headed Robin – Luscinia ruficeps = from Latin rufus = rufous, red, and Latin suffix -ceps = -headed.
  • Blackthroat – Luscinia obscura = Dusky Nightingale – from Latin obscurus = dark, dusky.
  • Firethroat – Luscinia pectardens = from Latin pectus = breast, and Latin ardens = fiery, burning.
  • Indian Blue Robin – Luscinia brunnea = Brown Nightingale – from Latin brunneus = brown.
  • Siberian Blue Robin – Luscinia cyane = Dark-blue Nightingale – from Latin cyaneus = dark-blue, sea-blue.
  • Rufous-tailed Robin – Luscinia sibilans = Whistling Nightingale – Latin sibilans = whistling, hissing.

Etymologically, Luscinia seems to be a shortened form of luscicinia, referring to either canens in lucis, singing in the groves, or quod lugens canat, the lamenting singer.

Linnaeus made no distinction between Thrush Nightingale and Common Nightingale in the entry for Motacilla Luscinia in his 1758 Systema naturæ. He used the old epithet of Luscinia to name the bird, which was used previously by Conrad Gesner in his 1555 Historiae animalium. It could be suggested that Linnaeus’s description is of Thrush Nightingale. Earlier, in his 1746 Fauna Svecica Linnaeus seems to make a distinction between what is then not yet binominally called Motacilla Luscinia and a bird he refers to as Luscinia Minor. The latter can well have been Common Nightingale as opposed to the Thrush Nightingale described in the main entry. However, in the subsequent 12 years he seems to have changed his mind and reduced the variety to just Motacilla Luscinia, geographically distributed across Europe.

Common Nightingale was not described until German ornithologist Christian Ludwig Brehm‘s 1831 Handbuch der Naturgeschichte alle Vögel Deutschlands, and thus a distinction was made between Common Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale.

Both species are ultimately linked in namings all over Europe and further afield. As a general rule, where Common Nightingale is the only breeding species, it is referred to as (Common) Nightingale and Thrush Nightingale as Northern Nightingale; where Thrush Nightingale is the only species, it is called (Common) Nightingale, and Common Nightingale is referred to as Southern Nightingale.

In the few countries where both are (common) breeding birds, their specific epithets are more descriptive. In Polish (PL) Common Nightingale is referred to as Rusty Nightingale (Słowik rdzawy), whereas Thrush Nightingale becomes Grey Nightingale (Słowik szary); in Romanian (RO) Common Nightingale is named for its nocturnal song (Privighetoare = one who never sleeps), whereas Thrush Nightingale is named for Greek Philomela (Filomelă), which is generally translated mistakenly as ‘lover of song’. In Ukranian (UK) Common Nightingale is known as Western Nightingale (Cоловейко західний) and Thrush Nightingale as Eastern Nightingale (Соловейко східний); in Russian (RU) Common Nightingale is also known as Western Nightingale (Западный соловей), whereas Thrush Nightingale is Common Nightingale (Oбыкновенный соловей).

Many names can be presented as sets of cognates:

  • BE Sałaviej; BG Slavej; CZ Slavík; PL Słowik; RU Cоловей = Solovej; SK Slávik – these names seem to stem from a proto-Slavic solvij, which means nightingale, and is probably related to words for colour, such as glaucitas (old-Slavic slavoočije) and isabelline (RU solovoj).
  • DE Nachtigall; DA Nattergal; IS Næturgali; NL Nachtegaal; NO Nattergal; SV Näktergal – singer of the night.
  • ES Ruiseñor; FR Rossignol; IT Usignolo; PT Rouxinol – all go back to Latin luscinolus, from the masculine diminutive of luscinia.
  • TR Bülbül; SQ Bilbili; AZ Bülbülü; FA بلبل – references go back to the Persian poetic images of gol and bolbol, rose and nightingale.

Two names are very different:

  • Hungarian (HU) Fülemüle (Common Nightingale; Thrush Nightingale = Nagy fülemüle, Great Nightingale) could be related to both IT Usignolo and TR Bülbül, since Magyar has taken on many influences from both the East and the West.
  • German (DE) Sprosser (Thrush Nightingale) – from DE Sprossen = spots.

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.