Why Bird Enthusiasts Should Embrace Latin Terms

Bird enthusiasts might find that learning and using names derived from Latin and Greek can make bird identification and watching more fascinating.

| January 2015

  • Scientific names are valuable because some birds, such as the Anas platyrhynchos, or mallard, are known in the northern hemisphere by several common names and a single scientific name can help avoid confusion.
    Photo by Fotolia/bereta
  • “Latin for Bird Lovers,” by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, explains how and why birds are named using Greek and Latin terms and opens up a new way of understanding birds.
    Cover courtesy Timber Press

Latin for Bird Lovers (Timber Press, 2014), by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, uncovers the rationale behind more than 3,000 scientific bird names. It also delves into bird behavior and reveals the fascinating discoveries of ornithologists, such as the one who debunked the myth that robins sing because they're happy. The following excerpt from “A Short History of Binomials” and “Latin for Bird Lovers” briefly introduces us to the formal system of taxonomy for naming all living things and discusses how scientific names can help bird enthusiasts more accurately identify birds.

A Short History of Binomials

A “binomial” is a double name. It is part of a formal system of taxonomy for naming all living things. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish physician, botanist, and zoologist of the eighteenth century, is considered the father of taxonomy and the system of binomial nomenclature, in which his name is rendered Carolus linnaeus.

All living organisms are classified according to their evolutionary relationships and through the classification scheme they are given an individual binomial or scientific name that consists of a genus and species. Human beings, for example, are Homo sapiens, meaning they belong to the genus Homo, along with other now extinct species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus, but are their own specific group, sapiens. In usage, the genus, in this case Homo, is always capitalized and either underlined or italicized. The species name or specific epithet, sapiens, is either underlined or italicized, but never capitalized. And the word “species,” as used in biology, is both singular and plural. (“Specie” is incorrect as it means “coin.”) Species is often used interchangeably with the scientific name. Classifications change over time as new information develops, but it is a slow and thorough process so the classification scheme is quite stable.

A species is generally defined as a group of organisms that can interbreed and produce viable offspring. Anas platyrhynchos, the Mallard, cannot interbreed with Melanerpes cactorum, the Whitefronted Woodpecker, or even with the more closely related Anas strepera, the Gadwall. The species concept continues to evolve with new genetic tools, and there are minor exceptions where different species do hybridize, but the system continues to be useful.

When Linnaeus created the binomial system, “New” Latin was used in Western Europe as the common language of science, and scientific names were in Latin or Greek. Scientific naming is governed by international codes, such as the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) for animals, and the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN) for algae, fungi, and plants.

You might see three names, a trinomial, as in the Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus, which has five subspecies, B. l. lineatus, B. l. elegans, B. l. alleni, B. l. extimis, and B. l. texanus. In the hierarchy of taxonomy, only one name below the binomial, a “subspecies,” is allowed to denote different color forms or geographic races of a particular species. Hypothetically, all these subspecies can interbreed, but it may not happen if their ranges do not overlap. So whilst subspecies is a somewhat slippery concept, it is useful in delineating populations with distinguishing characteristics. Thus, binomial nomenclature provides a global identification of particular bird species and defines their relationships to other birds. DNA studies over the past couple of decades are refining those relationships and name changes will continue to occur.

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