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Monday, September 20, 2021

Down in Jungleland: Why are bird names so confusing?

The argument put forward for name changes is political incorrectness of the 'old' name

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi |
Updated: September 13, 2020 5:23:04 pm
birds, bird watching, bird names, bird species, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newsColour, colour, which colour: The black kite is really brown. (Photo by Ranjit Lal)

If there’s one thing that makes people shy away from birding and bird-watching, it is the plethora of bird names that comes as part and parcel of the deal: Names which have to be remembered and memorised. Actually, that’s not as difficult as it might seem. After sifting through your bird book, checking out the pictures or illustrations with the names, they begin to sink in and stick in your head.

Until, of course, some smart-alec birding “authority” decides to change a whole lot of the names you have just become familiar with. Occasionally, even the scientific name of the bird is changed, depending on the latest DNA findings — though I doubt that would affect most of us who don’t know those names anyway. But when the common names are changed, it can cause confusion, and sometimes, the changes seem pointless. For example, the good old golden-backed woodpecker’s name was changed to black-rumped flameback and then to lesser flameback. What I learned to identify as the little brown dove has a whole list of aliases: Senegal dove, mourning dove, laughing dove. What set Salim Ali off on his birding endeavours when he was a boy was a little sparrow-like bird called the yellow-throated sparrow — because it did, in fact, have a little yellow patch on its throat. This fellow is now called the chestnut-shouldered petronia. Who would ever guess that?

Sometimes, the argument put forward to explain the name change is that the “old” name is not politically correct. Like, for example, the old name of our common kite was the “Pariah” kite. So it was decided that it should now be called the “black kite”. The trouble is that you can look at the skies for an eternity and not see a black kite — only plenty of brown ones. This really would raise the eyebrows of many newbie birders who, quite justifiably, may conclude that birders need to have their eyes and heads examined.

Also, they’re not very consistent with the “politically correct” line. For example, in India, we have two species of flamingo — the greater and lesser. It would make you think that, somehow, the “greater” flamingo is superior to the “lesser” one. It certainly is the larger bird but the “lesser” flamingo is far more striking with its vivid pink, black-and-white plumage, as against the “greater’s” mostly plain white.

There can be gender issues, too. In my book The Crow Chronicles (Penguin, 1996), I had a tailorbird character called Phutki, who was very much a lady. A critic who got on my case immediately renamed her a ‘tailoress bird’, which does not exist. I had to explain that there’s also a species called the white-breasted waterhen which, regardless of its sex, remains a hen. The males are not called “watercocks” because that’s an entirely different species. The only species which has this privilege is the peafowl — the gentleman being the peacock and the lady, the peahen.

Sometimes, even the old names don’t make much sense. The paradise flycatcher is a gorgeous creature, like a designer bulbul, snow white and inky blue-black, sporting long silvery tail feathers. Surely, it belongs to paradise: But “flycatcher”? I don’t think there would be flies in paradise so what’s the need for a flycatcher there? I had one of my best encounters with this bird standing knee-deep in a heap of garbage at Naukuchiatal, years ago, where, in fact, there were flies buzzing around!

Many “established” birders like to demonstrate their expertise by only referring to a bird by its scientific name. Thus, they’ll tell you that they saw an Anas poecilorhyncha instead of a humdrum Indian spot-billed duck. Sometimes, you can have a lot of fun with the scientific names. Cram up a few and set forth: For example, the house crow is called Corvus splendens. But did you know there’s a species of crow called the Corvus splendens breakfasttii? That’s a crow that stole your breakfast. You can’t get more specific than that!

This nomenclature business even greatly upset Salim Ali. So much so that he wrote to his great friend and birder, S Dillon Ripley: “My head reels at all this nomenclature metaphysics. I feel strongly like retiring from ornithology if this is the stuff and spending the rest of my days in the peace of the wilderness with birds, and away from the dust and frenzy of taxonomic warfare. I feel, somehow, complete detachment from all this, and am thoroughly unmoved by what name one ornithologist chooses to dub a bird that is familiar to me and care even less in regard to one that is unfamiliar… The more I see of these subspecific tangles and inanities, the more I can understand the people who silently raise their eyebrows and put a finger to their temples when they contemplate an ornithologist in action.”

Hear, hear!

(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)

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