Elliot Downing: Scientific Bird Names…

All known organisms on Earth are given a binomial scientific name, consisting of a generic name (which assigns the organism to a genus) and a specific name which is unique to that species of organism. These names are always written in Latin grammar, although they can be in any language, but most are either Greek or Latin. This method of labeling organisms was formally started by Carl Linnaeus in his work Species Plantarum written in 1753. Before then names usually described a species, usually on its appearance or behaviour, and so were often quite long and differed from place to place, but binomial nomenclature enabled species to be given shorter, unique titles to distinguish them.

The main benefit of this system is that it is used across the world and across all scientific authorities, plus it can be understood by anyone regardless of their first language. Using a set Latinized name means that people on the other side of the world will know what exactly you are referring to when you tell them about an Erithicus rubecula you saw, although they may not have known what a Robin is. This is particularly useful when it comes to international conservation of wildlife, especially when different countries may have different common names for a species.

Apart from the obvious scientific uses of binomial nomenclature, I personally am quite interested in the scientific names of the species I come across; especially birds as I think it adds another dimension to them when you know what their proper name is and what it means. It’s also quite interesting in that you can really understand the evolutionary relationships between species if you know their scientific names. A Blackcap and a Whitethroat don’t look very similar, other than that they are migratory warblers, but when you know that their names are Sylvia atricapilla and Sylvia communis respectively, you know that actually they are closely related as they are in the same genus. It is then that you can start noticing the similarities in their structure, plumage and behaviour, which makes them cousins in the same family.

So, here are some of what I believe are some of the best-sounding or most interesting scientific names of British birds;

  • Anas penelope – the Eurasian Wigeon, this lovely name was given to this species after the duck that in Greek stories saved Penelope, wife of Ulysses, when she was thrown into the sea.
  • Tetrao tetrix – the Black Grouse, this name simply means ‘game-bird’ but I think it is a very cool-sounding name, not to mention ‘tetrix’ sounds quite like Tetris.
  • Puffinus puffinus – not the one you think, this is the Manx Shearwater, this name made sense in the 17th century when it was called the ‘Manks Puffin’, the word ‘puffin’ itself comes from an old word for the cured carcasses of seabird nestlings.
  • Pernis apivorus –  the Honey Buzzard, which doesn’t eat honey and isn’t a buzzard, the scientific name shows that it isn’t closely related to Buteo buzzards and that it eats bees (and wasps) as in ‘api’ (bee) – ‘vorus’ (eater).
  • Crex crex – the Corncrake, this is an instance where the scientific name is onomatopoeic as the males have a call sounding much like ‘crex-crex’.
  • Recurvirostra avosetta – the Avocet, this is just a lovely name to roll off the tongue, ‘recurvirostra’ simply means ‘up-curved bill’.
  • Charadrius dubius – I think this one is quite funny, ‘dubius’ means ‘doubtful’ as it was once thought that the Little Ringed Plover was no more than a form of Common Ringed Plover. No one had confidence in the poor thing.
  • Calidris canutus – the Knot, a small wader whose specific name is attributed to King Canute of tidal fame, interestingly the name ‘Knot’ is actually an old spelling of Canute.
  • Alca torda – the Razorbill, interestingly this scientific name is not Latin but comes from Norwegian and Swedish names for the bird.
  • Athene noctua – the Little Owl, ‘Athene’ comes from the Greek goddess of the night Athena and ‘noctua’ is the name of an owl kept by the Roman goddess Minerva, who was their version of Athena.
  • Upupa epops – the Hoopoe, all names for this bird are onomatopoeic, based on its distinctive call; ‘upupa’ is the Latin form and ‘epops’ the Greek form of the birds name.
  • Jynx torquilla – the Wryneck, which was once thought to have magical properties by the Greeks who called it ‘Iunx’ (which is where our word ‘jinx’ comes from). Torquilla comes from the Latin ‘to twist’, which refers to the birds strange neck-twisting behaviour.
  • Bombycilla garrulus – the Waxwing, this directly translates as ‘talkative silk-tail’, although the word ‘garrulus’ (talkative) is not because the Waxwing is noisy but because of its supposed likeness to the Jay Garrulus glandarius. Bombycilla is also a lovely word to say.
  • Troglodytes troglodytes – the humble Wren, translates simply as ‘Cave-dweller’, due its habit of poking into crevices.
  • Sylvia Borin – the Garden Warbler is a very unassuming bird, it is not much to look at, one might even say it is boring. ‘Sylvia’ means ‘wood-nymph’ and ‘borin’ does not actually mean what it looks like as it is from the Latin for Ox, as it was thought the bird hung around cattle.
  • Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – the Chough, this is quite a cool name as it translates as literally ‘Flame-coloured Raven’.


If you wish to read more of Elliot Downings work, click on the following link to his Website, “Wildlife and Words“.


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