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American Birding Podcast: What’s in a Common Name?

What is in a bird common name? It’s a question that many of us might not think about immediately, but there’s a lot going on in those lists we are so familiar with. Capitalization, honorifics, patronyms, how names are assigned, how they’re changed. The names are an important part of how we interact with birds around us, though perhaps the least considered one. Birding editor Ted Floyd joins me in a wide-ranging talk about the many ways in which bird names impact out understanding of birds.

Also, it’s Snowy Owl season, and that means not only opportunities to enjoy the spectacular birds but also inevitable conflicts. Check out Project SNOWstorm’s Snowy Owl ettiquette and the ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Ruth R

    Thanks for a great discussion about names. I’m in the capitalize-the-first-letter camp, because I don’t see birds, or any non-human lifeforms, as objects. To me, it feels more respectful to refer to them as beings which, for me, includes capitalization. Too many of us are completely disconnected from the natural world, so whatever small gesture we can make to change that seems like a good idea.

    • Ted Floyd

      Thanks, Ruth, for this clear presentation of your point of view, which fascinates me. I believe that your “gesture” is at the heart of the matter, which I consider to be quasi-theological. I’m serious. Here’s a relevant passage from John Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers”:

      “David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later.”

      The part about the “small h,” the lack of respect. I believe that similar thinking applies in the realm of birderly orthography. Someone oughtta write a book about the theology of birding… 😉

    • Rick Wright

      That’s really very interesting, Ruth. But I think the notion that non-human creatures are somehow worthy of orthographic recognition would lead us a different direction, wouldn’t it? Species are not “beings” at all, but categories; only individuals exist. Thus, just as we would write, “I saw Ruth R. [an individual] the other day, one of my all-time favorite humans [a species name],” I would write, “The evening grosbeak [a species name] is one of my all-time favorite birds.” Indeed, invoking the standard of “being,” I think we would be obliged to write, “The evening grosbeak is one of those species I never seem to see, but all the same I’m very happy showing my Grandchildren and their Friends the Birds in the Trees around my feeder.”

  • Rohan Wickramasinghe

    Interesting discussion and comments. I have often wondered if it should be ‘bees honey’, ‘bee’s honey’ or ‘bees’ honey’! The British Council library in Colombo, Sri Lanka couldn’t help me!

    • Rick Wright

      Or maybe just “honey,” no?

      I think the -s- in “beeswax” is there for the sake of nothing but euphony, though I’d be happy to hear different.

  • Rohan Wickramasinghe

    Incidentally, the ‘Indian Koel’ is also resident in Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time the name gained currency). Is’t it time to set this right?

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