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The History of Bird Names, Across the Pond and Beyond

A review by Frank Izaguirre

Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, by Stephen Moss

Faber & Faber, 2018

368 pages—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14980

Birders love talking about bird names. Who among us hasn’t scrolled through the new AOS proposals just to see what the most absurd name change proposal was, or quizzed brand new birding friends on their biographical knowledge of Thomas Say or Spencer Baird? Well, we might not all be quite that bad, but for the many among us who can never get quite enough ornithological esoterica, Stephen Moss’s Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names gives readers a lot to learn, enjoy, and test our friends on later. 

Stephen Moss is a British nature writer, birder, and occasional collaborator with Sir David Attenborough. In his latest work, he tackles the question of how birds got the names they have, exploring almost every facet of the subject: etymology, history, geography, etc. As avid bird book readers are no doubt already aware, and as the author acknowledges, this is a topic that has been written about before. What makes Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler different? 

Many authors take an encyclopedic approach, cataloguing the key details and histories of bird names, but Moss is foremost a storyteller. His treatment is not systematic or comprehensive, and he is not even consistent in his geographic coverage: While the general focus is on British birds, Moss makes forays to investigate bird names farther afield, usually retracing British colonial efforts in places such as India, Australia, and Tanzania. Framing the book is one such bird, the Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler of the title, a highly threatened endemic of montane forests in Tanzania. 

Moss progresses more or less chronologically, beginning with bird names originating thousands of years ago in Proto-Indo-European. He explores Old English names and assesses the ornitho-linguistic impact of the Norman invasion of England, which introduced a new stock of French and Latin words. Along the way, readers will learn a lot about how English came to be such a diverse and complex language. Moss continues to trace the discovery of new species and the names bestowed upon them as ornithology emerged as a discipline and profession, wading into the intrigue and politics of ornithological patronymics.

Here, North American readers will find fun parallels to our own birding lore. Birders love to celebrate ornithological lineages, ours typically arranged as something like Catesby-Wilson-Audubon-Chapman-Peterson. Moss’s effort gives ABA members a great chance to learn about lineages in the United Kingdom, something like White-Bewick-Montagu-MacGillivray-Yarrell and several others. Moss animates the lives of these and other British ornithologists, several of whom, though they never traveled to North America, have some of “our” birds named after them. 

Readers looking for complete coverage of the history of bird names, from Britain or any other region, will not find it here. But there is no need to worry that this book is somehow superficial. There is a great depth of knowledge here, all of it communicated accessibly and inventively. Moss’s breezy style can help readers retain even the most obscure little facts: The encyclopedic approach to bird names can be overwhelming, but Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler reads quickly, never inundating the reader with minutiae. Interspersed with episodes from Moss’s jaunts around the world, it is more like a travelogue than a reference book. 

ABA readers might also enjoy learning about the way Brits have argued with each other, and in some instances continue arguing, over the proper way to name birds. These little insights into British birding culture, while not the focus of the book, are nonetheless illuminating, perhaps good material for helping maintain our special relationship with birding friends across the pond. 

Like many birders, Moss is up to date on the latest trends in various related but distinct fields pertaining to birds: ornithology, conservation, and birding purely as a hobby. The reader benefits, gaining insight, for example, into the new trend of auctioning off the right to name newly discovered species. 

As readers probably expect from a book about bird-naming, there are any number of juicy tidbits to discover, some of them approaching the gossipy: tales of underhanded naming practices, vulgar folk names for the Eurasian Kestrel, and recollections of well-intentioned and perhaps cruelly thwarted attempts to standardize names. 

Have you ever gone birding and met another birder you just clicked with, so much so that the birds, even if the birding was good, faded into the background while the exchange of birding travel tales and trivia took precedence? Reading Stephen Moss’s Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler is like that. Without leaving home, reading this book is perhaps the closest ABA members can get to traveling to the U.K., meeting one of its top birding celebrities, and touring the country and its birdlife with him while engaging in a lively conversation.

– Book Review Editor at Birding, Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer living in Pittsburgh with his wife, Adrienne. He has a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early ornithologists in the Neotropics. His scholarly work focuses on eco-critical research, with an emphasis on tropical nature writing. 

Recommended citation:

Izaguirre, F. 2019. The History of Bird Names, Across the Pond and Beyond [a review of Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss]. Birding 51 (4): 67-68.

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Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding magazine publishes full-length versions of all its reviews on its blog. Books and media of all kinds are evaluated for potential interest level to the ABA membership and then assigned for review and edited by Frank Izaguirre. Contact him at [email protected]
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