06 March 2009

Developing an International Standard for English Bird Names

[Cover of a volume of Systema Naturae, Courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Having a standard set of names for birds has been constantly changing ever since Carl Linnaeus of Sweden placed animals into groups in his Systema Naturae issued by the volume in the 1750s.

Revisions in nomenclature are continuous and ongoing. Proper names are introduced and changed as new species get discovered, and various authorities attributed names, and scientific attributions.

In 1810 Alexander Wilson published a list of species for a growing America, based on a review of what was then known for names: common, proper, scientific and otherwise. More articles, books and general history spread the history of avian taxonomy and nomenclature.

With the mid-1880s, the newly established American Ornithologists Union (AOU) published a list of species, with an intent for giving people that watched birds and published their observations, a standard list of names to use. Their principles for a standard nomenclature and taxonomy, used a set of names that follows a particular, essential tenet: each species would have only one name which is different from any other name, and this would include a scientific name. At this time, the more important consideration was recognizing who had first named a species and the name they used.

An emphasis for naming changed, and a very basic proposition noted a few decades later in 1920, in the Auk, the journal of the AOU was that: "Each species shall be given a name which shall be distinct and applicable to the species as a whole." Other items given in correspondence by Harrison F. Lewis, asked that "clumsy descriptive names shall not be introduced," with three others related to providing names based on a geographic locale, not using a person's name in a birds' name, and avoiding the use of modifiers for a species in a particular geographic range. Of course, there was a response provided by Witmer Stone, presenting an alternative view with his primary comment being: "Fortunately we have not and cannot have a code covering the use of popular names."

Dr. Frank B. Gill, residing in Pennsylvania U.S.A., has been a leader in issuing updates of a standardized list of English names for birds around the world, under the auspices of the International Ornithological Congress.

"Walter Bock then Secretary General and later President of the I.O.C. asked me in 1994 to take over the I.O.C. English Names Project started by Charles Sibley in 1990 but which then faltered after the death of Burt Monroe Jr. Initial partners in the project included Dr. Robert S. Ridgely and Minturn T. Wright III," Dr. Gill said.

"It was and still is our belief that a standardized and simplified scheme of English names would help communication in world ornithology and world bird conservation. It would also save everyone a lot of time and headaches trying to equate one list (or field guide) with another."

There are lists developed by several references, including Howard and Moore, Sibley and Monroe, Clements, the American Ornithologists' Union committee, the British Ornithologists' Union, and the Handbook of Birds of the World. There are also regional guides which convey bird names in the local language.

"We responded to the call of world leaders to help fill a need, if not a void," on a standard list, Gill said. "If we have done a good job, people will use it simply out of convenience. But there is a natural, strong and sometimes tribal reaction to anything that smacks of external authority and no one can legislate 'names' or even classifications."

The original I.O.C. list was based on participation, consensus, and compromise of leading ornithologists in different regions of the world, Dr. Gill said, commenting on the variety in bird names.

"The six editions of The Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World were one man's (excellent) presentation of a working world list for birders. It also includes subspecies, which the current versions of I.O.C. list do not. Clements also maintains a bias to the Americas and the views of the American Birding Association, whose members have been its primary sales market. The I.O.C. strives to a global perspective with regional expertise and is deliberately separate from Sibley and Monroe’s seminal list, which is not popular on some continents outside the Americas. If all goes as planned the I.O.C. will be updated more frequently and strive to be more current with latest changes in classification than will other lists."

[Picture of Frank Gill]

Dr. Frank B. Gill, ornithologist. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dr. Gill has the background to tackle the nomenclature problem, as a retired professional ornithologist, with experience dating back to when he received a Doctorate in Zoology in 1969 from the University of Michigan, after which he chaired the ornithology department of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was there from 1969 to 1995, and two particular notable efforts included creating VIREO (Visual Resources for Ornithology) and completing the encyclopedia on "The Birds of North America," which presents a detailed account for each species of the continent.

His interest in birdlife has taken him around the world to study and observe different species in their native habitats around the world, with a trip to the Pacific pending. During 1998-2000, he was president of the American Ornithologists' Union. In 1978 he was elected as a lifetime member of the prestigious International Ornithological Committee. Dr. Gill's efforts have been recognized with his receiving the William Brewster medal, the highest honor bestowed by the AOU.

"I have a weakness for launching or managing large scale projects," citing examples such as the encyclopedia on "The Birds of North America," three editions of Ornithology, "the principal textbook for college students on this topic," and eBird, the online bird record repository now provided by the Laboratory of Ornithology, at Cornell University, and the National Audubon Society.

The English Names Committee of the International Ornithological Committee, released their most recent version - version 2.0 - in January 2009.

"The IOC World Bird List 2.0 contains 10,331 species classified in 39 Orders, 224 Families and 2199 Genera.  This is a major update that includes revisions of the family classification as well as species taxonomy." - IOC World Bird List

Their English names were devised from ten principles to "guide the choice of recommended English names of birds." The list includes newly discovered species and splits of previous lumped species that are newly recognized as distinct species due to further studies or a newly available technique, DNA analysis.

"The I.O.C. list differs from the A.O.U. list only modestly, mostly no hyphenation of compound group names, except for bird-bird names," Dr. Gill said. "The first editions of the I.O.C. closely followed the A.O.U. species taxonomy, but changed a few English names in the spirit of compromise with other world committees. Recent versions of the I.O.C. list are deliberately more progressive with respect to splits than is the proudly conservative A.O.U. list. But looking ahead we are eager to align the two as closely as possible.

"The I.O.C. list has more traction and momentum outside the Americas than here in the United States, partly because of the very conservative nature and independent styles of American ornithologists."

One item not acceptable to the Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of Birds of American Ornithologists' Union, was a proposal submitted for eliminating the use of hyphens, with the English names for 126 species. Their reasoning, given in a note published in the Auk in 2007, was: "Hyphens in compound group names indicate relationships and separate the members of the groups from less closely related forms (e.g., Whistling-Ducks from other ducks and Storm-Petrels from petrels in the Procellariidae)."

The group working on the world bird names nomenclature published their response in the Auk in latter 2008, basically urging the acceptance of a standard list.

The IOC World Bird List content by Dr. Gill and his collaborators, receives "roughly 4000 unique visitors each month, which is encouraging as is the increasing number of formal adoptions, uses in new websites etc. And beyond birders, we know that editors welcome standardization of names and simplification of orthography. In the end publishers of field guides may hold sway in a united way?"

This effort has been a learning process for Dr. Gill, and he mentioned two notable items:

"#1 How strongly some people feel about their favorite bird names and how emotionally resistant are some colleagues to seemingly minor changes.
"#2 How divided people are to the concept of working together to agree on bird names."

Developing the I.O.C. list has been "a big group effort - a long and growing list of colleagues (acknowledged in Gill and Wright 2006, and now on the website) devoted countless hours to discussions and technical applications of guidelines that they adopted.

"Minturn Wright and I were the coordinators and arbiters of the project," Dr. Gill said. "The chairs of the regional committees were the true champs. I hope that we have acknowledged their efforts sufficiently. And now David Donsker leads the compilation of taxonomic updates from the world literature and discussions.

"The broad and constructive participation by colleagues worldwide has been truly heartening and invaluable with constructive feedback growing weekly. I'm thrilled by their interest, enthusiasm and above all their critical scholarship. Nothing is better than to have dozens (hundreds?) of critical eyes all devoted to catching errors and improving the quality of this big work."

Though the most current list has 10,331 species of extant bird species, Dr. Gill expects the number of species on the list to increase as "we recognize deserving allospecies." Other expected changes are pending, including a revision of the taxonomic relationships of babblers and white-eyes, Gill said. Also pending is "a resorting of the taxonomic boundaries of New World buntings, tanagers, warblers, finches, and grosbeaks."

"We are just going do the best job that we can and hope that world ornithology finds value in the product, which we believe they will."

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