An organization called the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) has been working since 1991 on the challenging task of creating a standard set of the English names of the birds of the world. Their assertion is that names based on logical rules and consensus should aid clear and crisp communication among global stakeholders such as birders, conservationists, publishers, and government officials. Such an improved system of standardized English names should consequently lead to success in ornithology and the conservation of birds worldwide.

Co-chairs Frank Gill and Minturn Wright released the IOC determinations in BIRDS OF THE WORLD Recommended English Names (Princeton University Press, 2006) but have, as yet, been unable to achieve universal adoption of their proposed nomenclature. Since the topic has recently come up on various state listservs, I’ve finally gotten around to sharing my opinion on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the IOC recommendations. Thrilling, isn’t it?

One welcome proposal is to normalize international nomenclature, eliminating multiple names for the same species. Thus, what we call the Eared Grebe in the Americas adopts the Eurasian appellation of Black-necked Grebe. Black-bellied Plover becomes Grey Plover (more on that ‘Grey’ in a moment), Dovekie becomes Little Auk, Bank Swallow becomes Sand Martin, Northern Shrike becomes Great Grey Shrike, and American Pipit becomes Buff-bellied Pipit. It’s not that these species are being assigned new names but rather that a single name is chosen from the multiple ones currently in use. Also note that the Old World tag doesn’t always win out, as Bewick’s Swan is collapsed into Tundra Swan. Apparently, this process also triggered some armchair speciation where a species like Kentish/Snowy Plover was split down the Old World-New World divide.

Kudos as well to the reconciliation of the great loon-diver debate. Henceforth, all good Gavia birds shall be known as loons, although Gavia immer seems to have gotten caught in the crossfire: on one side of the Atlantic, this beauty is called the Great Northern Diver while on the other side, it’s known as the Common Loon. I suppose it takes the wisdom of Solomon to contrive a name like Great Northern Loon.

Also positive is the standardization of hyphenation. Use of hyphens in compound group names is minimized, used only to connect two names that are birds or bird families like Eagle-Owl or when the name would be otherwise difficult to read. This may sound like grammatical minutiae but the elimination of extraneous punctuation is never a bad thing. Let Storm-Petrels be Storm Petrels, Night-Herons be Night Herons,and all that rot.

Finally, let’s applaud the elimination of extraneous descriptors in avian appellations. Sparrows, for example, are tough enough to ID as it is. Streamlining the erstwhile sharp-tailed set to simple Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrow does a service to all of us.

If the aim of the proposed naming conventions is consistency, the task is far from complete. For example, why are buteos still separated by the Atlantic Ocean into buzzards and hawks? In the same vein, the unification of skuas and jaegers remains unfinished; Stercorarius pomarinus was pushed into the skua camp but parasiticus and longicaudus remain jaegers.

You want ugly? How about renaming the noble Rough-legged Hawk as the Roughleg. Nomenclature like that may serve well in the field but such slang lacks the accuracy or aesthetic quality of its predecessor.

Also, it wasn’t that long ago that the Rock Dove was rechristened the Rock Pigeon. Now the IOC wants to dub our feral friend the Common Pigeon. Columba livia is nothing if not common, but the name change still seems obtrusive. My distaste similarly applies to Sturnus vulgaris, now called the Common Starling; I think the European descriptor serves as a perfect reminder of this invasive’s origins.

Still, the ugliest alteration is, at least to my American sensibilities, the choice to universally eschew ‘gray’ for ‘grey’ as favored by those who speak the Queen’s English. The adoption of a standard spelling makes logical sense but strikes me as surprisingly grating on an emotional level.

All in all, the recommendations of the International Ornithological Congress do a lot more good than bad in the effort to standardize English common names for birds. While I can see universal adoption of many of these recommendations as a positive step towards international understanding, it is clear that even by the IOC’s own standards, the task is not yet complete.

What are your reactions to the IOC recommended English names?

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.