Last week I discussed the somewhat dated kakariki taxonomy used in the recent edition of the Parrots of the World by Jospeh Forshaw. My second grumble about these small parakeets and this book is not actually particularly restricted to the book, it’s actually a ubiquitous problem related to the name of one of the species of kakariki, the Red-crowned Parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae).

Like most New Zealand species the Red-crowned Parakeet also has a Maori name (some have more than one), but the term kakariki is not specific to the Red-crowned Parakeet, instead generally applying to all of New Zealand’s parakeets. But the species also has another name, the Red-fronted Parakeet. This is not used in New Zealand, but is used in Parrots of the World, as well as by the IUCN and BirdLife International, and in the Handbook of the Birds of the World. It also ended up being the name went for by the Birds of the World; Recommended English Names, the massive project you must all be aware of to standardise the world’s bird names (a thankless project if ever there was one).

Red-crown or Red-front?

That the names New Zealanders have chosen are not used is certainly understandable in many instances. Everyone else in the world knows the Black Shag as the Great Cormorant. Referring to the smaller Thalassarche albatrosses as mollymawks is a distinction I personally like, but again it isn’t commonly used outside New Zealand. But there were changes that were less forgiveable.

Take the Rock Wren. Or Rock Wrens. Two unrelated birds on opposite sides of the world, each sharing a common name. The kind of mess the list was supposed to sort out. But rather than name them American Rock Wren and New Zealand Rock Wren, the American bird was allowed to stay at Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) while the New Zealand bird (Xenicus gilviventris) was moved to South Island Wren, which had the dual advantages of both being unheard of as a name in New Zealand and inaccurate to boot! While it is currently only found on South Island, it historically occurred on North Island and  is scheduled to be reintroduced there as well. A similar New Zealand/American compromise was avoided in the custody battle over the Brown Creeper, which was instead allowed to remain the name of the North American Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), while the New Zealand species was moved to the Maori name Pipipi. This is perhaps preferable to a completely new name but as Paul Scofield of Canterbury Museum noted in his fearsome review of the Recommended English Names, is not without considerable problems as well. So problematic does he find the treatment of New Zealand’s birds by the list that he recommends New Zealanders ignore it entirely.

The treatment of the Red-crowned Parakeet was particularly puzzling to me. The IOC list included the splits I described last week, and after giving the New Zealand species the name Red-fronted Parakeet, used the name Red-crowned Parakeet for the recently split species from New Caledonia, (Cyanoramphus saisetti)! Annoyed, I wrote to Frank Gill asking why this had been done, having first ransacked my university library to provide sufficient citations to prove Red-crowned Parakeets was the prevailing usage. To Frank’s credit he wrote back quickly and told me they would look into the matter.

In order to help them I ventured into Wellington’s Central Library and the library at the National Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa. I found plenty more books that supported my position that Red-crowned was the correct name here in New Zealand. More interestingly, I found many older books, and in all the books that predated 1960 the species was known as the Red-fronted Parakeet. I couldn’t find any explanation for the shift, in 1959 an author used Red-fronted, by 1961 people were calling it the Red-crowned. As such the rest of the world was using a name that wasn’t so much wrong as 40-50 years out of date.

The good thing is that the IOC list accepted the recommendation and changed the name of the New Zealand species to Red-crowned Parakeet! To my mind this has been one of the strengths of the IOC list, its willingness to accept criticism, acknowledge the task was never going to be pulled off flawlessly first time and make changes. Similarly, the little wren that lives on rocks in South Island has been moved and is now called the New Zealand Rockwren. Now we just need to convince them to move the New Zealand Grebe back to the New Zealand Dabchick!

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.