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).
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!
Oh geez, Scofield does make his points clearly, ey?
I find the idea of globally valid English names very appealing, specifically as I mostly write in “British English” about North American birds, and this is sometimes a bit of a balancing act.
But then again, I am sure very, very few birders have ever spent a considerable amount of time making conversation with each other about the Brown Creeper and then suddenly realized in confusion that one was talking about the New Zealand bird while the other had Certhia on the mind. This just doesn’t happen, so in many cases, having one common name for two different species is merely a hypothetical problem.
I must say though that this only pertains to areas that are covered by field guides who use the same names for their respective species. I know there are a few field guides covering Africa, and basically each book has a different name for the same bird, so one birder could use one book in a specific region while another birder might use a different book in the same region, and they might meet and talk, and the names of the species in the books would not be the same and both would get very confused. Almost as confused as this sentence is.
So within a given “field guide area”, having universally accepted common names is great. I do not think it is very important though to change a name like “Brown Creeper” because there will be no chance whatsoever of these causing confusion. And if someone insists, simply add “NZ” or “American” and be done with it. The locals can leave out the geographic reference and all is good.
Having a standard world list is vital for the stuff we do on Wikipedia. The effect that it has on regional lists is more muted. I don’t imagine anyone is going to be adopting Great Northern Loon any time soon.