English names in BB

Published on 28 January 2011 in Letters

With reference to the announcement concerning changes to the English names that BB uses (in the January 2011 issue, Brit. Birds 104: 53), my views are probably known already (having reviewed Birds of the World: recommended English names for BBBrit. Birds 101: 264-265) and as a world lister I am all in favor of standard names throughout. Back in the days of the Witherby handbook, when British birding was insular in all senses of the word, we could get away with ‘The Swift’, ‘The Kingfisher’ or ‘The Wren’ but with the explosion of birdwatching into an international industry with English as its international language the situation is now very different.

I have never attended an IOU congress but am ready to lay good money on what language is used for the bulk of the proceedings. A birder from, say, eastern Europe intending to visit South America is unlikely to find a field guide in his native language but has good chance of finding an English one. Having learned the names of Indian birds from the older Indian literature I was irritated and frustrated by a self-appointed junta decreeing that many long-established names with which I was familiar had now to be replaced by others of their own invention, but I had to get used to them because all subsequent books used them. Likewise, for birders whose first language is not English it must be frustrating that different parts of the English-speaking world used different names for the same bird.

It cannot have escaped your notice that many of your contributors do not have English as a first language and have to check up on BB usage of vernacular names instead of one international standard. It was surely for such reasons that the IOU took the initiative to standardise vernacular names. If the BOU, AOU and BB had taken a more active part in the process they would not be fighting NIMBYish rearguard actions to retain their local quirks. Is it not time for these organisations to swallow their national pride for the sake of the common good? Birders are becoming as migratory as the birds they watch and need the same names everywhere. Personally, I am not in favour of the the epithet ‘common’ as in Common Raven because it is almost always not true somewhere. It does not make much sense in Australia, but Northern Raven would.

The IOC names decisions are not cast in stone and many of the oddities I pointed out in the wider version of my review have since been addressed. I made a presentation to change a name I particularly disliked and they agreed. That HBW used the name I preferred may have helped.

To digress from the main point, I cannot avoid commenting on the inability of the AOU and BOU to draw the same conclusions from apparently the same evidence on taxa such Least Tern, Green-winged Teal and American Herring Gull. Unless they take their heads out of the sand they will be ignored by the real world of birding, which is increasingly turning to the IOU English names committee for taxonomic decisions.

Martin Gauntlett, 55 Larkfield Avenue, Harrow, Middlesex HA3 8NQ