In 1988, a handsome hardback entitled Biographies for Birdwatchers was published to some acclaim. It contained short biographies of about 90 persons whose names are commemorated in bird names (known as eponyms), either their English names or their scientific names. It was compelling reading. For the first time in a single volume, it was possible to discover something about the lives and exploits of the many people who had discovered or described Western Palearctic birds. Some of these names, such as Montagu, Pallas, Sabine and Hume, are relatively well known to most birders, but who were they and what else did they do? The authors, Barbara and Richard Mearns, went on to compile a second volume about North American eponyms (Audubon to Xantus), and a third book on the same theme (The Bird Collectors). All three books were essential reading for birders with an interest in ornithological exploration and the discovery of new birds.
Now, more than 30 years later, the Mearns’ original book has received a massive update. All of the original accounts have been extensively revised, updated and expanded, but there are now many more accounts. The bird list for the Western Palearctic has lengthened over the past three decades, thanks to both vagrants and taxonomic revisions, adding many new eponymic names. Furthermore, the geographical limits of the region have also been increased, in line with recent practice, and the region treated here now includes all of the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. This has resulted in the addition of some great but lesser-known ornithologists such as Christian Pander, Theodor Pleske and Nikolai Zarudny. In the revised work, Volume 1 now contains accounts on 163 people who have full species named after them, while Volume 2 provides shorter biographies for 179 people whose names are commemorated in the subspecific trinomials of Western Palearctic birds.
In recent years, there has been a desire in some quarters to replace eponyms of certain people whose morals or actions would not be acceptable today with names that are more descriptive or relevant. It is true that a very few of those whose names are commemorated in bird names were slave owners or committed other atrocities, but the vast majority were decent, pioneering ornithologists who laid the scientific basis for our hobby today. It is also true that most of these people were men, and that many (or most) indiscriminately killed birds for museums or personal collections, but they were products of their time. They didn’t have high-definition optical aids or digital cameras, nor did they have high-speed means of transport to reach the far-flung places they explored. Great hardships were frequently endured, and many died young, often a long way from home. I find the tales of ornithologists of the past fascinating, and I think it would be a shame to replace eponyms with much more mundane descriptive names. But, of course, many would not be lost forever; even if an English name is changed, a scientific-name eponym will live on – it is much harder to change these.
This massively expanded edition now comes in two paperback volumes, available only as a set in a rather flimsy slipcase. The paper quality has improved, and it has grown in size too, now being in A4 format, which makes the books a little unwieldy. I have, though, thoroughly enjoyed dipping into these fascinating tomes, and just having them on my desk has frequently distracted me from other work that I should be doing. The standard of writing and editing is excellent and I found very few errors. My only comment is that the authors’ interpretation of the Western Palearctic is slightly generous: Pander’s Ground Jay Podoces panderi, restricted to Central Asia, does not actually occur in the Western Palearctic, and Zarudny’s Sparrow Passer zarudnyionly formerly (and marginally) occurred in northeast Iran; but this is not a criticism, and I would rather have more of these biographies than any omissions.
It’s a great shame that these two volumes are fairly expensive, and I suspect this treasure trove of information will not reach as many as it should. Birders are interested in eponyms, and I am frequently asked who these people were whose names we use and yet know so little about. For the price charged, I do think that the books should have been produced as hardbacks, especially as the extra production cost of a hardback is actually rather little. Minor niggles apart, these books will occupy a special place on my bookshelves, and somewhere they can be easily reached.