A Review by Anthony Cheke

GILL, F. & WRIGHT, M., on behalf of the International Ornithological Congress. Birds of the World: Recommended English Names. 272 pages, CD. London: Christopher Helm (A&C Black), 2006. Paperback, £19.99, ISBN 9780713679045. Contact (distribution service): 01256 302699; website:

Back in 1990, the International Ornithological Congress'saw the need for better standardized vernacular names' and initiated the process leading to this putatively definitivelist of English names for all living birds. They are far from 'vernacular', but that is another issue. As the Introductionexplains, several prominent ornithologists declined to participate, considering the project a waste of time,impossible or inappropriate. Thus, first Burt Monroe, then Frank Gill, convened committees of those who were infavour, hence the result comes from a partisan subset of English-speaking ornithologists. In the absence of consensus, it seems appropriate for a reviewer to look at the booknot only on its own terms, but also at whether the projectactually benefits ornithology at all.

As any well-read Holarctic birder knows, some names for widespread species differ unrecognizably on either side of the Atlantic, North American 'loons', 'jaegers' or 'murres' sounding foreign to Britons used to 'divers', 'skuas' and 'guillemots'. Traditions diverge when populations are isolated, and since we are nowadays enjoined to respect multicultural diversity, should we not also respect the variation within the 'English' cultural radiation? English is widely used in India and, responding in 2002 to the IOC initiative, the Bombay Natural History Society published a list of English names in the Indian tradition (Manakadan & Pittie (2002) Newsl. for Birdwatchers 42 (3): i-viii, 1-36), asking:

Who does the standardized, worldwide list of English bird names benefit? ... It is definitely useful to the globetrotting birdwatcher ... [who] ... prefers books with standardized bird names ... but ... there is already a fine system in place to do just that, the Linnaean system of nomenclature. Change that benefits everybody is good. But change for the sake of change is another thing. The globalization of bird names impoverishes the unique culture, history, character and literature, the very fabric, of a nation's ornithological history. Indian English names of birds are as cherished by us as are American English names by the Americans and UK English names by the British.

Despite the appeal to local tradition, the Indian list had already lost such gems as Pharoah's Chicken ( Neophron percnopterus , Egyptian Vulture) and Paddy Bird ( Ardeola grayi , Indian Pond Heron) that graced Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds (1941). Although published well before the end-2004 deadline, the BNHS list was apparently ignored by the IOC project (whose Oriental subcommittee contained no Asians), and escapes mention in their meagre bibliography. The Indians tried, and failed, to get their voice heard.

Mentioned in the Introduction, and echoed by the Indians, is the major objection that nomenclatural uniformity is supposed to be vested in the scientific ('Latin') names as codified by Linnaeus in 1758. So why replicate this in English? Given that English is now the international scientific lingua franca , there is a case for a set of names recognized by all English-speaking ornithologists, not least because they are often in practice more stable than the Latin ones, but that is no reason to abolish local variations. However, the IOC list is clearly designed to do just that, as the authors urge birders, editors, government agencies and conservation organizations to comply with the 'International English Name'. Authors are already under pressure to conform, as I know from personal experience.

Additionally, bird names based on geography risk change with the political wind. We have been spared the 'Zaïre Peafowl', and 'Fernando Po' survives (no 'Bioko' birds), but New Hebridean birds are now named for Vanuatu, and numerous Singhalese endemics have mutated from 'Ceylon X' to 'Sri-Lanka X' (interestingly, the Indian list stuck to 'Ceylon'). But partition looms, suggesting we may need 'Ceylon' again for the island itself, independent of the included states. A stable set of geographical names irrespective of political changes would benefit all disciplines, and I would urge scientific and geographical bodies to look into this.

Back to the book, and the practical question of how well the Committee tackled the task they set themselves. Did they follow their own criteria, as set out in the Introduction? Firstly, most names are in fact uncontroversial, and have been stable for generations - a sample of seven small families suggests about 15% of IOC names differ from those in Michael Walters's fairly conservative Britishbased Complete Birds of the World (1980). For the rival British and North American names, the committee allocated one way or the other, tending to the American version. The stated policy was for genera or species-groups to have names of English extraction, with local names in other languages (e.g. Hawaiian) as a second string, normally qualified by an adjective; established and unambiguous single-word names were acceptable, however. They preferred unique names for genera, but allowed some long-established 'genera' to be used for disparate groups, e.g. 'robin', 'sparrow', 'finch' and 'vulture'. Thus, some venerable 'incorrect' names such as Java Sparrow, Zebra Finch and Willie Wagtail survive, while others do not. Amongst the casualties is Peking Robin, which cedes to 'Red-billed Leiothrix' ( Leiothrix lutea ), a name that breaches both their declared brevity norm and more importantly that of etymology, 'leiothrix' being neither English nor ethnic. Furthermore, it has been upgraded to 'genus', and its only congener, the Silver-eared Mesia L. argentauris , also becomes a 'Leiothrix'. Not only is 'robin' an accepted multigenus term, but 'inaccurate' geographical terms are explicitly permitted where established - no change in Dartford Warbler or Philadelphia Vireo (examples cited in the Introduction) - so Peking Robin should have won on all counts! Yet this illustrates another bias: many long-standing names (such as Zebra Finch or Peking Robin) have their origins in aviculture, a strand of ornithology unrepresented on the IOC committee, hence many well-known names (Spice Finch, Leadbeater's Cockatoo, Abyssinian Lovebird) have vanished, though 'Abyssinia' survives, surprisingly, in the name of a white-eye (Zosteropidae). Some entirely new names have been invented: 'Angel Tern' (for Gygis alba ) is discussed in the Introduction, ceding Fairy Tern to Sterna nereis , the familiar alternative, White Tern, eschewed as, apparently, too naff ('truly bland'); but there are also others, e.g. 'King Quail' for Painted/ Blue-breasted Quail Coturnix chinensis. Worse, Lesser Noddy Anous tenuirostris becomes 'Sooty Noddy' - a recipe for confusion, as these noddies feed and breed widely together with Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata . The nadir here is 'Madeiracrest' ( Regulus madeirae ). Are we to expect 'eurocreepers', 'spainpeckers' or 'floridabills' in the IOC's next outing?

As language and culture evolves, names change organically. In Britain , during my lifetime, the attractive Scottish 'Bonxie' has become the birders' name of choice for Stercorarius skua , but the IOC have retained the obsolescent 'Great Skua'. The endangered Psittacula eques has been called 'Echo Parakeet' (from its junior synonym P. echo ) in conservation circles since the 1970s, but the IOC have 'Mauritius Parakeet'. 'Echo' is more evocative and felicitous, so why entrench the pedantic alternative? The familiar 'Madagascar Fody' Foudia madagascariensis becomes ambiguously 'Red Fody' (most male fodies are red), when they could have adopted the widely used French/creole name, and used 'Cardinal Fody'. On the (grammatically) bright side, the IOC have preserved, against the trend, possessive apostrophes for birds named after people: 'Spix Macaw' loses to 'Spix's Macaw'. There are arcane rules on whether compound names should be merged, hyphenated or kept as two words, which have somehow led to 'stonechat' becoming 'stone chat', while treecreepers and woodpeckers retain single-word status, and 'cuckooshrike' loses its hyphen. Deciding not to make taxonomic changes for this list, they chose to (largely) follow the revised Howard & Moore (Dickinson 2003), whose unique sequence, i.e. Joel Cracraft's variant of Sibley-Monroe, they also adopt. Stable sequences are as desirable as stable names and perhaps best fixed independent of phylogenetic advances? Another job for the IOC?

Accepting that their list is a work in progress, Gill and Wright expect feedback from the birding community worldwide. I suspect that general agreement is most likely if the list serves as a vehicle of international communication rather than a diktat , and if local names are encouraged alongside the IOC's ones. Thus, in Britain we would have 'Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger)' for Stercorarius parasiticus , in North America 'Oldsquaw (Long-tailed Duck)' for Clangula hyemalis , in Australasia 'Gray's Greybird (Black-tipped Cicadabird)' for Coracina schisticeps and in India 'Brainfever Bird (Common Hawk Cuckoo)' for Hierococcyx varius . The IOC list will need regular review to accommodate taxonomic changes and user feedback.

I would encourage all English-speaking birders, amateur and professional, to engage with what is happening here. The rationale (the book's Introduction) can be downloaded free from the website of Princeton University Press (the book's publisher in North America), though naturally you have to pay to get the list itself. This comes with a CD-Rom of all the world's birds in an Excel file, which, however one sees the names, is a useful resource - once downloaded it can be searched, cut-and-pasted, subdivided, names changed, etc. - build your own checklists the easy way!