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Bird names

As outlined in the BOURC’s 35th report, the BOU will continue to follow the International Ornithological Congress’s recommendations for English bird names at the international level. BOURC’s adoption of Gill & Wright (2006) (now updated, see Gill & Donsker, 2012) is part of the wider BOU adoption of this work for English names across all BOU activities and publications (including Ibis ).

The BOU agrees that having a set of agreed English names for international use is important, especially as the understanding of scientific names continues to diminish and scientific names themselves are no more stable than English names. In an increasingly English-speaking world, English names will be easier for the majority to remember than increasingly unfamiliar scientific names. However, stability is yet to arrive even at the international level since some international names have changes between the publication of Gill & Wright (2006) and further updates in Gill & Donsker (2010 and 2012). Other changes may yet follow as these international names gain recognition globally.

However, vernacular names remain the most familiar identifier for British birds for British birders, so BOURC will continue to publish the English vernacular name in current usage within Britain in updates to the British List and in reports and other Committee publications.

Vernacular names themselves are not completely stable and do change over time. Such changes are largely generational differences driven in the main by the publications of the day.

Since the publication of the second edition of 'A List of British Birds’ (BOU 1923) there have been many changes to the vernacular names of even some of the most familiar of British birds. In 1923 the Robin was known as Redbreast, tits were titmice and the Dunnock was the Hedge-Sparrow (note the hyphen). Many less familiar species have also seen name changes such as Arctic Skua which used to be known as Buffon’s Skua, and Cattle Egret was Buff-backed Heron. In 1923 the list of British bird names also contained many inconsistencies, none more so than the inconsistent and seemingly random use of hyphens, e.g. Black-Grouse (but no hyphen in Red Grouse) and Reed-Bunting (but no hyphen is Little Bunting). Many of these hyphenated forms have since been dropped and family names are more clearly defined.

The use of hyphens can however be very useful in helping to differentiate between species, even at the vernacular level. For many years birders have used Stone Curlew for Burhinus oedicnemus, but this suggests that this species is related to the Numenius curlews such as Curlew and Whimbrel when it clearly isn’t. The same also applies to Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus, which is not related to the Buteo buzzards, and Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax which is not an Ardea heron or related to any of the smaller heron species. In these instances, the BOURC feels that it is justified to alter the written form of a vernacular name without changing the spoken form of the name in order to make the true species form more distinct. As such, the BOURC will now use the vernacular names of Stone-curlew, Honey-buzzard and Night-heron in its publications.

We have added a table of bird names (Excel file) to the BOU website which includes the current English vernacular name, the now agreed international English name (where different to the vernacular), the current scientific name, and the 1923 English vernacular and scientific names. This table amply illustrates the many changes made to both vernacular and scientific names since 1923, and highlights that neither set of names has been any more stable than the other during this period. English vernacular and international use names have proved more stable than scientific names in recent years (see the changes to the scientific names of terns hirundines and tits in Sangster et al , 2005, Ibis 147: 821-826 - this paper alone contained 15 changes to the 29 scientific names of species across these three groups, with no changes to any of the 29 English names) and will probably continue to be more stable as ongoing taxonomic research is more likely to see changes to scientific names than it is to English names.

DOWNLOAD English and scientific names - 1923 to 2012 (Excel file)

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