[CT Birds] names, names

Chris Elphick elphick at sbcglobal.net
Sat Dec 12 13:55:24 EST 2009

>good thing no one is talking about the proper way (at least how I learned it 
>in college) about scientific names and all those rules....

Well since you asked (!), here's what I tell students (when they have the patience to listen to my arcane rambling).

1.  When it comes to birds, as Patrick noted, there are widely accepted (and reasonably - though not universally - standardized) common names so its fine to use them instead of the scientific names.  But, in science writing it is always expected that you'll use the scientific name on first use in a piece of writing (otherwise species like black robin cause problems).  Even though names are standardized within North America (by the AOU), internationally this was not so until very recently.  Thankfully there is now international standardization (http://www.worldbirdnames.org/), though not everyone uses it yet (e.g., the AOU has not conformed).

2.  Ornithologists tend to capitalize the common names of species, but frequently only for bird names - i.e., many seem perfectly happy to leave one confused as to whether a white pine actually is, or if it could simply be a pine covered with snow.  The pedantic editor in me is appalled by this ... the most important thing I tell students is that you should be internally consistent in your writing.  So, bottom-line is that ornithological journals/books etc., tend to capitalize bird names.

3. Most other biologists do not capitalize species names, which as Greg pointed out is more consistent with the rules of grammar used in nearly any other context.  So, nearly all non-ornithological scientific journals only capitalize when a proper noun is involved.

4.  So, to use Bill's example, David Sibley does capitalize in the Sibley Guides (and not just for birds, I would add), but when we wrote about woodpeckers in the scientific journal Science and when we were writing the "Sibley on Birds" newspaper column (which went through a New York Times Corp. editor) we did not capitalize.

5.  Finally, there actually are some rules that the AOU uses in its capitalization, evne though they may not be obvious.  E.g., in Great Horned Owl, both adjectives are capitalized, because they are independent descriptors: the owl is both great and horned.  If the name was supposed to reflect only its great horns, then it would be Great-horned.  Similarly the hawk's shoulders are red, so it is Red-shouldered. When dealing with the part of a name that refers to a group of species (e.g., Screech-Owl, Storm-Petrel), then both parts are capitalized, even though they are linked by a hyphen.  This last part may not make obvious sense (it doesn't to me), but it I think it is applied consistently.

I could go on ... (and on ...)

Chris Elphick

Storrs, CT

elphick at sbcglobal.net

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