On a recent trip to Zimbabwe with a bunch of mates, the topic of “new” bird names came up. As invariably happens when chatting about these name changes with South Africans, there was more than a fair degree of moaning about the fact that so many of their favourite birds’ names had now been changed. We lamented that we wished this would stop as the only logical reason for ornithologists to constantly change names would be in order to keep on selling more of their bird books to budding birders. Or at least that’s what we think.
Never one to keep his mouth shut, one friend did succinctly point out to us that we really needed to stop talking about the “new” bird names and get over ourselves. After all, as he so rightly commented, “those ‘new names’ changed almost 20 years ago – there is nothing ‘new’ about them and they are now just called ‘their names’”.
So why exactly do bird names – and indeed many mammals (such as the plains zebra) and trees (let’s not even get South Africans started on the fact that all our Acacia trees got renamed) – have their names changed to begin with?
The reason comes from our growing knowledge of the world of our feathered friends, as well as simply cleaning up the mess of common names that were starting to emerge across the globe. In the past ornithologists grouped birds together based on their similar physiological features, although modern DNA studies have shown that their classifications were largely correct…but not always!
Francolins and spurfowls (those noisy buggers that wake you up early in the morning here at Tanda Tula) have co-evolved the same general body plan and were traditionally grouped as one genus, but DNA evidence now tells us that they are not that closely related and have been divided up into several different genera, and as a result, we have had to change their common names to reflect these new discoveries. In other instances, DNA evidence suggests that birds that were previously treated as one species across an entire region are actually made up of multiple similar, but separate species – this happened when the bleating warbler got divided into two new, distinctive species with brand new names: green-backed and grey-backed camaropteras.
Other bird names had to be changed simply because we used the same common names to refer to completely different bird species in different parts of the world; and here, the name that had historically been in use for longer got to keep its name, and the other bird had to reinvent itself! This is what happened to our old long-tailed shrike – Asia already had a species by that name, and as it was in use before Africa’s version, their name stayed and ours changed to a magpie shrike. Other name changes were far less dramatic, and despite there being over 300 name changes (out of 970-odd southern African birds), the vast majority are as simple as adding “African”, “southern” or “common” in front of their old names, or even just adding a hyphen into their name.
Coming from a scientific background however, I fully understood the reasons for the name changes, even if I thought that a grey go-away bird was a stupid name for a ‘lourie’, and that a shrike with a long, black tail (much longer than its Asian cousin) that looks nothing like a crow should be called a long-tailed shrike instead of a magpie shrike. I will also be the first to admit that despite my career being one that revolves around knowing what birds I see when on game drive, I was very slow to adopt the new bird names (or based on my poor birding skills, even just their names!), and it wasn’t until someone mentioned a green-backed camaroptera and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about (thinking instead that perhaps it was the discovery of a new dinosaur) that I decided to get rid of my old bird book (so old that it may even have had a picture of a dodo in there somewhere!) and buy a new one, so that I wouldn’t feel so lost when it came to chatting about birds in my back garden.
However, as you learn as a guide, this career is about continued learning, and I was no sooner getting used to referring to a yellow-throated sparrow as a “newly” named yellow-throated petronia when they went and changed the name back to a yellow-throated bush sparrow. Clearly, some ornithologist needed to sell some more books! The truth is, that as our knowledge continues to grow, these name changes are bound to keep on occurring, such as when scientists realise that petronias aren’t actually petronias! And, for those of you that are just settling into the “new” name game, don’t get too comfortable just yet, as there is a great deal of talk in the birding world that more names need to change. Particularly those with eponymous common names celebrating figures tied to colonialism, such as the good old Jameson’s fire finch.
I really need to make friends with someone high up in the ornithological world, as I have some ideas for new bird names myself – names that simply spring up organically from everyday game drive situations. Recently my guests and I had a good chuckle when I pointed out a bird and said its name to which my guest replied, “did you say it’s called a ‘rage-filled hornbill’?” Calming my laughter and pulling my thoughts away from visions of a new Angry Birds character, I attempted to correct my poor pronunciation and tell her that it was correctly called a red-billed hornbill, but it would be a fantastic name for the bird when some ornithologist eventually decides it needs a new name!
So, until next time, keep on learning those new bird names, and keep on being safe!