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Why are common names of birds capitalized?

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Old Thursday 23rd June 2011, 21:16   #1
Mysticete
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Why are common names of birds capitalized?

Out of curiosity, does anyone know why this is so, and when it started? I suppose one element is that common names of birds have been standardized to an extent not seen in mammals, but I find it curious that all of the "standard" seem to be lower case for mammals in journals, while in many bird journals (Auk, etc), common names are capitalized.
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Old Thursday 23rd June 2011, 21:40   #2
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A notable high-profile exception in the UK is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, with over a million members), which steadfastly refuses to adopt leading capitals for common names - to the irritation of many mainstream birders.

Personally, I think leading capitals are useful, making it clear that a particular species is concerned. eg, otherwise 'little owl' could mean either Athene noctua, or an unspecified small owl sp (or perhaps a juv large owl sp )...
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Old Thursday 23rd June 2011, 22:16   #3
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Capitalization War!

Usage is varied enough that it's a matter of personal preference, as long as you aren't in the situation of needing to follow the style policies for a publication. I do hate it when people put "hot" species in all-caps.
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Old Thursday 23rd June 2011, 22:35   #4
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yes...it was the style policies that were the reason for my comments, especially in a paper that was largely going to be used to revise a portion of an existing checklist
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 00:01   #5
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I’ve often wondered about the historical background to this also, but now it’s just a matter of individual choice & house style. Personally I always capitalize bird names but never those of plants or other animals: “House Finch” just looks good to me on the page while “House Mouse” & “Virginia Creeper” (except for the Virginia part) just don’t.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 01:01   #6
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I think there might be a Germanic influence. In Danish historically (100 years ago?), and I believe in German even later, nouns were usually capitalized. Has bird taxonomy been more influenced by native German speakers than mammal taxonomy?

(One other curiosity: in Danish today, the name of the country is capitalized, but the name of its language is not; so it would be "Danmark" but "dansk" (second word local for Danish)).

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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 02:06   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mysticete View Post
Out of curiosity, does anyone know why this is so, and when it started? I suppose one element is that common names of birds have been standardized to an extent not seen in mammals, but I find it curious that all of the "standard" seem to be lower case for mammals in journals, while in many bird journals (Auk, etc), common names are capitalized.
Thanks for asking a question which I've wondered about!
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 12:00   #8
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I have a sneaking suspicion it dates back to the start of populist birdwatching and the reluctance of many to utilise the scientific names. The vernacular names are more noticable using upper case letters to start each part. Personally I prefer to see vernacular names with initial capitals, particularly in non-scientific areas.

Chris

BTW Pinyon Jay or pinyon jay or even Pinyon jay ???????

c
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 12:42   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chris butterworth View Post
I have a sneaking suspicion it dates back to the start of populist birdwatching and the reluctance of many to utilise the scientific names. The vernacular names are more noticable using upper case letters to start each part. Personally I prefer to see vernacular names with initial capitals, particularly in non-scientific areas.

Chris

BTW Pinyon Jay or pinyon jay or even Pinyon jay ???????

c
I suspect that it goes back further than the start of populist birding (which I would put circa 1970 - soon after the arrival of colour TV in the UK, and the nature programmes that followed). Looking at my "Birds of Devon", published in 1895, species' names are capitalised and I guess this would go back well before then. (Mind you, some changes have occurred, e.g. Yellowhammer back then was Yellow Hammer!).

But I think Richard K hits the nail on the head when he says it's about precision. Capitalised, there is no doubt that the writer is referring to a specific species.

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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 12:53   #10
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I am not sure about how the capitalization/non-capitalization thing evolved, but I personally just prefer the Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron approach. This is how I generally type the species names.

For whatever reason, I find that I do not carry this over to flora and mammals. Kind of curious!
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 13:00   #11
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A quick look in Britsh Birds No. 1 (June 1907) shows capped up common names.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 13:10   #12
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Thinking a bit more about the " precision" point how about this: Around here, black-headed gulls are common gulls, whereas common gulls are scarce, although not as scarce as other black-headed gulls. Confused? You will be.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 13:11   #13
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Never actually thought about this because I always assumed that using the capitals in say a field guide was similar to capitals in the chapter of a book, just to give emphasis and make it stand out. Personally I write the english name like the scientifice name, with a capital on the first word only and avoid hyphens altogether.

Yellow crowned night heron
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 13:14   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chris butterworth View Post
I have a sneaking suspicion it dates back to the start of populist birdwatching
I should have made it clearer, sorry. I didn't mean the latest round of populist birding - which probably did start at the end of the 70's - but the original move away from either killing birds for scientific reasons or killing birds per se. This was probably about the end of the 19thC when the RSPB got started and there were many more similar groups with names like "The Tweetybird League" and " Our Feathered Friends Appreciation Society" and other cringe-worthy stuff. Each produced a magazine and each had to grab the eye of the public so highlighting the names made sense. As for early "British Birds", that evolved from "The Zoologist" a magazine that was, in many ways, unashamedly populist.

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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 13:16   #15
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Yellow crowned night heron
Is that a yellow Night Heron wearing a crown, or a Night Heron with a yellow crown?

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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 14:27   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chris butterworth View Post
Is that a yellow Night Heron wearing a crown, or a Night Heron with a yellow crown?
Or even a heron in moonlight (= yellow-crowned night)? Capitals are mostly just a matter of taste & convenience, but hyphens really matter!
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 15:52   #17
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Originally Posted by njlarsen View Post
I think there might be a Germanic influence. In Danish historically (100 years ago?), and I believe in German even later, nouns were usually capitalized. Has bird taxonomy been more influenced by native German speakers than mammal taxonomy?
Niels
In German nouns are still capitalised
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 15:56   #18
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And then again should it be Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron or Yellow-crowned Night-heron.

The last one for me - but I think we may have been here before
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 16:11   #19
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In German nouns are still capitalised
As they were in English until the end of the 18th century.

But back OT, I just checked: Audubon capitalized common names in Birds of America (1827-38) so it looks like the practice goes back quite a ways, at least on this side of the pond.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 16:42   #20
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Hyphens...

Quote:
Originally Posted by Trystan View Post
Yellow crowned night heron
Quote:
Originally Posted by chris butterworth View Post
Is that a yellow Night Heron wearing a crown, or a Night Heron with a yellow crown?
Quote:
Originally Posted by fugl View Post
Or even a heron in moonlight (yellow-crowned night)? Capitals are mostly just a matter of taste & convenience, but hyphens really matter!
In the absence of hyphens, adjectives (and adjectival nouns) generally apply from the noun backwards: yellow [crowned [night [heron]]]. So yellow crowned night heron would describe a night heron that's crowned and yellow. Only one hyphen is necessary to ensure the correct meaning: yellow-crowned night heron. [Notwithstanding the fact that AOU additionally uses hyphens to create group names (eg, night-heron) in an attempt to indicate close relationships between species (where possible within the limitations of existing common names). But that's a different can of worms...]

Similarly, Olive Tufted Flycatcher doesn't need any hyphens because, working back from the noun, it's clearly a tufted flycatcher that's olive (not a flycatcher with olive tufts); but Olive-tree Warbler requires a hyphen to prevent interpretation as a tree warbler that's olive.

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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 16:46   #21
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Originally Posted by fugl View Post
Or even a heron in moonlight (= yellow-crowned night)? Capitals are mostly just a matter of taste & convenience, but hyphens really matter!
Do they really matter?

People are demonstrating that the position of the hyphens is up for debate anyway and the context of the text itself tells you all you need to know.

Two Dips post regarding gulls for example is perfectly understandable but in truth you would never write it in that way, you would adjust your language to make clear what you were saying.

Around here Black headed gulls are common, whereas Common gulls are scarce, although not as scarce as other gulls with black heads.

Using capitals at the start or even for every word in the birds name nullifies the need for the hyphen.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 17:10   #22
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Originally Posted by Trystan View Post
Do they really matter?
Using capitals at the start or even for every word in the birds name nullifies the need for the hyphen.
Hyphens probably don't really matter if the reader already knows the species concerned. But the fact remains that 'Yellow Crowned Bird' means something quite different from 'Yellow-crowned Bird'.
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 17:11   #23
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Originally Posted by Trystan View Post
Using capitals at the start or even for every word in the birds name nullifies the need for the hyphen.
No it doesn't
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 19:16   #24
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Hyphens probably don't really matter if the reader already knows the species concerned. But the fact remains that 'Yellow Crowned Bird' means something quite different from 'Yellow-crowned Bird'.
Still have to disagree because Yellow crowned bird is not a species but a description, you are now using english adjectives so you would say:

Yellow, crowned bird

Using a comma to make clear your description.

Joe, I will argue or concede the point if you elaborate but you give me nothing to work with :)
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Old Friday 24th June 2011, 19:31   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Trystan View Post

Two Dips post regarding gulls for example is perfectly understandable but in truth you would never write it in that way, you would adjust your language to make clear what you were saying.

Around here Black headed gulls are common, whereas Common gulls are scarce, although not as scarce as other gulls with black heads.
I'm not sure how you would adjust your language to make it clear what you were saying unless it's possible to speak in italics. To use the gull analogy, you're saying black gulls with heads are common whereas Common gulls are scarce but which Common are we talking about? Wimbledon Common?

I agree that bird names should be capitalised to avoid confusion though it makes me laugh seeing scientific names on commercial products using capitals for both parts e.g. Melaleuca Alternifolia. Why, that could even put me off buying their products. Pedantic, moi?
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