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Capitalizing Bird Names (1 Viewer)

Sally Conyne

Active member
During the last few years, while working with the IOC team, I’ve spent hundreds of days and thousands of hours working on bird names and ranges. Along with the group, I’ve thought long and hard about and discussed ad nauseam the nuances of punctuation and the structure of names. A few weeks ago, a thread on this forum which focused in part on the history of one of these conventions – capitalization – got me pondering this topic all over again.

Earlier this week, I was in touch with ornithological historian, author and all around great guy, Scott Weidensaul. We got into this topic a bit and I thought you’d enjoy hearing what he had to say. Understand that he was on the road and had no access to his best references except via his computer so he feared that it was incomplete but I thought it was terrific.

From Scott:
“The 1831 Edinburgh editions of Wilson that I can find through Google Books lowercase all bird names, but I'm not sure whether that was the case with the original American editions. The 1831 Philadelphia edition of Audubon's Ornithological Biography, though, capitalizes all proper names -- "Wild Turkey," "Black Wolf," "Elk," "Black Bear" -- but is highly inconsistent about generic names - in the case of birds he caps "Oriole," or "Hawk" but he lowercases (usually) "wolf," "bear" and the like. Thus the die for ornithological exceptionalism was cast early.

Nuttall's 1833 Manual caps names with abandon, both proper (Whooping Crane) and generic ("this Crane"), but also all proper names or animals regardless of taxa ("the spawn of King-Crab, or Horsefoot") but not plants. Even that rule was unevenly applied - there's one page in which "herring" is both upper- and lowercase.

Capitalization seems to have become the norm by the 1870s and '80s, however. Bendire did in his Life Histories, and Coues in Key to North American Birds, while Chapman capitalized what he edited in Bird-Lore, and in his own books like Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist in 1908. So did Ridgway in Ornithology of Illinois (but just the birds - trees, shrubs, wildflowers and all other taxa were relegated to lowly lowercase), but that same year, 1889, Florence Merriam bucked the trend in Birds Through an Opera-glass, perhaps because it was for a "general" audience.

As for now, as I suspect you know, we're pretty much all by our lonesome, at least when compared with the rules for other scientific authorities. For example, the American Association of Mammalogy's Journal of Mammology does not capitalize mammalian proper names now, nor did it back at least as far as 1921. The American Fisheries Society does not, either, and did not as far back as vol. 1 in 1897. The Entomological Society of America requires authors to use approved common names from its "Common Names of Insects" database, but does not capitalize them in any of its journals, starting with vol. 1 of its Annals in 1908. The American Journal of Botany doesn't use many colloquial names (they generally stick with Latin botanicals), but what few they use are always lowercase, and appear to always have been so.

Not surprisingly, the Ecological Society of America - generalists instead of specialists - does not capitalize any common names regardless of taxa in its publications.

The lone exception, besides the ornithologists, are herpetologists. The Journal of Herpetology does capitalize standard names, but I'm not sure how far back that goes - whether it's a recent change or something long-standing. So it's just us and the snake-grabbers against, well, everyone else.”

So after you’ve digested this, I’ll put up a bit about the capitalization discussion that followed.

BTW, neither we nor anyone else I've spoken to seems to have explored the history of the use of caps in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Best wishes,

Sally Conyne
 
BTW, neither we nor anyone else I've spoken to seems to have explored the history of the use of caps in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Best wishes,

Sally Conyne

Thanks Sally,
I cannot help my self but to put in a silly reply: how do you know if a Chinese sign is capitalized or not :-O

Niels
 
Capitalization seems to have become the norm by the 1870s and '80s, however. Bendire did in his Life Histories, and Coues in Key to North American Birds, while Chapman capitalized what he edited in Bird-Lore, and in his own books like Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist in 1908. So did Ridgway in Ornithology of Illinois (but just the birds - trees, shrubs, wildflowers and all other taxa were relegated to lowly lowercase), but that same year, 1889, Florence Merriam bucked the trend in Birds Through an Opera-glass, perhaps because it was for a "general" audience.

But, oddly enough, as I point out in the original thread, Coues did not capitalize in his Field & General Ornithology published in 1872, the same year as the first edition of the Key. Also “bucking the trend” was A. C. Bent’s Life Histories (1917-1968), surely one of the most important bird books of its era, in which lower case is employed throughout.
 
Perhaps the first comprehensive English language bird publication (i.e. attempt at the equivalent of a modern field guide) is that of Willughby (1678). Albin (1738), who did something similar in color, also used capitals for common names. Ray (1713) (which was in Latin) also used some English names, as did Latham and Bewick, who published later in the 1700s. All those authors used capitals generally for common names in example pages I have on the computer. Although Willughby's text uses capitals, some of his plates use lower case for some words. Willughby himself of course drew heavily on Aldrovandi, the Italian ornithologist who authored the first extant general book on bird species at the end of the 1500s. The birds illustrated by these pre-Linnean authors are the type specimens for most European bird species and most common bird species found elsewhere. These persons' contributions to ornithology perhaps ought to be better known.

Linnaeus (1758), in the first accepted usage of binomial nomenclature, referred to many of Willughby, Albin and Ray's common names. [Aside: with all due respect for his innovation in using binomial nomenclature and his botany, Linnaeus was little more than a summariser / databaser when it came to ornithology. His Systema Naturae mostly just gave names to species that other authors had properly recognised,illustrated and described, with the most perfunctory of formal descriptions containing cross-references to page numbers of other works.] Linnaeus was the first to use binomial names alongside common names, and he also generally also used capitals when referring to the English names coined earlier by Willughby, Ray, Albin and any others, alongside his (mostly lower case) latin species names.

Bewick's British Birds (1797) - perhaps the world's first popular field guide or at least one of the first? - also uses capitals for common names.

So this goes way back.
 
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Perhaps another factor driving non-capitalisation was that compositors could assemble typefaces faster if the use of capitals was minimised. The equivalent today might be thought of as texting, where the use of upper case demands more thumb movements!
MJB
 
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