The Name Game

Along the way, as I often do, I got distracted.

Last month I was writing a few words about my attempt to identify a bird on power pole. Raven or crow? Corvus corax or Corvus brachyrhynchos? Their scientific names—binomials, genus and species—piqued my interest.

What did they mean? Did they give any clues as to the differences between the birds?

The two-part names are usually Latin, but sometimes Greek or sometimes something else altogether.  They are standardized so that everyone knows exactly what we are talking about when we refer to that noisy black bird scavenging in the parking lot as a Corvus brachyrhynchos.

I started with Google, but didn’t find the answer easily using a Latin translation website, so I asked one of my local reference librarians who sent me back to the internet.  I kept scrolling and cobbled together what I thought was the answer.  Corvus means crow.  And, from what I could tell brachyrhyncos seemed to mean short-nosed.  But I wasn’t completely certain I was right and, worse, I wasn’t satisfied.

Still trolling, I discovered a book published in 2014 called Latin for Bird Lovers: Over 3000 bird names explored and explained written by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr.  Bingo.  But my library didn’t have a copy.

I published my raven or crow blog post without defining their scientific names and  waited for the book to arrive in the mail.


It didn’t disappoint.  A compact hard cover, it’s the perfect companion to my birding field guides. The definitions are arranged dictionary style with lots of color illustrations and supplemental information—a whole page devoted to the Corvus genus.

I’ve been going through it slowly.  Looking up birds as they appear in my backyard, first in the field guide to learn their scientific name and then in the book of definitions.

Of course, I started with the ravens and crows.  Corvus means crow in Latin and corax means raven, also in Latin.  Brachyrynchos, a two part word: brachy means short in Greek and rynchus, bill in Latin.  That makes the common raven in my back yard the “crow raven” and his smaller counterpart, the American crow, the “short-billed crow.”

The red-breasted American robin that has recently returned to my bird bath is the Turdus migratorius or “wandering thrush.” The midnight blue Steller’s jay with its saucy crest is the Cyanocitta stelleri or “dark blue jay named for the German naturalist, George Steller.”

With its three thousand definitions you would think it would be years before I ran up against the book’s limits, but it happened quickly when a red-crowned, zebra-striped bird showed up at the feeder.  It is known as the ladder-backed woodpecker or Picoides scalaris.  Picoides means woodpecker-shaped, but scalaris is not defined.

Looks like I’ll be on the hunt for the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names if I really want to know the answer.  Referenced by the authors in their introduction, it boasts 20,000 definitions.  I checked, but my library doesn’t have it.


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