Here’s my latest For the Birds column. The column has been run continuously for more than 12 years in various New England newspapers. It currently runs Thursdays in The Hour newspaper in Norwalk, Conn.; and Mondays in The Keene (N.H) Sentinel.
The losing sleep references goes back to a prior column whereby I mentioned I would address the bird capitalization issue in an upcoming column and jokingly wrote that I hoped no one would lose any sleep in anticipation:
I know you’ve all been losing sleep over your eagerness to know why I have decided to start capitalizing specific bird names, so here goes. Enjoy catching up on your sleep.
As I alluded to in a column a few weeks ago, after more than 600 For the Birds columns I am making the fundamental change to capitalize bird names when referring to a specific species. It may sound like a minor tweak, but it can go a long way towards avoiding confusion.
Before I get into specific examples of how this will help, let me share what some experts in the bird field say about the matter.
John Fitzpatrick, the director of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has been a guest twice on my weekly birdwatching radio show, BirdCalls-Radio. I asked him about the issue during one of the interviews. Fitzpatrick, who writes extensively about birds, says it is standard practice by The American Ornithologists’ Union to capitalize specific bird names. The AOU is dedicated to the scientific study of birds.
“I’m a capitalizer,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s no ambiguity — you mean that specific species.”
Well-known birder, bird author and field guide creator, Kenn Kaufman, felt the issue of bird name capitalization was important enough that he included an Editor’s Note on the subject in his 1997 classic “Kingbird Highway.”
“Ornithologists and serious birders find that such capitalizing brings clarity in discussing the nearly 10,000 species of birds in the world,” the note reads. “… Readers who are unfamiliar with birding may find all these capital letters jarring at first, but we hope that they will be able to glide over them smoothly after a few chapters.”
Similarly, readers of this column may pause at the capitalized bird names at first. I know I will have trouble remembering to capitalize specific bird names. Thank goodness for the “backspace” button on the keyboard.
Let’s look at a few examples. The example I like to use is yellow warbler. There are more a dozen yellow warblers, but only one Yellow Warbler. For instance, the Magnolia Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and Canada Warbler are all examples of warblers that are yellow. But only the yellow bird with chestnut streaks on its chest is the specific species Yellow Warbler.
If I wrote: “I saw a yellow warbler the other day,” one might assume I mean the specific species, but it could also mean I saw one of a wide variety of warblers that happen to be yellow.
But if I wrote: “I saw a Yellow Warbler the other day,” everyone knows exactly what I’m writing about.
Another example: Several years ago the Associated Press released a story about Eastern Bluebirds in Connecticut. An AP staffer needed to find a photograph of an Eastern Bluebird to accompany the story. Unfortunately, the AP sent a photo of a Steller’s Jay to run with the photo. Sure, the Steller’s Jay is a blue bird, but it certainly is not an Eastern Bluebird. In fact, Steller’s Jays don’t even live in New England. They are a western bird.
Which brings up another interesting point. If I wrote about a bluebird sighting, you would probably assume I’m writing about an Eastern Bluebird because that is the only species of bluebird found in New England. But perhaps I was writing for a more general audience — geographically speaking. If I then wrote about a bluebird sighting, the eastern half of the country would assume Eastern Bluebird and the western half would be confused whether I meant Western Bluebird or Mountain Bluebird.
Being specific and using capitalization would clear up any potential confusion.
The capitalization rule, Fitzpatrick pointed out in his radio interview, applies only when using the full name of a specific species. For instance it is OK to write that you saw a robin in your yard. But, if you were to be more specific, you’d write that you saw an American Robin in your yard.
Hyphenated bird names add another wrinkle to the equation as the word following the hyphen is not capitalized. For instance, it is a Black-capped Chickadee and White-eyed Vireo.
Got all that? Now go get some sleep.
Thanks for your support of BirdCallsRadio