Simply Superb

5 May 2015 | The Mara |

What’s in a Name? . . a bird’s name, that is . . .

Nothing seems to get a birdwatcher more ruffled than when he or she finds out that a bird’s name has changed. In days of yore (i.e. about five years ago) this news would only come to light when a new edition of a beloved bird field guide or reference book was published.

These days – now that just about everyone can access the world wide web – this sort of information comes barrelling down at you very quickly and from several angles – email, social media, blogs and twitter.

Birds, like other living things, actually have two names. First and foremost they have a scientific name that describes the genus and species. We have this too: Homo sapiens. Among the African starlings, for example, there are at least nine genera including Lamprotornis. And within this genus there are numerous species all of which share common features including – in this particular case – blindingly iridescent feathers. So, for example, we have Lamprotornis nitens, Lamprotornis hildebrandtii and Laprotornis superbus.

In addition to the scientific name, birds and other organisms have a common or vernacular name – this being in the language of the people who see and watch it – and this is where most of the trouble seems to be. In English, the three species mentioned above go by the names of Cape Glossy Starling, Hildebrandt’s Starling and Superb Starling respectively. But they have different names in French, Spanish and German – not that they occur outside of captivity in any of those countries. Various African languages also have their own names, although this rarely goes down to species level for most bird families. Naturally, English-speaking people don’t give a hoot what one of ‘their’ birds is called in another language.

But they can get quite agitated when one of these common names – the ones that appear alongside the bird in field guides and on checklists – gets an overhaul. People have often grown up calling a bird by a particular name and they don’t take kindly when some ornithological committee in Stockholm or Stockport decide its time for a change.

Personally, I like change and believe it makes us grow. But put me in a pub with a bunch of similarly aged birdwatchers and I’ll soon be drinking alone. “That was a great view of those Plum-coloured Starlings, wasn’t it!” says Eric. “Plum-coloured? – you must mean Violet-backed”? I reply. End of conversation.

Eric just can’t get his head around the idea that this bird has been called Violet-backed Starling in Kenya for decades, as long as South Africans have been calling it Plum-coloured. With birders in general being quite a mobile lot, surely they should be open to a more continental, indeed global, approach to English names? The International Ornithological Committee (IOC) is the body responsible for resolving such matters and they have representatives from many countries on their panel. When there is more than one English name for a bird – and this is the case more often than not – a choice has to be made because books will get published and lists will be made.

Birders, like gardeners, seem to be rather afraid of scientific names so most of them are not bothered when Sturnus becomes Cinnyricinclus. To be perfectly honest, it is practically impossible to pronounce half of these names, but that’s a whole different kettle of kookaburras.

Back to the starlings. Does it have a violet back? Is it plum-coloured? What colour is a plum anyway?

One starling that you’d think nobody would disagree over the name of, is the Superb Starling. It really does have superb plumage, and ‘superb’ is a subjective term so it is difficult to argue about. Was ‘Citizen Kane’ really a better movie than ‘Splash’? Hildebrandt’s Starling (named in honour of a German ornithologist) is also a superb-looking starling with glossy plumage, while the Golden-breasted Starling may be the most superb-looking of all starlings.

Oh, by the way, there is also a bird called a Splendid Starling (L.splendidus).

The thing is, talking about birds is almost as much fun as looking at them. And getting to grips with a ‘new’ or alternative name is way of understanding that the world might just be a bit bigger than your own backyard.

Caption: Illustrated here is the Superb Starling (the actual species with capitalized letters!) rather than a superb-looking starling – that could be one of many. This dazzling starling is one of the 12 species selected for the ‘Angama Mara Birding Challenge’ – a sort of fun ‘treasure hunt’ that guests will be encouraged to partake in.


AUTHOR: Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is an all-round naturalist who has worked in conservation and ecotourism projects in eleven African countries. He has authored and illustrated several books on wildlife and has written numerous popular articles for periodicals such as ‘Travel Africa’ and ‘African Birding’. In 2014, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the Witwatersrand for his interactive work with African safari guides and his contribution to the conservation of vultures and other species. He never goes anywhere without his camera, notepad or sketchbook, relaying his observations through illustrated articles and blog postings.

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