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Birdwatching 101: Taxonomy and Bird Names

Text and photos by Djop Tabaranza

Some novice birders might be intimidated to talk to the more experienced birders in the field especially when they hear scientific names being mentioned alongside the more familiar common English names or local Filipino names of the birds. So let us delve a bit deeper into how birds get their names.

First and likely the easiest to remember are the common English names.  Most of these are very descriptive of the physical appearance of birds. For example, White-collared Kingfisher which has a white collar around its neck dividing its head from the rest of its bluish upperparts. 

White-collared Kingfisher or Collared Kingfisher

Another example is Pied Fantail where pied describes the two (usually highly contrasting) colors of the species same as the Pied Triller.

Pied Fantail

Next are Filipino bird names that are usually onomatopoeic or are based on the sound or call that they make. Some examples are: (1) Bukaw for the Philippine Hawk Owl and its “boo cow cow-cow” call; and (2) Sabukot for the Philippine Coucal and its “Cha gook gook” call.

Bukaw or the Philippine Hawk Owl

Some Filipino bird names are based on particular behaviors such as Payugyug which comes from “yug-yug” meaning to shake back & forth for Wagtails’ habit of tail-wagging and Kandara which comes from “dapa” meaning to lay prone on the ground for Nightjars’ habit of perching on the ground.

Payugyug or Wagtail

Finally, let us talk about scientific names. Scientific names are composed of 2 words – the genus and specific epithet. This naming system was developed by 18th century Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus who is credited as the Father of Taxonomy.  The names are Latin or Greek or their derivatives. Scientific names (if one finds time to learn the etymology) can be descriptive of the birds appearance or based on the name of the person who discovered it or the patron of the expedition.  For example, the Philippine Eagle’s Pithecophaga jefferyi from pitheco meaning “ape” and phaga meaning “to eat” while jefferyi in honor of Jeffrey Whitehead, the father of English naturalist John Whitehead who first studied and collected the species.  Scientific names are italicized or underlined with only the first letter of the genus name capitalized.

As a side note, just a reminder to everyone that the word “species” is both singular and plural, meaning there is no such word as “specie” when referring to a single kind of bird.

Bird names and taxonomy may seem daunting but is actually a lot of fun and very insightful to learn about. As you get to know and see more birds, knowing something more about the background of their names may also prove helpful when remembering them and may also offer clues about their field marks and how to identify them later on.

For additional reading on bird names and taxonomy, you can check out another Birdwatching 101 article “What’s in a Name?”

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