The Key to Scientific Names

Introduction to The Key to Scientific Names by James A. Jobling

I am delighted that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology team invited me to participate in and enhance Birds of the World.

Thanks to the generous input of correspondents world-wide, I have been able to enlarge on many of the entries contained in my previous works, Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (1991), Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (2010), and HBWAlive Key to Scientific Names in Ornithology (2014), and the etymologies of all the scientific names included in The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World (sixth edition), 2007 (the last printed version), and its on-line successors husbanded by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of the World can now be found on this website.

In 1758 the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae was published in Stockholm. It described and diagnosed the natural world as then known to him, including 6 orders, 63 genera and 556 species of birds. This edition of Linnaeus is now accepted as the beginnings of scientific nomenclature in zoology, including ornithology. Since then, more than 60,000 scientific bird names, of genera, subgenera, species and subspecies, have been proposed, arranged, and rearranged in a hierarchy of taxa more complex than that envisaged by Linnaeus.

Latin had been the medium of scientific publications and correspondence for hundreds of years. Birds were named in lengthy diagnoses, often including folk-names and foreign names, to ensure that the reader knew what species was being dealt with. John Ray (1678), in describing the Western Stonechat, listed, “Stone-smich, or Stone-chatter, or Moor-titling. Oenanthus nostra tertia: Muscicapa tertia, Aldrov. The Rubetra of Bellonius as we judge, which Gesner makes the same with his Todtenvogel, or Flugenstecherlin.” Linnaeus’s aims were to describe relationships and systematise the natural world, by providing simple two-part names for each species, using words taken directly from classical Latin or transliterated from Greek or other, mainly European, languages. For the Western Stonechat he coined the simple binomen Motacilla rubicola (now Saxicola rubicola).

The importance of a system which identifies a species in any tongue is apparent when one considers the various species world-wide sharing the substantive names Robin, Blackbird, Warbler, Sparrow, and Finch, and the confusing variety and limitations of vernacular names.

James A. Jobling, March 2021