New feature: The Key to Scientific Bird Names, Edited by James Jobling

BOW Team August 19, 2021
Desert Owl (Strix hadorami) by Jens Eriksen (ML63556211)
Desert Owl (Strix hadorami) by Jens Eriksen (ML63556211)

Desert Owl (Strix hadorami) by Jens Eriksen ( (ML63556211)

There are 10,824 distinct bird species on earth, each with a two-part scientific name (binomial), and many subspecies with a three-part scientific name (trinomial). Scientific names distinguish a species from every other organism in the world and reveal scientists’ best guess of its phylogenetic position – its relationships to other birds – or where it sits in the avian family tree. While common names can range from random to confusing, binomials go further to explain these interrelationships.

Scientific names also capture historical and descriptive details. Binomials sometimes honor a specific individual, such as the person who collected the first specimen or a revered colleague (Ridgway’s Hawk, Buteo ridgwayi). Others describe something about the bird’s appearance (White Tern, Gygis alba), or in the case of the Northern Mockingbird, its behavior. Look at this rich description of the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), which draws on literature, naturalist notes, and more.

Key to Scientific Names for Northern Mockingbird
Key to Scientific Names for Northern Mockingbird

Yet other bird names refer to a little of both. Trogon violaceus, the scientific name of Guianan Trogon, is one such name, which translates to “violet-colored fruit-eater.”

Still others mark the location where it was first found, or even evoke a mythological deity. The massive Harpy Eagle (Harpy harpyja), for example, was named after the half-human and half-bird creatures of ancient Greek mythology. Both the Ceyx and Halcyon genera of kingfishers are also rooted in Greek mythology.

What if you could bring this information together into a single resource? We are pleased to announce that, through a partnership with British scholar James A. Jobling, we have done just that.

James – a retired civil servant ­and scholar of bird names – has long been fascinated by birds and language and single-handedly amassed a remarkably deep collection of translations for every scientific bird name. Birds of the World now features his life’s work, available for free to anyone who has ever wondered about the etymology of scientific bird names.

Project Lead Brian Sullivan was especially eager to welcome James to the team: “As a birder and ornithologist, I’ve long-struggled to learn and understand the scientific names of birds. Why is each species named what it is? And what do these names reveal about the birds themselves? James Jobling’s “Key to Scientific Names” provides the answers to all these questions and more in a living, free resource embedded neatly within the Birds of the World.  These scientific names are often hard to read, pronounce, and remember, but when you know what they mean, their value, and their beauty, comes into clear focus. The next time I’m astonished by the fast, high-arcing flight of a Pterodroma petrel, I’ll appreciate it that much more by knowing the person who described the genus also must have watched in fascination at this ‘winged runner’ of the seas, and so named it to reflect its dazzling flight style.”

James first brought his passions together in the Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, published by Oxford University Press in 1991.  In the intervening years a larger edition appeared (Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names 2010), and his passion grew into an association with Lynx Edicions to create the HBW Alive Key to Scientific Names in Ornithology (2014-2020), which is now fully incorporated into Birds of the World.

As Editor of the “Key to Scientific Names” in Birds of the World, James continues to collect new information to expand the Key. These updates are reflected in real time on the site.

The next time you’re wondering about the history or meaning of a scientific bird name, just visit Birds of the World and navigate to any species account. When you click the small “i” in a blue dot next to the species’ scientific name, a modal window with definitions will appear. Find it also by navigating directly to the Key, where both current and historical scientific names are searchable. A comprehensive guide to the key is also available.

We hope you enjoy this vast and impressive resource.