A capital offence

My camera card reader didn’t arrive yesterday, so that means because of the long weekend it will be Tuesday at the earliest before it shows up. I’ve got a collection of photos building up on the card, so I’m looking forward to it finally arriving! Over the last little while I’ve encountered a few times a particular pet peeve of mine. I thought perhaps since I was still waiting on the photos from my camera, it would be an opportunity to mention it here.

The pet peeve involves the capitalization (or lack of it) of common names of species. Frequently I see instances where the author has used all small letters when writing out the common name of a bird. And it’s a pet peeve of mine for this reason: adjectives within the species name can also be used to describe animals (or plants), and so how are we to tell the difference between a description of an organism and the specific organism in question?

yellow warblers: Hooded, Blue-winged, Mourning, Kentucky, Nashville, Wilson's

Here’s an example. These are all indisputably yellow warblers. Yellow happens to be one of the most common colours in warblers, in fact, and many species sport quite a lot of it.

Yellow Warbler

But none of them are Yellow Warblers, Dendroica petechia, the species in this photo. So when someone is talking about having seen a yellow warbler in the shrubs along the trail, are they talking about Dendroica petechia or one of the others, such as Wilsonia pusilla (Wilson’s Warbler, bottom right in previoius photo)?

yellow-bellied flycatcher: Great Crested

Or how about this one. No one would argue that this is a yellow-bellied flycatcher.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

But it’s a Great Crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus, not a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Empidonax flaviventris, which is the identity of the above. In fact, the yellow-bellied flycatcher previously has a much nicer yellow belly than the actual Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Think also of the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Lewis’s Woodpecker, another red-bellied woodpecker with a much brighter and more noticably red belly.

Field Sparrow

A third example. This bird is a Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla.

field sparrows: Savannah, Song, Chipping, Eastern Towhee

But one could make the argument that all of these are also field sparrows, depending on your definition of field, a rather generic term. When someone talks about the field sparrow, are they referring to the sparrow that lives in fields, rather than those that prefer forests, or are they specifically referring to Spizella pusilla?

Green and Leopard Frogs
A green frog and a green frog.

The official convention adopted for standardized bird names in North America (and elsewhere) is to capitalize the whole species name (with the exception of portions following a hyphen, such as in Yellow-bellied). Interestingly, however, the same convention isn’t in place for other types of animals or plants, and the generally accepted practices for trees and mammals and everything else is to use small letters for the names. So the names would be written as silver maple and black bear.

This really bugs me – how does one then differentiate between the green frog (Rana clamitans) and the other green frog (leopard frog, Rana pipiens) above? Without using scientific names, that is, which I would say the average person probably doesn’t know (for example, I had to look up every single scientific name in this post because I know practically none, even for the species I’m most familiar with). So I buck the “system”, and I capitalize all common species names anyway (I had to fight with myself not to capitalize the frog names there, by habit). And I try not to twitch too much when I find someone talking about long-eared owls and black ducks.

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