Recently, I was showing a visitor around our farm when a Ring Dove flew up from the bamboo. The friend corrected me that it was an “Eurasian Collared Dove”. This was the third time I had been corrected in the last few months, and I felt wobbly as my hard-earned knowledge of bird identities became worthless; I could no longer just rattle off names.
Imagine, one fine day, everyone you know began answering to completely new names. Although he knew his birds well, Rom had long ago adopted a snobbish attitude to them in the presence of bird-people. In his exaggerated nasal New York accent, he referred to them variously as “noisy, stinky boids” and “good croc-chow”. These jibes didn't help. A few days, ago I compared Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds with Krys Kazmierczak's A Field Guide to the Birds of India to see how much I needed to re-learn. The list was long and demoralising.
The familiar Houbara Bustard had become Macqueen's Bustard, the sweet little Lorikeet was transformed into a pedantic Vernal Hanging Parrot, and so on. Only a prissy Victorian could have changed White-breasted Kingfisher to White-throated Kingfisher! They may not be true creatures of the jungle but still, Jungle Crow is the name we call the common large handsome glossy black bird. Now none of the bird books list this name; instead, it is known as the Large-billed Crow. Well, at least it is still a crow; some others have been ignominiously torn from their families and lumped with others, such as the Brahminy Myna which has morphed into the Brahminy Starling. And where did they dredge up some of these names from, such as the Red Avadavat (what sounds like a court order was formerly the Red Munia). The descriptive Streaked Fantail Warbler became Zitting Cisticola, which sounds more like a counterfeit soft drink. What may I ask is wrong with good old Golden-backed Woodpecker? It is now the Common Flameback.
Perhaps what bothered me most was that I had to henceforth refer to the Grey Partridge as Grey Francolin. What's the difference between Partridge and Francolin? In an effort to bring clarity to the bevy of African spurfowls, partridges and francolins, our own bird became enmeshed in an Afro-Asian name change extravaganza. In description, our partridges conform to francolins but behaviourally, they are quite different. Francolins sit motionless on the ground when alarmed, and do not perch on trees or bushes. Grey Francolins, nee Partridges, usually run away but if they have been busy pecking at the ground and didn't notice you approaching, they can give you a cardiac arrest when all of them take off with a sudden whirr of wings. They roost on small trees, bamboo and thorny bushes in our garden, sometimes groups of up to eight birds. Their calls are atonal and reminiscent of a creaky pump dying for a shot of oil. So tell us, O Wise Twitchers (British for ‘bird watcher') do we have a partridge or a francolin here?
This nightmare was unleashed by globetrotting bird-naming (sorry, watching) professionals. Their rationale was that there were too many English names for a single species of bird across its range. But, to replace this chaos with names that are neither common nor even in English isn't the answer. Back in 2004, Ranjit Manakan and Aasheesh Pittie came up with a list that takes the middle path, after much consultation with several bird aficionados. But, foreign experts have largely ignored this tremendous effort. Since the process began, others have joined in to lift this whole enterprise to esoteric levels; for instance, should “common” names have hyphens.
As an amateur bird-watcher, by the time I get up to speed with all the new names, they'll likely have changed twice over. My best bet is to learn the names in Greek or Latin. Better still, get a life!
(A fortnightly column about life on the edge of the jungle with Rom Whitaker. The author can be reached at email@example.com)