In the mid 1700s a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus became frustrated with the inability of scientists from different countries to communicate with each other. The source of his frustration was the names given to species of animals, plants and birds. There was no consistency from one country to another: in some cases different names were being applied to the same species and in other cases the same name was being applied to different species. Linnaeus devised a standard binomial (two name) system of Latin names that is still in use today.
The first of the two names identifies the genus, or group, to which the species belongs and the second name identifies the specific species. Generally the names were chosen to reflect some feature of the creature being described. For example, one of our local birds is known as Ixoreus naevius. The genus name, Ixoreus, comes from two Latin words meaning wild berries and mountain respectively. The species name, naevius, means spotted or varied in colour. Thus, we have a bird that lives in the mountains, eats berries and is varied in colour. More commonly we refer to this bird as the Varied Thrush. Another example is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. This name comes from the Greek hali- = sea, aiētos = eagle, leuco- = white, cephalos = head. Hence we have a “white headed eagle of the sea” — a Bald Eagle. At first you might think the early scientists made a bit of a mistake here since Bald Eagles do not always live by the sea. But the genus Haliaeetus contains several different species and the first one named is a true “sea” eagle. Scientific names are uniform throughout the world, whereas the common names are not. For example, the species known world-wide as Mergus merganser, is called a Common Merganser in North America, but a Goosander in Europe and Asia.
In North America the responsibility for naming and classifying birds lies with the American Ornithological Union (AOU). Our knowledge of birds and their relationships to each other is continually improving. Sometimes this makes it necessary to rename or reclassify some species. For example, the AOU formerly recognized three species of flicker: Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted and Gilded. Subsequent observations and research suggested that these “species” were in fact only colour variations of the same species. The three were therefore “lumped” under the name of Northern Flicker. But research is never ending and the scientists have refined their research still further. The Gilded Flicker has now been restored as a full species while the other two remain lumped as the Northern Flicker. Another example affecting one of our local species is the Winter Wren. It has been known for some time that the eastern populations were a slightly different colour and had a slightly different song than those found west of the Rockies. But this was always believed to be just a geographic variation. However, a few years ago it was discovered that the two forms actually had overlapping ranges in the area around Tumbler Ridge in northeastern BC. It was further discovered that the two forms were ignoring each other, suggesting that each did not recognize the other as being “the same.” Further research and DNA analysis determined that the two were sufficiently different for each to warrant full species status. The name Winter Wren was retained for the form found east of the Rockies; our western form is now called Pacific Wren.
Science never stands still. Research will carry on and our knowledge will continue to grow, and as it does we will no doubt continue to refine the classification. There will almost certainly be more changes in the future.