Book Review: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds

COVER EPONYMOUSTitle: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds
Author: Bo Beolens, Michael Watkins & Michael Grayson
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Year published: 2014
Pages: 624

There was a time when Victorian gentlemen ornithologists roamed the planet. Many of them were prominent in other fields – some were clergymen, others soldiers. All were avid avian amateurs.

This book has clearly been a labour of love for the authors. I know personally that Bo Beolens has spent no less than fourteen years working on it. Most remarkably, there are only seventeen species whose etymology remains a mystery. It is an extraordinary piece of research on its own merits.

As with most dictionaries, this volume is not designed to be read from cover to cover. It is one to refer to and to take great swigs of from time to time. A word of warning – you may find yourself quickly immersed and killing hours quite easily. But it will assuredly be time well spent.

Some of the world’s most coveted species are eponymously-named. Perhaps none more so than the endangered Gurney’s Pitta (Hydrornis gurneyi), that breeds in the Malay Peninsula, with populations in Thailand and, especially, Burma. The common name and Latin binomial commemorate the English banker and amateur ornithologist John Henry Gurney Sr. (1819-1890). Gurney was a Liberal Party politician and member of the influential Gurney family. Wealth allowed many of his ilk to pursue their pioneering interests. That and a gun. This was the pre-optics era of shoot first and ask questions later. Specimens were collected and traded. Many continue to provide answers today.

The diminutive Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea) is named after the British naval officer and explorer Admiral Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862). He is remembered today for his exploration of the Arctic with his uncle Sir John Ross and Sir William Parry and, in particular, his own expedition to Antarctica. Here we have a tough bird of the High Arctic named fittingly after a hardy adventurer. (Ross joined the Royal Navy aged just eleven.) Both would have been most familiar with the unforgiving pack ice.

Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus) is one of the many species named after the German-born Russian zoologist and botanist Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811). He was one of the greatest 18th-century naturalists (he earned his doctorate aged nineteen) and described many new species of mammals, birds, fish, insects and fossils. No doubt he happened upon this unknown species of sandgrouse whilst on one of his wide-ranging explorations of the lesser-known vast tracts of Russia.

Many species of bird were named for one by another. The American ornithologist, naturalist and painter John James Audubon (1785-1851) named Smith’s Longspur (Calcarius pictus) after his friend the physician and editor Dr Gideon B. Smith. It appears that he overlooked the fact that the English ornithologist William John Swainson (1789-1855) had described the species twelve years previously.

The majority of these species were named after men and for good reason. It was not the done thing for women to go off gallivanting across the planet indulging in ornithological derring-do. Yet a great number of the fairer sex had species named after them. Some Victorians had the habit of naming birds after distant female relatives or mistresses. It was the ultimate romantic gesture of the day.

The chances of having a new species of bird named after you in this day and age are very slim indeed. Books like this enable us to dream though. At the very least, we may draw inspiration from within. The various biographies are of ornithologists that witnessed a natural world brimming with life and in places far removed from pleasant society. Much of what we have learnt is from them.

What’s in a name? A great deal it turns out.

Ed Hutchings

Born in East Anglia, but raised in the Arabian Gulf, Ed Hutchings was always going to have two things – itchy feet and an inquisitive mind. After leaving university with a degree in hospitality, he Read More

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