It really is a good job that Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Linnaeus 1707-1778) took the time and trouble to invent a sensible system for naming, classifying and cataloguing the plants and animals that surround us on this planet, otherwise we really wouldn’t know what species we were discussing, especially when names in other languages are taken into account. The scientific system of binomial classification does at least cross international boundaries with no confusion, and is the naming system of choice in some parts of the world where there are no local alternatives.

When I was on a birding trip to Russia our Russian guides used only scientific names, often only the specific part and by this means we knew what they were pointing out. Apart from the fact that we probably wouldn’t have understood a Russian name, they didn’t seem to have local names for a lot of species, so the Linnean binomial was really the only choice. Murmurs of “clypeata” meant that the nest in the grass was that of a shoveler, while a whispered “sybillatrix” told us to look in the trees for a wood warbler. Best of all, “pratensis” caused great excitement – a meadow pipit in the middle of the Oka marshes – the entire land covered in 6” of spring floodwater and a bird that was really rare in that part of Russia.

We British are not entirely innocent of confusing the issue either. Many of our birds have more than one name; often this is down to local dialects or regional differences – think “dunnock, hedge sparrow or hedge accentor” (Prunella modularis) or “lapwing, peewit and green plover” (Vanellus vanellus). Worse still:”tystie” – the Scottish name for black guillemot (Cepphus grylle). Recently we have had to put up with vernacular changes inspired by global birding (or is it just the Americans?) Anyway, our swallow has become “barn swallow”, robins are now officially “European robins” while a whole host of species have had “northern”, or “western”, “Eurasian”, or just plain “common” added to their names. Turnstones have become “ruddy turnstones”, although they don’t seem to mind!

The BTO uses two schemes of letter codes – a two letter code used in official surveys like the Breeding Bird Survey (Blue Tit = BT), and bird ringers use five letter codes which I think are a bit easier to learn (Blue Tit = BLUTI). But in both systems there are exceptions to the rules, which have to be learned by heart. And that is all without the abbreviations (slang) used by birders out in the field – the bird in the picture above would be instantly recognized by the cognoscenti as a “mipit”, while “barwit”, “blackwit” and “lesser spot” are equally self-explanatory, aren’t they?

Confused? Dig a little deeper – you will be!

Mike Smith.