Friday, 4 November 2011

What's in a name?

You may have noticed that I like to find out the scientific names of the species I come across. Let me explain why.

Last spring I watched two beautiful, tiny, lemon-breasted birds being ringed. Cradled in the ringer’s hand in turn, their necks held gently between giant’s fingers, they looked almost identical. Both had custard-yellow eye stripes, olive-grey backs, sharp, slender beaks for catching summer insects. They each weighed about the same as a good teaspoon of sugar. Had they sung, I would have been able to tell immediately that they were in fact different species. One would have sung a sad melody of soft, descending notes, lifted at the very end by a hopeful trill; the other a syncopated two-tone repetition of its name. As it was I had to rely on the expert birders I was with to point out that one was a willow warbler, the other a chiffchaff.

Those names were the keys that opened a store of other information about these birds that I have learnt over the years. One of these scant teaspoons of trembling life and feathers – the willow warbler – had flown thousands of miles to be here on that cool spring day. It had crossed deserts, mountains, and seas from its winter home in sub-Saharan Africa to breed here in Scotland. The other tiny scrap, the chiffchaff, had made a shorter crossing from southern Europe – still many hundreds of miles. Put into this kind of context these birds’ survival seemed almost unbelievable – I felt as if I were looking at a miracle.

Yet there are people who claim that knowing species’ names is not important. ‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, they quote. Romeo’s desperate words in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet have been called on many times by those who argue that expecting people to learn the common names of animals and plants, or heaven forbid their scientific names, gets in the way of their appreciation of the natural world, even puts them off exploring it at all. I disagree.

It was Juliet’s surname that Romeo wanted to ignore – the name of his family’s arch rivals – because with it came all the baggage of her family history, where she lived, to whom she was related. Her name brought tragedy to the lovers. Species’ names also come with this baggage, and much more. But their names bring with them drama, intrigue, romance and history – elements that only add to the experience of seeing.

Yes, they can be complex, at first unfamiliar words to get your head round – but so are Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Jose Mourinho, Zinedine Zidane. Familiarity with them will breed not contempt, but acceptance, understanding. We don’t find it surprising that six-year-olds can reel off the scientific names of a group of animals that went extinct many thousands of years ago. We don’t think it’s being over-demanding when a football commentator mentions the exotic names of its heroes – we know the fans will recognise the names, make the connections, understand the story.

Now remember the willow warbler and chiffchaff? Their scientific names are Phylloscopus trochilus and Pylloscopus colybita, respectively – I don’t know that by heart but with the wonders of the Web or a field guide it takes two minutes to look it up. The names tell us that both birds are leaf-watchers – phyllo is Greek for leaf, scopus Latin for a watcher. That explains where they look for their insect food. Trochilus is the Greek for a small, wren-like bird. A perfect description. Whoever chose the scientific name for the chiffchaff thought the jangling notes of its identity tag sounded like coins rattling together – colybita is Greek for ‘money-changer’. From now on I will hear that quintessential summer-woodland music with new ears.

Of course not everyone will want to spend the time to discover so much about a species. But if you introduce someone to a new acquaintance the first thing you offer is their name, in the hope that they will want to get to know each other better. Surely we owe it to our wildlife to give them the chance of making new friends.

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