For the Birds Radio Program: Changing the Rules of Writing Bird Names

Original Air Date: Feb. 5, 2009 Rerun Dates: Jan. 6, 2011; Jan. 8, 2010

The Chicago Manual of Style may change one of their rules thanks to Laura!!

Duration: 4′37″


Did you ever play a game and try what seems like a perfectly legitimate move, and someone challenges you, you pull out the rules to vindicate yourself, and it turns out you’re wrong? Wouldn’t it be lovely to call up the game manufacturer and persuade the guy who wrote those rules to change them? Rules are the final arbiters in games, except word games. One time when I was playing Scrabble, one person spelled the word black, the next person added burn, and I added an I-A-N to make Blackburnian. The Blackburnian Warbler is a real bird, and its name is obviously a real word, so when I got challenged I pulled out my trusty American Heritage Dictionary to vindicate myself, but neither Blackburnian nor Blackburnian Warbler were anywhere to be found in it. I’ve not enjoyed a single game of Scrabble ever since.

Games aren’t the only area of life where rules apply. When I took ornithology in the 1970s, I learned that when we’re writing species names, we follow the American Ornithologists’ Union’s checklist of bird nomenclature for capitalization. If you’re writing about that splendid species the Blue Jay, you capitalize both words, but if you’re writing about several species of jays that happen to be blue, you lowercase them. If you’re writing about warblers that live in Tennessee, you lowercase warblers, but if you’re writing about the species called the Tennessee Warbler, you capitalize it.

This is straightforward, and I learned that when you’re talking about two related species and join their names, like Blackburnian and Magnolia Warblers, you still capitalize first and last names. Of course, it wouldn’t be particularly ambiguous if you lowercased the word warbler, but is ambiguous if you wrote Kentucky and Tennessee warblers with a lowercase w—are you talking about the warblers of two adjacent states, or two particular species? To me capitalizing the word two or more proper nouns share is an obvious and straightforward issue.

So when I started my job as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and was copyediting a Living Bird article for Tim Gallagher, I “fixed” a couple of lowercased bird names, and Tim said that even though he agrees with me, it breaks the rule. Our rulebooks happens to be both the AOU Checklist and the Chicago Manual of Style, and he was right–the 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual says when you combine any two proper nouns that share a generic, you lowercase the generic word. The example they gave was the “Illinois and Chicago rivers.” This makes no sense to me. What if you were writing about the Minnesota and Wisconsin rivers? If you lowercase the r, how can your reader be certain whether you’re writing about two particular rivers or the rivers of two particular states? And then I read an article about warblers in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s own journal, The Auk, and even they were following this silly rule, making a couple of their own uses ambiguous.

So I wrote to the Chicago Manual of Style asking them to change the rule. That was last January, and got no response. I wrote again later in the year, and still got no response. But when I ran into another ambiguous usage this week, I wrote again, and this time within a few hours I got a response. The person on the staff said that he agrees, and closed, “At this point I can’t promise, but I know the issue has been discussed with the general feeling that the lowercasing should be reserved for the generic.” So for now I’ll have to keep lowercasing those generic parts of proper names, but there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. When the 16th Edition is released one day, I know exactly which rule I’ll look up first.