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Committee governs American bird names

The North American Classification Committee ruled several years ago that we should once again refer to this bird (known briefly as northern oriole) as the Baltimore oriole. Keith Corliss

Leaf through the journals of Lewis and Clark and a person cannot help but be struck by a number of things. Mainly, the meticulous recordkeeping by the Corps of Discovery as it laboriously trekked across our continent and back, greatly expanding our understanding of this vast land and opening it up to possibilities yet imagined and to a young nation yet unfulfilled.

Lesser noticed perhaps is the simple matter of spelling. Our heroes penned many hundreds of pages containing many thousands of words. Yet the actual spelling is nearly comical by modern standards. Words like Douzen, eate, rispect, and anamal - none of which would pass a fourth-grade spelling test today - stick out. We understand them certainly. The words, you see, are spelled phonetically; a common practice in the day.

On the back of the monstrous Oxford English Dictionary, Noah Webster did for America in the early 19th century what the OED was accomplishing for the rest of the English-speaking world. That is, codify and standardize the language. Now we had a system, now the written word could span continents and centuries and still be understood.

There was and still is a little problem. While spelling may be tidied up, common usage still meanders. For example, puma, mountain lion, catamount, panther and cougar can all point to the same animal among us English speakers.

The natural sciences got a jump start in the 18th century when the Swede, Carl Linnaeus, established the standard shorthand for organisms by using Latin for their genus followed by a species name. Viola, binomial nomenclature was born. Science needed precision (for obvious reasons) in areas we lay folk do not. That still leaves the rest of us trying to come to some agreement on what to call things.

Even among the people who pay attention to birds there is confusion. The scientific names of the winged beasts of the world are mostly set. But it's the common names, the ones you and I mainly use, that are a little foggy. Folks in England refer to a certain bird as the great northern diver. Here it's called the common loon. The black-necked grebe over there is the eared grebe over here. There, grey phalarope and shore lark. Here, red phalarope and horned lark. Each region of the world seems to vigorously cling to its local naming.

Thankfully, there's guidance for us Americans. It comes from the oldest and largest organization in the New World dedicated to the scientific study of birds, the American Ornithologists' Union. Within the AOU sits a 12-member group, the North American Classification Committee. Their mission is to "keep abreast of the systematics and distribution of North and Middle American birds, with the purpose of creating a standard classification and nomenclature." In other words, they exist to tell the rest of us what to call what. As a result, all respected publications from field guides to research papers use this specification.

But even this is malleable. The committee says it "keeps abreast." The phrase infers a changeable environment, a moving target. As new data come in to science, science must reflect the new data. So the classification, the systematics, and sometimes even the names change.

Within the last 30 years we have seen the Baltimore oriole become the northern oriole and back again; we've seen the common snipe become Wilson's snipe. We've watched as the committee renamed our black-billed magpie the American magpie. Some may recall the oldsquaw. No more. It's the long-tailed duck today.

I can appreciate the need for such alterations. Nomenclature is simply keeping pace with updated knowledge. Though if I were king for a day there'd be a tweak or two. For instance, did you ever notice much red belly on a red-bellied woodpecker? Me neither. Why do we call it eastern kingbird when the bird is found as far west as Washington? And the conspicuous white on a white-fronted goose is under its tail not on its front.

Yet for the most part we have fairly coherent common names and the classification committee does a respectable job. Without them, after all, confusion would rule. And we'd be stuck with a grab bag of localisms for animals which demand a name. A name those of us apart from science can use and still be understood.