The triumph of Dr Horsfield

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Subject: The triumph of Dr Horsfield
From: "Geoffrey Dabb" <>
Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2008 13:48:25 +1100

COG quiz backup F2.jpg


It is most satisfying to find that ‘Horsfield’s Bushlark’ has been formally restored.  That was the name in the edition of Cayley I had as a child.  Some years ago I gave a little talk at COG entitled ‘Dr Horsfield, his cuckoo, and the Singing Bushlark’.  The story of the name for this local species casts some light on the difficult issues in the current process of bird-naming.


The scientific name story


In 1821, Dr Horsfield, a government medical official in Java, named a lark Mirafra javanica.  In 1847 John Gould named an Australian lark Mirafra horsfieldi , intending to honour Horsfield as the proposer of the genus Mirafra.  Gould would have known Dr Horsfield as a member of the zoological circle in London, where he was curator of the East India Company Museum.  Thereafter, various other Mirafra larks were named.  There are lots of them in Africa.  In 1844, Edward Blyth, curator of the Museum of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, named an Indian (but more widespread) lark Mirafra cantillans  [L. cantillans = ‘warbling, humming’].  By the end of the century, both horsfiedi and cantillans were merged in javanica.  Later (can’t lay my finger on the exact dates, but certainly in Sibley & Monroe 1990, following authorities from 1970), cantillans was again split from javanica.  However horsfieldi remains in javanica, which includes subspecies extending to SE Asia.


The English name story


In 1847 Gould had used ‘Horsfield’s’ in his suggested English label for M. horsfieldi.  The 1926 RAOU checklist used ‘Horsfield’s’ for M. javanica, hence its use in the earlier Cayleys.  However, ‘Singing’ (from the long-standing name in India for M. cantillans) was followed by some.  The RAOU committee in 1978 noted that ‘Singing’ was ‘the usual international name’ and thought that ‘the eponymous [ie person’s] name [was] best avoided’.  Thus ‘Singing’ was recommended and taken up in Christidis and Boles 1994 (C&B1).  Their timing was terrible.  As I have mentioned, C&B1 do not seem to have laboured much over the English names issue but pretty well accepted the 1978 recs.  In the intervening 16 years, at least several authorities had split off M. cantillans, which took with it the ‘Singing’ label.  There it was in black and white in Sibley and Monroe 1990.  As a further indignity, Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) 2004 uses ‘Australasian Bushlark’, and under ‘other common names’ gives ‘Singing Bushlark with a ‘(!)’, meaning ‘can you believe this?’.


 In The Directory of Australian Birds Schodde & Mason 1999, noted that with the split ‘Singing’ had become unavailable, and suggested that, of the alternatives, ‘the earlier and hitherto widely-used name of “Horsfield’s Bushlark” seems preferable’.   This has now been taken up in C&B2, and is consistent with the international English names recommendations of Gill & Wright 2006.


The compound name issue


Elsewhere I have mentioned this, the most serious obstacle to international consistency in English names.  Not only does the (one hopes) authoritative Gill & Wright give ‘Horsfield’s Bush Lark’, but the most enthusiastic compounders Sibley/Monroe drop the ‘Bush’ and, in their 1993 list, offer ‘Horsfield’s Lark’.  However, this might be a special case, as various compound forms have been around for a very long time.  Moreover, there might be a reasonable view that the Mirafra larks should have their own English name (see eg Rasmussen & Anderson Birds of South Asia 2005 vol2 p296).  That would accord with the longstanding Indian approach, and the current Australian one.  The arguments in Gill & Wright against ‘Bush-Lark’ do not apply with the same force to ‘Bushlark’ (‘Cuckooshrike’ being acceptable, although one issue might be that bushlarks are larks, or so we are told, with implications for indexing).


 Finally, on this happy occasion, might I express the hope that the COG chatline initiative to render ‘Horsfield’ as ‘Horsefield’ not be further pursued?



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