Publishing conventions re bird-names.

To: Dr Richard Nowotny <>
Subject: Publishing conventions re bird-names.
From: Carl Clifford <>
Date: Mon, 31 Dec 2007 16:03:31 +1100

I dimly remember from my stone age school days that nouns which describe an specific person, place or thing, such as a "Pied Butcherbird" is always capitalised, whereas common names is used for general items, such as bird, cheese, plate etc. Unfortunately there is a creeping Malaise in the English Language which is causing a serious breakdown of the rules of grammar which has resulted in the demise of Capitalization of Proper Nouns along with other grammatical elements, such as Colons, Semi-colons and to an extent, Commas. This breakdown probably has originated in the media as a cost saving exercise, as it saves on ink and in the electronic media, electricity.

Carl Clifford

On 31/12/2007, at 3:10 PM, Dr Richard Nowotny wrote:

I'm currently reading Mark Obmascik's The Big Year [Free Press, 2004] (a
very enjoyable read, recommended to me by Jill Dening, which adds
considerably to one's understanding and enjoyment of the phenomenon of the big year [in this case in the US] - as recently recorded so entertainingly in this country by Sean Dooley). As I was reading of evening grosbeaks, bald eagles, short-eared owls, black-and-white warblers, etc it reminded me of an old question to which I realized I still don't know the answer: Why do we
birders write 'Pied Butcherbird' (including in our field-guides and our
intra-disciplinary literature) while in main-stream books the convention is to write 'pied butcherbird' - without capitals? [And similarly for singing
honeyeater, red kangaroo, hump-backed whale, etc.]

From first principles one might think the following should apply:

A butcherbird is a type of bird of which there are a number of distinct

A pied butcherbird (descriptive) is a butcherbird which has black and white
colouring (which applies to a greater or lesser extent to 3 of our 4

A Pied Butcherbird is the distinct species Cracticus nigrogularis.

Writing 'I saw a pied butcherbird' seems to lack the same precision that is conveyed by 'I saw a Pied Butcherbird.' This becomes even more obvious (and potentially confusing) when one writes 'I saw a common tern.' Or 'I heard a
singing honeyeater.'

Having hopefully established the issue to readers' satisfaction, my question
to you all is:

Why is there a general publishing convention that common names of birds (and other animals) are not capitalized (with its associated loss of precision)
and how did it come to be?


Port Melbourne, Victoria


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