On vernacular bird names

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Subject: On vernacular bird names
From: "Chris Healey" <>
Date: Fri, 20 Nov 2009 21:13:09 +1100
I have been following the string on English and other vernacular bird names
with interest.  As an anthropologist I combine my interest in birds with the
study of ethno-ornithology --  broadly, the knowledge and use of birds in
cultural contexts, (mainly in PNG and Indonesia).  Like others in the lively
debate over the use of Jabiru as an 'English' name, I delight in the many
evocative names given to our birds in Indigenous languages and by earlier
European country folk.  I like to call these 'folk names', and they are a
precious part of Aussie multi-ethnic cultural heritage, but sadly, fast
dying out.

As birding became a global undertaking standardized English language names
became useful in ensuring we used a commonly understood vocabulary.  There's
a danger of taking 'proper' English names for things too far, bestowing on
birds around the world in defiance of more regional naming conventions.  As
Denise Goodfellow points out, the scientific names are intended to serve as
the proper names for things, a convention that is internationally accepted
by scientists regardless of language and location (and notwithstanding the
uncertainties of scientific nomenclature as pointed out by Nicholas Haas).

Sure, let us settle on acceptable, widely shared vernacular names for birds,
since it's too much to hope that birders can manage the binomial Latinised
names of science that are supposed to be universally applicable.  But let's
not lose all those wonderful folksy names, simply because they are
inaccurate, obscure or not widely known.  That is part of the insidious
global process of language loss, which applies not just to Indigenous
languages, but to local variants of lingua franca like English.  I've seen a
similar process in parts of eastern Indonesia, where parents actively
encourage their children to speak the Indonesian language in preference to
local tribal languages.  As a consequence, indigenous bird names, and much
of the local knowledge encoded in rich language traditions are being lost.

Which brings me to the point that there is potential confusion between
'proper' English names for Aussie birds, favoured by the birding fraternity,
and the 'folk' names for birds used by 'ordinary' people (i.e., the
non-enthusiastic birder).  The Recommended English Names of Birds Australia
and like organisations are intended as a sort of international list of
approved bird names; as a more linguistically manageable alternative to
scientific names (which are supposed to follow an international convention).
Vernacular or folk names, on the other hand, are an integral element of
'ethno-ornithological knowledge'.  As such, they are intrinsically part of
local knowledge systems - which is one of the reasons that they can be so
confusing.  One person's 'Leatherhead' may be used in reference to _Philemon
corniculatus_, another's in reference  to _Coracina novaehollandiae_ , and
Tom Tit may apply to any number of small brown birds.

Aussie birding heritage would be diminished if all reference to Blue Jay,
Blue Crane, Biddy-quock, Cranky Fan and Jabiru fell out of the lexicon.

I am also intrigued that so few Aboriginal names for birds have made their
way into commonly used English names, but suspect that they may have been
more widely used by early European settlers, many of whose local names have
also fallen into disuse.

J.D. Macdonald in 1987 brought many obscure names together in his
Illustrated Dictionary of Australian Birds by Common Name (Reed Books).
Sadly, many of the colourful folk names are listed as 'source not known'.
Who used them, where and when?  Similarly, the commendable listing in HANZAB
of Aboriginal names for birds is of limited use as it fails to indicate the
languages and locations for the names.  Names that are not locally grounded
are disconnected from their cultural context.

Since moving to East Gippsland some years ago I have been collecting folk
names for birds from local people.  I am saddened to discover how little of
earlier naming practices are remembered.  I suspect birding enthusiasts are
particularly prone to discard old folk names in favour of 'standard' or
'proper' names.  It's part of the world wide loss of linguistic diversity.  

I'd welcome correspondence (on or off this list) concerning folk names for
birds in Australia, especially in the settled parts of the Southeast.



Chris Healey

(Visiting Fellow, Resource Management in Asia Pacific Program, ANU)

110 Bellbird Rd, Granite Rock, via Bairnsdale, Vic 3875



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