The science community tries very hard, as described in my post about Birdwing butterflies and their food plants, to make sure each species is uniquely identified by a single Latin name. So long as the Latin names are correct, however, we can have as many local vernacular names as we like without causing significant confusion.
One species, one Latin name, many common names
One species may have several common names, even in the same language in the same region, let alone different languages and different countries.
A smallish ground-feeding black-and-white bird, Grallina cyanoleuca, is a good local example, being known as a Magpie-lark, Pee-wee, Peewit or Mudlark. None of those names are wrong, and any doubts about the identity of the bird can be resolved by pointing to one or referring to the Latin name.
This question arose from a somewhat cryptic sentence in the gardening column of our local newspaper, “The Tinaroo Bottlebrush (Melaleuca recurva but still sold as Callistemon recurvis) is a personal favourite…”
The question, of course, was, “Isn’t a Melaleuca a paperbark?” or words to that effect. A bit of digging (no, not in the garden) revealed the answers to a whole series of interconnected questions.
This post parallels my recent Extended Honeyeater family essay and is prompted by the same holiday experiences: visiting Canberra and Victoria before Christmas I saw birds which don’t live around Townsville and wanted to fit them in to my existing knowledge.
It turned out that the birds I was curious about are not all members of the same taxonomic family but all belong to three families within the superfamily Corvoidea, i.e.,
Corvidae: crows, ravens (and jays, which don’t occur in Australia)
Artamidae: woodswallows, butcherbirds, currawongs and Australian magpie
Cuckoo-shrikes, both White-bellied and Black-faced, are occasional visitors to our garden. This one is the former, Coracina papuensis.
Yes, it has a black face, but the real Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, C. novaehollandiae, have more black on their face – compare them here. And no, it is neither a cuckoo (Cuculidae) nor a shrike (Laniidae) but is in another family, Campephagidae, with the Trillers; Wikipedia (previous link) speculates that the ‘cuckoo’ part of their common name may come from a superficial resemblance to some cuckoos.
Common names are unreliable guides to appearance, behaviour or family affiliations, particularly here in Australia where the first European settlers met hosts of strange birds and animals and applied the nearest old-world names to them.
We had a bit of rain a while ago but nothing but drizzle since then so our birdbath still gets a lot of use. This Spotted Dove, an early-morning visitor, looks quite put out at the low water level.
I, of course, blame the other birds, especially the Mynahs, for splashing it all out. They, more fairly, blame me for not refilling it fast enough. Never mind – we do try, and I did top it up when I noticed the problem.