English names of Indian birds


'Popular' groups of animals like birds have more or less generally accepted English names which are used as frequently as their scientific names, or more, in non-technical situations. The English names of Indian birds have 'evolved' since the 1800s through the works of Jerdon (1862-4), Oates & Blanford (1889-98), Stuart Baker (1922-30; 1932-35), Ripley (1961/1982), to Salim Ali & Ripley's "Handbook" (1968-74). Sri Lankan works include Legge (1878-80), Wait (1925/1931) and Henry (1955/1971). In all these works each named 'form' of bird (monotypic species or individual subspecies of polytypic species) is given a separate English name. In Ali & Ripley's "Pictorial Guide" (1983) the names were slightly modified and restricted to be applicable to species. These names are in general use in India among ornithologists, birders and others as the standard English names for Indian birds.

Since multiple English names were in use for some birds and different species were known by identical names, on a world basis the utility of a universally agreed set of English names has been felt for many years, particularly in the birding/amateur ornithological community. Since the 1970s a number of useful world checklists have been published which try to fill this need, including the lists by Gruson, Edwards, Clements, Walters, Howard & Moore and others, some of which have been revised and re-issued several times since their original appearance. In 1990 Sibley & Monroe published their "Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World" (with a "Supplement" in 1993). One goal of this publication appears to have been to popularise the classification of birds proposed by Sibley. In addition, the book attempts to present what might be considered a 'definitive' list of English names for the world's birds. An abbreviated version of this work with just the list information was issued in 1993 as "A World Checklist of Birds" by Monroe & Sibley. These works have received recognition as standard lists of the world's birds and their nomenclature (English and scientific) is used in many conservation oriented publications (e.g., IUCN publications).

Although the introduction to the Sibley & Monroe volume gives the impression that a great deal of effort was made to consult local birding organisations in different geographic regions in the selection of English names this does not actually seem to have been done. For example, for the entire Indo-Malayan region (comprising of South Asia, the South East Asian mainland, and the Sunda Islands), the only 'representative' organisation seems to have been the Oriental Bird Club, which is based in Britain. One would like to know if efforts were made to canvass opinion among interested parties actually in India or Sri Lanka, such as the Bombay Natural History Society and the Ceylon Bird Club. Of course, the OBC has an important role to play in birding and related work in the area but, given that local birders and ornithologists have little impact on bodies like the OBC which are based overseas and made up largely of individuals who are not residents of the regions they claim to represent, it is hard to have much faith in their ability to 'represent' effectively in matters like this.

A comparison of the Sibley & Monroe (SM) English names with the names in general use in South Asia for the birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka is instructive. In many cases the choice of a name from several synonyms has been sensible, showing due regard to long established usage in South Asia. In other cases the choices are more controversial, yet could perhaps be argued on grounds of global or long-term stability. In a small number of cases, however, it is very difficult to see why a particular English name has been used. Consider the case of _Dicaeum vincens_, universally known in publications since its original description in 1872 as Legge's Flowerpecker. The species is endemic to Sri Lanka, where it is restricted to the rainforests of the southwestern Wet Zone of the island. No other bird in the world has ever been called "Legge's Flowerpecker" and the species has never been known by any other English name than "Legge's Flowerpecker". Both the scientific as well as the English names commemorate William Vincent Legge (1841-1918), a major figure in Sri Lankan ornithology and discoverer of this species. One would hardly expect this case to be controversial, yet in the SM list _Dicaeum vincens_ appears as "White-throated Flowerpecker". I have not checked through the SM list carefully for other such cases but the Legge's Flowerpecker example will serve to illustrate the point that, at least in some cases, the so-called definitive English names will not lead to clarity and stability but, rather, to confusion and instability. Indeed, in cases like these there seem to be more evidence of idiosyncrasy and personal whim rather than reason and careful consideration in the selection of English names.

Although the number of birders in the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka may be very small compared to numbers in the U.S., Europe, Australia, etc., birding has been around for a long time in both countries (the Ceylon Bird Club in Sri Lanka was formed around 1940 and has published its Ceylon Bird Club Notes every month since then without break). This means that the English names in use there have a history, a past, which should not be arbitarily bulldozed over by introducing changes without proper consultation, particularly in works which are likely to be widely used as standard lists.

I would like to know what others who are interested in birds feel about this issue.

Priyantha Wijesinghe

The following appeared on UKBirdNet and might be of interest to some on this list. Sorry about the formatting - that is how I received it. Priyantha Wijesinghe

This is a copy of the list I sent to them upon return.

In Kathmandu I met a wonderful Nepali birder who is a delightful companion, very knowledgeable about the birds and very helpful. His name is Rabindra Manandhar. You can find him at the Wisdom Bookshop, Chetrapati, Kathmandu or through

     Himalayan Birds Exploration
     P.O. Box 3105                          tel:212242; fax:977-1-411933
     Kathmandu, Nepal
I have no financial interest in Rabindra's business (either bookshop - where you can get Nepal and Indian field guides - or birding). But I highly recommend him. If you are in Kathmandu you must go to Pulchowki, the best birding in the valley. If you can get to the summit around dawn, on a clear day you get a horizon to horizon view of the Himalyayas, including a distant view of Everest. Forget Fleming's guide - can no longer be found even in Kathmandu, and if it could be it would cost several hundred dollars.

   Cheers, and Good Birding,
   Chris Carpenter
   Oakland, CA

This is a list of all the birds seen by any member of the group during the tour. In addition, I have noted birds seen by Chris and Peggy before and/or after the tour in India and Nepal. The order of the birds generally follows that found in A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, by Ali & Ripley, because we used it on the tour. However, this order is no longer followed by newer authorities. The names used in this list are those currently found in the most widely used authority, A World Checklist of Birds, by Monroe & Sibley

  March 3 - 4         Delhi:  Humayan's Tomb, Qtub Minar, Parliament
  March 5 - 6         Jaipur: Rambagh Palace Hotel, Amber Fort
  March 7 - 9         Ranthambhor National Park
  March 10 - 12       Bharatpur: Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary
  March 13            Agra: Red Fort, Taj Mahal
  March 14            Varanasi:  Ganges River
  March 15 - 16       Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal:  Tiger Tops & Tented
  March 17 - 18       Fishtail Lodge, Pokhara
  March 19 - 22       Kathmandu:  Pulchowki Mountain, Godawari Botanical


To unsubscribe to ukbirdnet, send e-mail to ukbirdnet-request@dcs.bbk.ac.uk with the single word unsubscribe in the body of the message.


Subject: Re: English names of Indian birds (long)

To the ongoing discussion on English names of Indian birds I would like to add the following extract from a post by D. James Mountjoy jim@NIKO.UNL.EDU during a similar thread on BIRDCHAT in November 1995.

.......................................... I am guessing with very little knowledge here, but I suspect that this name change may have resulted from 2 assumptions which seem to be regrettably common among people making decisions about bird names. The first is that a name should be `appropriate' and `useful', and this is often taken to mean that it should be descriptive of the bird. IMO, a name is a label and the description can be saved for the field guide. The second assumption is that the ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ names of birds from outside of North America, Europe, ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ and maybe a couple of other spots like Australia aren't ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ really established, and therefore one can feel free to ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ use a name that suits your own fancy better. I think ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ this assumption is dead wrong too...................... ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ .............................................. Most committees and authors state that maintaining the stability of English names is a guiding principle, but most stray from this principle far more often than I would like.
[emphasis added]

Priyantha Wijesinghe
New York, NY

Subject: Tickell & Loten (Was: English Names) (long!)

Vivek mentioned two good examples of seemingly unwarranted name changes in the Sibley & Monroe list: Tickell's Flowerpecker (to 'Pale-billed Flowerpecker') and Loten's Sunbird (to 'Long-billed Sunbird'). As in the Legge's Flowerpecker ('White-throated Flowerpecker') case cited by me the two naturalists commemorated by these names are individuals who have made substantial contributions to Indo-Sri Lankan ornithology. Perhaps a few lines on why these naturalists are worthy of remembrance may not be out of place here.

Lt. SAMUEL RICHARD TICKELL (died 1865) has been described by Sir Norman B. Kinnear as "one of the best field naturalists India has known". He made important early contributions to Indian ornithology and mammalogy through field observations and collection of specimens while stationed in several localities in the 1830s and 1840s. He planned on publishing a book on the birds and mammals of India. This did not materialise but his manuscript notes and illustrations are preserved in the library of the Zoological Society of London. These notes contain many references to observations of birds in Bihar, Orissa, Darjeeling and Tenasserim.

JOAN GIDEON LOTEN: The following notes on Loten are from an unpublished essay on the history of ornithology in Sri Lanka by yours truly. ;-)

"........... However, the credit for attempting the first systematic documentation of Sri Lanka's bird fauna goes to Joan Gideon Loten (1710-1789), a governor of Sri Lanka at the time the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) controlled much of the lowlands of the island. Joan (or Johan or John) Loten was a keen naturalist who, during his stay in Sri Lanka (1752-57), as well as in the Dutch East Indies, collected many zoological specimens (especially of birds). Owing to the difficulty of preparing dead specimens for long term preservation it was a common custom at this time for naturalists to prepare illustrations of the specimens. Under Loten's supervision, coloured drawings of his specimens were made by a young artist of mixed Sri Lankan-European descent named Pieter Cornelis de Bevere, who was at the time employed by the Dutch in Colombo as an assistant surveyor. When Loten returned to Europe in 1758 he took along with him this collection of drawings, as well as the specimens from which they were drawn. He later made notes, in Dutch and in English, on the backs of the drawings concerning the subjects depicted. >From these notes we know that Loten recorded the weights, dimensions and local names of the birds illustrated at the time they were collected. Loten's notes also reveal that the drawings were made by de Bevere from living or freshly dead specimens. Loten had read Knox's book on Sri Lanka, written in the previous century (1681), and his interest in the island's natural history appears to have been stimulated at least in part by Knox's account. A note by Loten on a plate depicting a Paradise Flycatcher states: "...by reading Knox's Relation of Ceylon I was led into the curiosity of searching for this very beautiful bird, which I got soon acquainted with, as they are often seen about Colombo, nay in its very citadel & the Governor's garden...". The bulk of the Loten-de Bevere drawings (including 101 plates depicting birds) are still in good condition, in the Library of the Natural History Museum, London, and attest to the scientific accuracy and artistic skill of Pieter de Bevere. As explained below, copies of these drawings were utilized by several naturalists for illustrating a number of contemporary ornithological works, but these versions of the de Bevere drawings were generally far inferior in quality to the originals. Loten's specimens are also believed to have been deposited in the British Museum but there appears to be no trace or record of them now at that institution.

"Loten resided in England for many years and came into contact with a number of British naturalists of that period, such as George Edwards, Joseph Banks and Thomas Pennant. He loaned many of his specimens and some of the drawings to George Edwards (1694-1773), who figured them in his Gleanings of Natural History (1758-64). The concept of a formal scientific nomenclature for the different kinds of animals and plants was gaining popularity at this time through the writings of the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). His system of binomial Latin names, however, was by no means universally employed and many writers, especially in Britain and France, continued to use common names for species. This was unfortunate since, with the acceptance of Linnaean Latin names as the standard nomenclature in science, the common names of the 'nonconformists' were condemmed to eventual oblivion. Edwards did not use binomial Latin names and this meant that the birds illustrated in his work remained, in effect, unnamed and hence unknown to science. Carl Linnaeus described and named some of the species illustrated by Edwards, as well as others based on Loten's actual specimens or unpublished de Bevere plates, in the 12th edition of his Systema Naturae (1766), e.g. Indian Roller, Indian Pitta, Little Minivet. Loten himself never published any of his plates but continued to loan them out to other naturalists to be copied and used in their publications. Indian Zoology (London, 1769) by Thomas Pennant (1726-98) was the result of a joint venture involving Pennant, Banks and Loten. It was apparently conceived as a fairly substantial work to be published in several instalment but only one part was ever issued. In this book Pennant illustrated and provided Latin binomial names for the following Sri Lanka birds: Pied Harrier, Collared Scops Owl, Ceylon Trogon, Red-faced Malkoha, Tailor-Bird, White-breasted Waterhen, Painted Stork, Comb Duck and Indian Darter. In 1776 Peter Brown issued his New Illustrations of Zoology, apparently as a continuation of Edwards' Gleanings, which contained many plates of Sri Lanka birds based on the Loten-de Bevere drawings; as in Edwards' work, however, these were not accompanied by Latin names. Some of these 'unnamed' species were given Latin names by Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804) in the 13th edition of the Systema Naturae (Leipzig, 1788-89) (e.g., Shikra, Emerald Cuckoo). In 1781 Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98) brought out a German-Latin edition of Pennant's work under the title Indische Zoologie (or Zoologia Indica) which contained three additional plates of birds copied from the Loten-de Bevere drawings: Spot-billed Duck, Ceylon Spurfowl and Orange Minivet. Thus the scientific description and naming of Sri Lankan birds in these publications, starting in the 1760s, which ultimately derived from Loten's specimens and the de Bevere drawings, heralded the dawn of Sri Lankan (and Indian) systematic ornithology."

Priyantha Wijesinghe
New York, NY

BACK TO *********************************************************************