Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Capitalization of Bird Names

Dear Bird Folks,

There’s a raging debate online about bird names and whether they should be capitalized or not. I was thinking about asking you to weigh in on this topic, but I see from your weekly writing that you take the side of not capitalizing bird names. Why?

– James, Marshfield, MA


I like raging debates, James,

In a recent survey, the three hottest online topics have been about climate change, paying off the national debt and whether or not I should color my hair. The trouble with online debates is that people can get a little crazy in the anonymity of cyberspace. I miss the old days when life-changing discussions took place in barbershops, or pubs or around the water cooler. Actually, the water cooler thing has always stuck me as odd. I’ve had a lot of different jobs but have never worked in a place that had a water cooler. Where are all these water coolers people are always hanging around? Maybe that could be the next raging debate online.

Right now I’m betting a lot of readers are thinking, “Who cares if bird names are capitalized?” While I agree this isn’t the most important topic of our time, at least not compared to global warming or my hair color. Nevertheless, it is a significant subject for anyone who reads or writes about birds. I’m going to do my best to explain why this is important, but I have to warn you that things could get a little dull and complicated. I will totally forgive anyone who flips to a more entertaining section of the paper…like the selectman’s report or the obituaries.

By their very nature, bird names typically contain descriptive adjectives. Words such as common, great, lesser, little, northern, western, eastern, plus an assortment of colors (blue, black, brown, white, etc.) are regularly used in their names. In order to make things clear to the reader, the writer will (or should) capitalize the first letter of a bird’s official name and use a lowercase letter when simply describing the bird. For example, f Judy writes, “I saw a yellow warbler,” lowercase letters will tell us that the warbler she saw was simply colored yellow (which many warblers are) and not truly a Yellow Warbler, a common species around here in the summer. Or if Billy mentions he saw a Little Gull, and capitalizes it, we’ll know he is talking about an actual Little Gull, a European bird that occasionally visits the Cape in winter and not a gull that’s undersized. Capitalizing bird names prevents any ambiguity. It’s an easy solution, right? Well, not so fast. A few organizations don’t subscribe to this simple fix. This brings us to the second part of your note.

As you have noticed, bird names in this column are always in lowercase. This is a little deceptive because the names are capitalized when this column is submitted. But then the newspaper people immediately change it to the more confusing lowercase format. Why do they do that? That’s what I’d like to know. To find out the answer to this burning question, I sent a note to one of the newspaper’s big shots, who quickly and cordially responded. It appears that most newspapers follow the rules set forth in a publication known as the Associated Press Stylebook. This stylebook, along with Webster’s New World Dictionary, forms the basis of the newspaper’s argument. They maintain that only proper names (which they claim bird names aren’t) can ever be capitalized.

Fine, but I thought the goal of a newspaper was to make information clear and understandable. The Associated Press forces the reader to somehow figure out if a yellow warbler is a warbler that is yellow or a specific species. And to make things worse, last April I wrote a column about Red-breasted Nuthatches and submitted it with the name capitalized. As usual, someone from the newspaper changed my capital “N” (in nuthatch) to a lowercase “n.” But apparently he or she mistakenly hit the neighboring “b” key instead. As a result, that week’s column was about Red-breasted “Buthatches.” Buthatches? LOL! (I think I actually like that name better.)

Don’t get me wrong. This frustrating behavior isn’t limited tomjust this paper; all print media (newspapers and magazines) do the same thing. But print media is quickly becoming alone in its outdated stance. Bird books and field guides have capitalized bird names for years and so do publications by the National Audubon Society. But more importantly, the two organizations that create and/or approve bird names (the International Ornithological Congress and the American Ornithologists’ Union) have both declared that all common bird names must begin with capital letters, and all published ornithologists are required to follow this format. That’s why it’s absurd that the AP, an organization that has nothing to do with birds, refuses to honor the standards set forth by the institutions that have created these names in the first place. Come on, AP; join us in the 21st century. It’s not so bad.

There you have it, James. This capitalization issue basically boils down to the print media refusing to go along with the beliefs of scholars, book publishers, universities and, of course, me. In the meantime, everyone else will just have to be confused. But in my mind, the real crime is that no one has ever officially named a bird “Buthatch.” That would be so awesome.