Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bird Names: To Capitalize or Not

Update (Jan. 2014): This post, now three years old, is one of the most frequently visited posts I've written. The issue clearly comes up for people a lot. The comments contain some good points that helped me develop my views (and probably state them better), and so I encourage readers to read them too.

Readers with an editor's eye (perhaps I should say eagle-eyed readers) may have noticed that I've been less than consistent when it comes to the capitalization of the official English names for bird species, such as Northern Cardinal or Black-capped Chickadee (or, as it may happen, northern cardinal and black-capped chickadee).

In this, I'm reminded of my quandary over the use of the apostrophe in common terms like farmers' market and kids' meals, which I explored in some detail three years ago in a post titled Tormented By an Apostrophe. (After some dithering, I came down firmly on the side of retaining the apostrophe despite a modern trend to do without it that is generally supported on the claim that the plural is being used purely as an adjective, not connoting possession; I was convinced to the contrary by applying the question to irregular plurals, concluding that we would not feel comfortable calling something a children meal or looking for women sizes in a department store.)

However, back to capitalization of bird names. There's a split here, basically between ornithologists and the rest of the writing world, except where style guides expressly defer to the common usage in a particular field. As a born editor and English usage junkie, I had to investigate further. (This is going to be a long one, so settle in...)

It's undisputed that the International Ornithologist's Union prescribes capitalization in the official English common names set forth in its definitive IOC World Bird List:
Our goal on behalf of the International Ornithologist's Union, formerly International Ornithological Congress (IOC), is to facilitate worldwide communication in ornithology and conservation through the consistent use of English names linked to current species taxonomy. The English names follow explicit guidelines for spelling and construction that increase clarity of application. ...
An important rule adopted at the outset was that the words of an official bird[']s name begin with capital letters. While this is contrary to the general rules of spelling for mammals, birds, insects, fish, and other life forms (i.e., use lowercase letters), the committee believed the initial capital to be preferable for the name of a bird species in an ornithological context, for two reasons. 
  1. It has been the customary spelling in bird books for some years;
  2. Because it distinguishes a taxonomic species from a general description of a bird. Several species of sparrows could be described as "white-throated sparrows," but a "White-throated Sparrow" is a particular taxonomic species.
I'd like to point out that the IOC World Bird List website,, is a marvel of clear, simple, precise writing (though not without a few typos), and I admire it very much.

I surveyed our collection of  field guides at home, and found that every one (Sibley, National Geographic, Peterson, Audubon, Golden, and Tekiela) uses the IOC convention of capitalizing all words in a bird's common name except for a word following a hyphen in a hyphenated name, such as White-throated Sparrow.

This practice in the world of ornithology departs from that in most other areas of plant and animal classification, which follows the generally accepted rule of reserving capitalization for proper nouns (such as names of specific people and places, and trade names). Some defenders of the IOC approach say that birds' names ARE proper names, equating Bald Eagle with Johnny Depp, but that doesn't explain why most other groups of animal and plant biologists don't apparently feel the same.

Wikipedia Manual of Style generally requires its contributors to avoid unnecessary capitalization, but recognizes an established exception for bird names:
Common (vernacular) names of flora and fauna should be written in lower case (oak, lion). There are exceptions; for particular groups of organisms, there are particular rules of capitalization based on current and historic usage among those who study the organisms; for example, official common names of birds.
So, if all these sources agree to capitalize bird names, what is the authority against it? As Anselm Atkins wrote in The Auk in 1983: "Any American dictionary. Look up "blue jay."

Atkins continues:
Most field guides and some other books do use capitals. On the other hand, birds are confined to lower case in the writings of Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Stephen Gould, and many others. Highly literate magazines such as Audubon, Smithsonian, National Geographic and National Wildlife do not capitalize birds' names. Neither do Science or Scientific American. A great number of writers and editors thus follow the dictionary rather than the CBE [Council of Biology Editors, which follows the IOC rule for bird names, or at least did at the time Atkins was writing]. ...
Language changes; grammatical usages come and go. There are no eternal verities here; convention and consent are all. Rules of grammar are not handed down from on high--they are merely a codification of actual usage. The dictionary says "what is," not "what should be." Nevertheless, it is proper to follow "what is" as determined by the compilers of current dictionaries. Professional ornithologists and lepidopterists, whose writings surely constitute only a fraction of today's literature, cannot possibly win the day (but what a gallant showing of nets and binoculars against all those typewriters, word processors, and printing presses!). Lacking an Archimedes' fulcrum, we shall never change convention but only succeed in violating it. Meanwhile, our idiosyncrasy causes confusion among those who want to write birds' names correctly. It would be most helpful if we would generously concede and conform. As Humpty-Dumpty said (it's impossible to make it through a reflective essay without quoting Lewis Carroll), it is a question of who is to be master. In this instance, let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.
Whew! What writer with an interest in nature could dislike being grouped with Muir, Leopold, Gould and the other luminaries mentioned, and who could fail to be charmed by Atkins' comments about "nets and binoculars" and Lewis Carroll? And yet what blogger who focuses on birds wouldn't want to be taken at least a bit seriously in the birding world?

As a writer and editor (this is a significant part of what I do for a living) who is not a trained ornithologist, I have to say those capitals catch my eye. When I use them in my blog posts, they start to bug me. They look old-fashioned and, as Atkins notes, overly Important. They don't seem necessary for clarity most of the time when I or others are writing carefully, though they do indeed convey instant information that sometimes helps avoid ambiguity.

So, I imagine you're thinking, Cut to the chase. What's your decision?

And my answer is that I'm not sure I have a final decision. And, after all this wallowing, I'm not sure that it's really all that important to decide. But if I were writing a Penelopedia style guide right now, here's where I think I'd start, recognizing that I'm a generalist who writes for a wide audience, not an expert writing for a scholarly audience:
  • Use IOC format (caps) in lists of bird species, but --
  • Use dictionary format (no caps) in general text. There, I said it. I feel relieved. But I will --
  • Add the Latin species name in parentheses when needed for clarity
One nice thing about style guides is that while they provide a useful consistency, they can change. (Witness the Associated Press finally in the past year adopting the almost universal non-AP usage of website, abandoning the awful, stilted-looking Web site.) So I'll see how this goes, and if I have problems or  misgivings, I'll revisit the issue.

In the meantime, you general readers, trained ornithologists, and English style junkies out there: what do you think?


Michael said...

Capitalization lets readers who are simply skimming quickly find the names of birds. I'm a non-birder with a passive interest in learning to identify birds and a subscriber to your RSS feed. When an article is lengthy, or I'm in a hurry, I skim. If I know all the birds you're talking about, I may pass over that particular blog post until another time. If I see a bird name I'm not familiar with I will stop and focus for a few minutes.

Also, thanks in part to this blog, part to getting a pair of binoculars from my grandpa and part to moving to Minnesota, my 4 year old is getting a Peterson bird guide this year for Christmas. I plan to borrow it frequently. (I picked that one because he's 4 and it seemed to have good pictures).

Richard said...

Did you get many splinters setting on that fence. Caps for me. I think that people have just got lazy with the English language.

Sue at EcoStrides said...

I'm with you! Great post.

Mary S. said...

This is an interesting question. The reason we do not capitalized common names in the plant world, which is the one I'm familiar with, is that the same common name can refer to more than one genus and species or that multiple common names can refer to a single genus and species. I'm amazed that birders have a single common name aligned with a single genus and species. They must be more organized than gardeners!

Dan Tallman said...

If you don't capitalize common names, how are you going to tell a brown jay (a muddy Blue Jay) from a Brown Jay (a bird found in Mexico)?

Penelope said...

Oh, good, I was hoping to get some feedback/pushback/conversation going! Keep it coming, please!

@Michael - Thanks for your input; I hadn't thought of that. And how exciting to hear your plans to get your son a field guide! There are kid-oriented guides available, as you probably know, but a "real" guide will have a sense of importance about it that I hope he'll pick up on and value!

@Richard - Oh, I am a fence-straddler from way back. It's my legal training -- I can argue both sides of an issue until I'm blue in the face, but actually reaching a decision can be hard for me.

@Sue- Thanks!

@Mary - I was hoping you would chime in, with all your writing and editing experience. That's a very telling point about the difference it makes when a common name clearly refers to one and only one species, compared to fields in which that's not the case. You're right, that does make a difference, and it didn't occur to me that that might be why some of the other branches of study don't use the caps for common names.

@Dan - I was hoping you would chime in too! Bird names are challenging because they so often include descriptive words. But surely the notable publications and authors mentioned have found admirable ways to deal with the question by choosing their words more carefully. You'd probably say "I saw a very brown (or muddy) blue jay today," or you'd say "I saw some warblers; I wasn't sure what kind, but they were yellow," rather than "I saw some yellow warblers" if you didn't mean to indicate the species name. You're absolutely right that a policy of using caps avoids these issues, but I don't think they're insuperable. And the longer or more complicated the name, the less I object to the caps, somehow. I don't claim to have worked it all out, but I love digging into questions like this.

Penelope said...

Here's an additional thought: when we speak, we can't use capitals. So anything we can say clearly enough to be understood without them can be written without them!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your summary, but mostly because it look pretentious to only capitalize birds and not other animals or plants. How silly is it to write, "The Bald Eagle sat quietly watching from the red alder branches as a brown bear dined on silver salmon."? Is the eagle somehow more important than the other species present? The argument about description vs. names applies to brown bears, silver salmon, and red alder, and they have never been capitalized. Thanks for a well-written, well-researched, and thoughtful post. I plan to share with my staff.

Karen said...

—what Dan said. I'm currently editing a doc that refers to a great cormorant (research on capitalization is what led me to this blog). So is it a Great Cormorant (specific species of bird) or a great cormorant (a really nifty bird)? My problem is that the doc also includes a reference to a golden eagle, an Apennine wolf, an Alpine ibex, and a Marsican brown bear. I'm having a bit of a nervous breakdown trying to keep it all consistent.

Penelope said...

Thanks for the comment, Karen. There are good reasons for both approaches, and in many cases it does make sense to follow the conventions of the particular field. I write for a general audience, and because I value precision I'm not likely to use ambiguous phrases like the ones Dan mentions. Again, I think, if you can say it without confusion, you can write it without confusion. But if you're editing someone else's work and you're not sure of their meaning, that's certainly a problem.

A Boon said...

The confusion about capitalisation of animal names is not only present in the English, but also in Dutch (and probably many other languages). The rules in Dutch are simple: no capitals, unless there is a geographic adjective. As a scientific writer of reports and papers in English, I choose to follow non capitals. So it is common seal and harbour porpoise, but then is it (as I saw in Karin's reaction) Alpine ibex and Arctic skua? I can not tell from the review I did on internet. I stick with non capitals.

Penelopedia said...

A Boon -- Thank you for adding the international perspective. The general rule in English, if not following the practice of capitalizing all birds' common names, is to capitalize only those words that would be capitalized in other contexts, which as you say are generally geographic proper nouns, like "American goldfinch" or "Canada goose."

This blog post gets a lot of traffic, so it's clearly an issue that people struggle with and differ over. I'll repeat that I think the context is important. If you're writing for an ornithological publication, it's important to follow the conventions of that world. If you are writing generally about nature and are likely to be describing other animals and plants as well as birds, as Anonymous wrote, it looks silly to single out bird species for capitalization. While this blog certainly has a bird focus, it's not exclusively in that world and so to me it usually feels distracting to insert the capitals.

Readers of this blog can trust that if I use words that form a bird's common name, I am using them in that sense and not as a general description of the bird. I am never going to talk about seeing "yellow warblers" if I just mean I saw some unidentified warblers that were yellow. I also often link bird names to a page on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site so readers can learn more if they wish, so that provides an additional clue that this is the official common name of the bird.

Blake said...

Great post! As a photo-blogger who frequently posts photos of birds, I've often wondered about this convention by birders and wondered how to refer to birds in my posts. Thanks for the information, and I think I may use your conclusions in my own usage.

bandwitch said...

I'm currently writing a fictional work with all of the characters being birds, so I, too, found it odd looking back over my work and seeing so many capitalized names, so I've just decided that for the first usage of the bird name, I'll capitalize it and then, thereafter, I'll move it to lowercase for repeated usage.

Bob - Waller Co., TX said...

"I saw a yellow warbler." (Just go to a field guide and see how many warbler species are mostly yellow – not just a Yellow Warbler, Setophaga [formerly Dendroica] petechia.) That's all the example I need to justify capitalization. Penelope, it greatly surprises me that you didn't include Eloise Potter's response to Atkins, available on line at I can't make my case anywhere close to as well as she does, so take a look at that.

As I noted above, I greatly prefer capitalization, not only of bird species but of all biota when it refers to a specific species (e.g., I like woodpeckers, but I like Pileated Woodpeckers). Confusion from not capitalizing is not peculiar to bird names. Frankly, I disagree with you, Penelope: I feel there is no good reason to not capitalize.

However, realizing that my position is not generally accepted, and that I certainly cannot convince everyone with whom I work (I do a lot of technical editing), my bottom line is consistency: if you do it for one taxon, then do it for all. And absolutely (as you noted, Penelope), note the scientific name parenthetically if necessary to avoid confusion. I've seen some works that have an appendix listing the scientific names of all species whose common names are mentioned in the main body of the work.

Responding to a couple posts:

Mary S. December 13, 2010 8:52:00 AM CST: Capitalizing or not has no effect on the problems that Mary mentions: not capitalizing absolutely does not solve them, and capitalizing certainly does not exacerbate them.

bandwitch August 3, 2012 2:34:00 AM CDT: To me, this approach seems to be stylistically inconsistent.

Bob - Waller Co., TX said...

P.S. The original Atkins (1983) commentary to which you refer, Penelope, is at

Penelopedia said...

Bob - Thanks for taking the time to share your views. It's been interesting to see how many visits this post keeps getting.

I did read Eloise Potter's response to Atkins when I did the original research. I do agree with her that ornithological publications should retain their rule. I've never argued against that. I don't agree with her view that "Carolina Wren" is a proper noun in the same sense as Lincoln Continental. That's a brand name, of course, but I do appreciate this analogy much more than the ones I've read where people compare a bird name to a human's name, ignoring the fact that it is being used to describe a type of thing, not an individual. However, I'm not comfortable drawing a direct comparison between trade names, which are often fanciful or coined, and in fact typically need to be more than simply descriptive to be registered, and bird names.

Let me clarify again: I don't disagree with the capitalization rule within the ornithological world; I support that rule for that scientific community. You're right; it is always clearer to use the capitalization (at least when coming from a knowledgeable source -- see my observations in the final paragraph below). In some instances, real confusion could arise from not capitalizing the names. And yet, the highly regarded magazines noted in the Atkins quote have concluded there are what they consider to be compelling reasons not to capitalize (though a quick check of Audubon magazine online shows that they do now capitalize common bird names, which doesn't surprise me in the least since they are immersed in the world of birds).

The main styleguide for reporters is the AP (Associated Press) Stylebook, and it does not capitalize bird names. I think one of these reasons more mainstream publications sometimes do not follow the capitalization convention is, as I have noted previously, that people who are knowledgeable about birds simply are not likely to use terms like "yellow warbler" and "gray jay" to describe a generic bird of that description -- and readers can trust that I will not do so. As a commenter on a Bird Forum discussion of this topic stated, "[I]n truth you would never write it in that way, you would adjust your language to make clear what you were saying."

Your point, I believe, is that if we use capitals we don't need to worry about even the possibility of confusion. Of course, perusing online comments on almost any online article or blog reveals that there are plenty of well-meaning people who wrongly and often randomly capitalize common nouns -- calling someone a beautiful Lady, for example -- and who would probably call a bird a Hawk or an Eagle or a Bluebird, which does not mean they are conveying a particular species. I guess my point is that in all cases you have to consider the credibility of your source. I believe that when writing for a general audience, using language carefully is at least as powerful a tool for clear communication as using capitals for bird names.

Thanks again for writing.

Anonymous said...

I don’t understand why ornithologists (mainly English native speakers) continue using “common names” when the binomial nomenclature is a standardized system of naming species of living things more than 200 years ago.

Northern Cardinal or Black-capped Chickadee or northern cardinal or black-capped chickadee or Cardenal norteƱo or parulo cabeci negro???????
Only call him Poecile atricapillus! Even when latin names sounds difficult to no Romance Leguagues speakers…have no sense to create alternative nomenclature systems!!

...And of course…I apologize for my bad English :)

Milan said...

Very interesting comments. As I kept reading it occurred to me, well, what is the common name for Homo sapiens and is it capitalized?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Personal opinion: capitalization is insane. No matter how hard you try, common names will never unequivocally identify a taxonomic concept. What do I mean if I write Black-shouldered Kite: the bird from the second edition NatGeo on my desk at work, the one in Europe and Africa, the one in Australia, or a kite with black shoulders (all three!). An unequivocal way would be to refer to a species concept: "black-shouldered kite (Elanus leucurus (Vieillot, 1818))".

Amalia said...

I have been agonizing over this decision for months and have read every word here and other similar articles several times and still cannot decide what to do. I am writing a coloring book and field guide on Michigan animals. It is divided into the sections of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. When I first ran into this dilemma, I thought, well if birds names are capitalized in guide books, maybe I should just capitalize all of the proper names for consistency. I have since changed all of the other animals back to non-capitalized because I just couldn't do it, knowing it was not correct although I did like the way it made the names stand out. Now I struggle with the decision to leave the bird section with capitalized names or not. I worry about the appearance of consistency with the rest of the book even though birds have their own section. It is a coloring book that reads like a field guide for each animal. Any opinions??

Penelope Hillemann said...

Hi Amalia -- I think I would opt for consistency throughout the book, one way or the other. I would probably look at other examples of guides that include birds plus other animals and see what looks best in terms of presentation. Page titles of course can follow "title case" capitalization, a separate issue from how you treat the name in the body of the text. Good luck! Sounds like a great project.

Anonymous said...

Quicksand! I am grateful to witness others struggle with this issue. Years after breaking wildlife biologists of capitalizing the common names of birds, the American Fisheries Society decided to capitalize the common names of fishes (and introduce the Latin name without parentheses, I might add). I understand that some journals of entomology and archaeology also capitalize common names of species.

I edit documents for a variety of audiences, some technical and fisheries specific, some general and multidisciplinary. My approach is also to divide and conquer: fisheries- and avian-specific documents will have capitalized common names, while multidisciplinary documents will not.

SMcCandlish said...

This could use another update. :-) Wikipedia did not actually make "an exception" for birds. It's Manual of Style, which has advised lower case for vernacular names since at least 2008, observed for a while (starting, I think in 2012) that there was a long-unresolved dispute about birds and that people shouldn't fight over it in articles in the interim. That dispute was resolved in May 2014, in favor of lower case, because Wikipedia's collective editorial voice is that of, as you put it above, "a generalist who writes for a wide audience, not an expert writing for a scholarly audience". Wikipedia's Manual of Style section on organisms has stably called for lower case, across the board, since then, and the overcapitalization has been removed from bird-related articles. It also had to be cleaned up in many others, where the capitalization had been incidentally spreading to, e.g., primate, rodent, feline, and other non-bird species because inexperienced Wikipedia editors thought the capitalization was some kind of "Wikipedia style"! It was quite a mess.

The rationale behind this resolution is also the answer to the coloring book author's dilemma: Unless it's a coloring book for professional ornithologists, you can safely use lower case, just like newspapers, dictionaries, and even non-ornithology-specialized journals publishing ornithology papers. The idea that birders will revolt against non-capitalized names is not one anyone needs to take seriously, or Nature and Scientific American would capitalize them, too; they don't.

The pro-capitalization stance confuses several different things, making ultimately for an incoherent argument:

* proper names (Lincoln Continental, Johnny Depp, New York); general classes of distinguishable individual things (e.g. species categorizations of animal specimens) don't qualify, from either a linguistics or philosophy approach to the concept of the proper name or proper noun;
* capitalization in field guides and other works as an aid to scannability (upper-casing as a form of emphasis);
* IOC recommendations for ornithology publications to capitalize as a matter of insider, specialist convention, a practice mirrored in many specialized publications in many fields as an aid to inter-expert clarity, but which cannot be used outside of each specialized context, in general-audience publications, or virtually everything would be capitalized;
* disambiguation, in which capitalization is [mis]used to distinguish, e.g., the black-headed gull from gulls that happen to have black heads, something better done simply by writing clearly, as you observed and quoted someone else at Bird Forum saying, too.

PS: No one seems to take the American Fisheries Society seriously on their pro-capitalization position. It has had virtually no effect on real-world usage, and in justifying it, AFS reps indicated it was intended for "the fishery user" and "fish biologists", not the general public (Nelson, et al.; "A Capital Case for Common Names of Species of Fishes", Fisheries 27(7): 31-33; July 2002). Even this rationale was rebutted strongly (Kendal, "A Capital Punishment", same publication, pp. 33-34).