Sunday, July 31, 2011

What’s in a name?

Naming of birds in the orient region: 

Birds in the Orient were scientifically studied and classified by British ornithologists. The British Empire having ruled over most of the Orient became the authority in the Natural History of the region.

Though much of the taxonomical problems encountered in the scientific naming have now been resolved by DNA analysis and other means, the general names given to birds, are confusing even today.

Myna - a Hindustani name

One such confusion is the naming of the Common Kingfisher. From a layman’s point of view the term ‘common’ implies that it is found most freely. It is the White Breasted Kingfisher and not the Common Kingfisher which is the most ‘common’ kingfisher in the region. This confusion had been discussed even in colonial Ceylon.

Legge’s “History of birds of Ceylon” shows that various authorities had been responsible in the naming of these birds. Legge refers to the Common Kingfisher as the Little Indian Kingfisher while he remarks that Jerdon names it the Common Indian Kingfisher. He also goes on to say that some call it the Little Blue Kingfisher.

In the description of the White Breasted Kingfisher, discussing its distribution Legge states that, “It extends north of India to central Asia and west ward to the Sinaitic peninsular, Nubia and Palestine.

To the east and south east of India to Burma, Mallacca, Andamans and Nicoba, Java Sumatra Labuan, Borneo and Celebes extending northwards to Formosa, Loochoo Islands , East China and Japan. Swinhoe received it from Hakodadi, in northern Japan which is the most northerly observed limit on the eastern bounds of Asia,” In no uncertain terms the most common kingfisher in the region during the colonial era.

The present day distribution, as given in the Wikipedia Encyclopedia states that ; White-throated Kingfisher, White-breasted Kingfisher or Smyrna Kingfisher, Halcyon smyrnensis, is a tree kingfisher which is widely distributed in south Asia from Turkey east to the Philippines.

This kingfisher is essentially resident over much of its range, apart from seasonal movements.

Comparatively; the European Kingfisher or Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, is widely distributed in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It is resident except in northern areas where the rivers freeze. It will then move to milder regions. In most of its European range it is the only kingfisher.

Probably, being the only kingfisher in the European range has made it the Common Kingfisher the world over?

The Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, till recently was called the “Ceylonese Jay” the Europeans in Ceylon called it the Blue Jay. This could be termed the legacy of the Oriental Natural History from a European perspective.
On the other hand, birds that were found only in the Orient were referred to by their native names; most of these names have now been Anglicized.

The strangest of them is a bird being called a bull twice; the Bulbul. This term and many others such as Munia, Koel, Myna, Besra, Shikra, Kora , Baya are Hindustani names while the name Pitta is of Telugu origin. The name Hoopoo is linked to the Hindustani name Hudhud.

There is but one family of birds in the Orient region, the ‘Malkoha” whose name is derived from Sinhala. Mal & Koha are two Singhalese words. We have two birds in this family, the Blue Face Malkoha and the Red Face Malkoha. Recently a third; the Sirkeer Malkoha. However the Coucal has a phonetically similarity in the Hindustani name 'Mahoka.'

The birds that had not been recognized by the natives of the orient by the mid 19th century were to be named after the Colonial ornithologists studying and identifying them.

These names were in use until Sibley and Monroe introduced a universal taxonomy and nomenclature, towards the latter part of the century.

Some of these names are in use, even in the Sibley and Monroe classification.

There is still but various concerns expressed on this change of names; mostly for nostalgic reasons. However when looking at the animal kingdom as a whole in a scientific perspective, a standard nomenclature of birds of the world  is a requirement.

Published in the Sunday Observer Plus 2008 - 6 - 1

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