Found in humid tropical and subtropical forests in the western and northern Amazon Basin in South America, the Paradise Tanager, Tangara chilensis is found in Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. (Click photo to enlarge.)



In order to be able to study the bird world, we have to have a handle on the various forms of bird names. We'll talk about categories of classification later; today we will just be looking at the common and scientific names of birds and why they are the way they are. Look at the photo above. It's the Paradise Tanager, Tangara chilensis.

The English name, Paradise Tanager, comes from the official list of English names of the IOC, the International Ornithological Council. The scientific name Tangara chilensis, is designated by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature. Note that the official common name is capitalized. This is rare in the zoological world and is not a rule but a custom in ornilthology that has been increasingly adapted by authors. The scientific name, however, adheres to certain rules. The first name, the genus, Tangara, is always capitalized; the second name, the species, chilensis, is always lowercase. Both names are either italicized or underlined. (By the way, the word “species” is both singular and plural; “specie” is not a biological term but a gold coin.)

It is fortunate that we have official common English names for birds across the world, because not everyone speaks English and the often nebulous derivation of common names makes them useless for studying the relationships of bird species. One can only imagine the confusion if birds were identified only by their common names in various languages. Across the northern hemisphere the Mallard is called a Canard, Stokente, Wilde EEnd, Germano, Stokkand, Ma-gamo, and Pato-real. So the scientific  name gives each organism a definitive label and indicates the relationship of that organism to every other one. 

Why the "Paradise" Tanager is called that is unknown, but perhaps because of its spectacular colors. The name "Tanager" comes from the genus Tangara which was introduced by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in 1760 . Tanager means "dancer" in the extinct Tupi language (the Tupi were one of the largest groups of indigenous peoples in Brazil before its colonization). The species "chilensis", refers to the country of Chile, strange because the bird is not found in Chile.

Bird names, then, come in two versions: the common name and the scientific name. Sometimes the two versions  mean about the same. For example, The Western Gull's scientific name is Larus occidentalis, meaning "a rapacious seabird from the west". Some are descriptive like Turdus migratorius, the American Robin, is the “migratory thrush.” A little more prosaic, the Ivory Gull is Pagophilia eburne, after Greek pago for frost and philos, loving, and eburne , Latin for ivory.

Where do the names come from? Some are after people like Baird's Sandpiper or Clark's Grebe or the French botanist Pierre Magnol who gives us both the common and scientific name of the Magnolia Warbler, Setophaga magnolia.  Some are onomatopoeic, named after the sounds a bird makes or the name originally given to it by local peoples like the Chachalaca. The Tennessee Warbler and the Carolina Wren were named after the location in which they were first identified. Often, common English bird names are descriptive, named after a color, shape, pattern or behavior, like Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-winged Blackbird, and Eurasian Dipper. Scientific names are usually descriptive as well; the Striped Pipit's scientific name Anthus lineiventris means "the grassland bird with a striped belly."

All birds are related. Find out more in the blog on taxonomy.