New book explains birds’ Latin names for birdwatchers

5/29/2014 | 0

Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, Timber Press, 2014.

Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, Timber Press, 2014.

“An interesting and enjoyable jaunt into the world of scientific bird names.” That’s how authors Roger Lederer and Carol Burr describe their new book, Latin for Bird Lovers. “It is not definitive, authoritative, or complete.”

A book like that, they say, would have to be much bigger. We think it would also be a whole lot less fun, and besides, one already exists: the 432-­page Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names (Christopher Helm, 2009). It lists the generic and specific name for almost every species in the world and gives its meaning and derivation. There are no pictures.

Two less ambitious dictionaries are mainstays of American libraries: The venerable Dictionary of American Bird Names, by Ernest A. Choate, which appeared in 1973 and was then revised in 1985 (Harvard Common Press), and Dictionary of Birds of the United States, by Joel Ellis Holloway, which came out in 2003 (Timber Press). Each describes names of American birds only, and both have been overtaken by taxonomic revisions made by the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Lederer and Burr list only about 2,000 scientific names (presented as individual Latin or Greek words, not as binomials) but include pictures on every page and, happily, don’t limit their defining to American birds only. Consequently, along with such terms as Noveboracensis (New York), Ludoviciana (of Louisiana), Californianus (after California), they explain the genera of Australia’s kiwis (Apteryx, meaning wingless), Africa’s sunbirds (Cinnyris, a name given by Hesychius), and Asia’s white-­eyes (Zosterops, meaning girdle eye), along with many other terms, shedding light on some of the world’s most colorful and interesting birds.

Better yet, they include full-­page profiles of 20 genera and 11 birders and ornithologists, including Phoebe Snetsinger, James Bond, and Margaret Morse Nice, and informative essays on adaptations, beaks, the color of birds, feathers, songs and calls, common names, migration, and foraging.

Latin for Bird Lovers by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, Timber Press, 2014, 224 pages, $24.95, hardcover.

A version of this review appeared in June 2014 issue. Subscribe. Contact us.

See all the new books about birds recommended in our June 2014 issue.

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