Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman provides tips for identifying birds in every issue of BirdWatching. In our October 2014 issue, he told what to look for to identify Winter and Pacific Wrens. He also included this explanation of how the western wren got its name:
When a species is split in two, we have to choose English names for the component forms. Do we need brand-new names for each of the newly separated species? Or does one keep the previous name while the other gets a new moniker?
Here’s an example of the first approach: In 1995, Rufous-sided Towhee was split into Spotted Towhee in the West and Eastern Towhee in the East. Almost 20 years later, longtime birders in eastern North America still grumble about the loss of the more descriptive name “Rufous-sided.”
The wrens received the opposite approach. When they were split in 2010, the long-established name “Winter Wren” was retained for the species of the eastern two-thirds of the continent, while the western bird got a new name, “Pacific Wren.”
This seems like a good deal for eastern birders, who didn’t have to learn anything new. But it leads to confusion farther west. If observers in California, for example, report a “Winter Wren” today, they usually have to clarify whether they mean a rare stray from the East or just the old name for the local bird.
A third approach — expanding the old name with modifiers — seems to be falling out of favor. So there wasn’t much support for calling the birds “Eastern Winter-Wren” and “Western Winter-Wren,” and that’s probably a good thing. — Kenn Kaufman
About Kenn Kaufman
Kenn Kaufman is naturalist, artist, conservationist, speaker, and author of many books, including the Kaufman Field Guide series and the beloved memoir Kingbird Highway. In August 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union.