Lots of sunbirds have dumb names

i-a0ceefa945b9f6a2bde691391dff03b3-olive-backed sunbird.jpg

Something came up at a meeting the other day and I consider it worth discussing. And it concerns birds - which is good, because I haven't done much on birds at Tet Zoo lately. Specifically, it concerns sunbirds, or nectariniids, the nectarivorous, superficially hummingbird-like passerines of the Old World tropics. Sunbirds are passeroid oscines: they've generally been considered related to the mostly frugivorous, mostly Australasian flowerpeckers or dicaeids*, and both appear to be the sister-group to the huge passeroid clade - dubbed 'core passeroids' by Barker et al. (2001) - that includes accentors, sparrows, finches, weavers, pipits, buntings, tanagers, woodwarblers, icterids and others (Ericson & Johansson 2003, Sefc et al. 2003, Beresford et al. 2005). There are about 130 sunbird species, and they occur across Africa, the Middle East, tropical Asia, Madagascar, and the Comores. One species reaches Australia...

* Some authors have in fact included flowerpeckes among Nectariniidae.

With groups of this size, wouldn't it be nice if all or most species had memorable, sensible names. Well, the good news is that this is the case for at least some of them. The Scarlet-chested sunbird Chalcomitra senegalensis* really does have an obviously scarlet chest [see below: photo from fatbirder.com], the Green-throated sunbird C. rubescens really does have an obviously green throat, the Blue-headed sunbird Cyanomitra alinae really does have an obviously blue head, and the Pygmy long-tailed sunbird Hedydipna platura really is small and long-tailed. But we are the victims of history, and the names that animals have are often far from the best, or the most appropriate.

* For those interested, note that I have used the revised taxonomy whereby Nectarinia sensu Delacour is split into multiple genera (Irwin 1999).

i-48c77b494154c36fd3603f624448733b-Scarlet-chested sunbird Jens Eriksen.jpg

Consider Cinnyris chloropygius: an African species with bright yellow pectoral tufts, a scarlet chest, blue throat, and metallic green head and tail coverts. Metallic green sunbird? Blue-throated sunbird? Yellow-tufted sunbird? No, it was named for its dullest, most easily overlooked, least remarkable bit of anatomy: its olive belly. Olive? What the hell kind of colour is olive? Is 'olive' even a colour? I admit that I'm challenged when it comes to colours - to me, 'olive' is just some sort of nondescript greeny/browny colour. Anyway, C. chloropygius is, yes, the Olive-bellied sunbird.

What about Cyanomitra verticalis: another African yellow-tufted species, males have a metallic blue or green head and throat, and an unusual greyish belly. Greyish-bellied sunbird? Metallic-headed sunbird? No... Olive-backed sunbird (although it's also known as the Green-headed sunbird: it's shown at the very top, image from here). To add insult to injury, there's Cinnyris jugularis of southern Bangladesh, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, SE Asia, China and Australia. Sporting a bright yellow belly and a metallic purple and green throat, it also has a pretty wide distribution. It should be the Yellow-bellied sunbird or something, and in fact this is the name usually used for it in Australia. But no, like Cyanomitra verticalis it's also known as the Olive-backed sunbird. Two 'olive-backed sunbirds'?? Argh. Then there's Cyanomitra olivacea [shown below: image from here]. Ok, the scientific name might already have given the game away, but with its plain plumage, reasonably large size, solitary habits, and unusual form of movement (Serle et al. (1990) described it as lacking 'the grace and spontaneity of most sunbirds' (p. 231)) it's unusual in several respects. And, yes, so unusual that it's known as the (yawn) Olive sunbird (actually, C. olivacea is the Eastern olive sunbird. There's also a Western olive sunbird, C. obscura).

i-38a1afc483c465cf1b98cd5d8cd4a938-Olive sunbird.jpg

Whether these names prove useless in terms of field identification is a matter of opinion. Maybe you're supposed to learn what birds look like before going out into the field and trying to identify them: I have no experience whatsoever in identifying sunbirds, but while I know the appearance of most of the European birds I go out and look at, I think that my memory is often jogged when I can associate physical features with a common name. This memory jogging method is likely to fail when we consider some of the other sunbirds: think of the Handsome sunbird Aethopyga bella, Lovely sunbird A. shelleyi, Regal sunbird Cinnyris regius [shown below: from wikipedia], Shining sunbird C. habessinicus, Beautiful sunbird C. pulchellus, Variable sunbird C. venustus, Superb sunbird C. superbus, and Noted sunbird C. notatus (aka Madagascar sunbird).

i-00b92bde99b7e14f0bd58b4280ab0c12-regal sunbird wikipedia.jpg

The lesson from this, if there is one, is that common names are often little more than labels, and at worse they're uninspiring and, from an admittedly personal perspective, often fail to capture anything interesting or remarkable about the species concerned. Maybe ornithologists just like the colour 'olive' a lot more than I do.

We'll come back to sunbirds one day. It's to do with their bills....

Refs - -

Barker, F. K., Barrowclough, G. F. & Groth, J. G. 2001. A phylogenetic hypothesis for passerine birds: taxonomic and biogeographic implications of an analysis of nuclear DNA sequence data. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B 269, 295-308.

Beresford, P., Barker, F. K., Ryan, P. G. & Crowe, T. M. 2005. African endemics span the tree of songbirds (Passeri): molecular systematics of several evolutionary 'enigmas'. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 272, 849-858.

Ericson, P. G. P. & Johansson, U. S. 2003. Phylogeny of Passerida (Aves: Passeriformes) based on nuclear and mitochondrial sequence data. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 29, 126-138.

Irwin, M. P. S. 1999. The genus Nectarinia and the evolution and diversification of sunbirds: an Afrotropical perspective. Honeyguide 45, 45-58.

Sefc, K. M., Payne, R. B. & Sorenson, M. D. 2003. Phylogenetic relationships of African sunbird-like warblers: Moho (Hypergerus atriceps), Green hylia (Hylia prasina) and Tit-hylia (Pholidornis rushiae). Ostrich 74, 8-17.

Serle, W., Morel, G. J. & Hartwig, W. 1990. A Field Guide to the Birds of West Africa. Collins, London.

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Haha! Cinnyris jugularis is the most common sunbird found here in Singapore. Yes, it's a pretty little bird, and the most distinctive feature is the yellow belly, as well as the metallic purple throat in the males, but it sure has a dull name.

Wow! That iridescent pink bird with the twelve-foot metallic purple tail and the enormous spotty red throat pouch has grey feet! Let's call it the grey-footed boring bird!

I agree the names are not always all that helpful. We have for instance Cinnyris pulchellus - the 'beautiful sunbird' - what as opposed to all the others that are ugly! Or Cinnyris coccinigaster and C. superbus the 'Splendid' and 'Superb' sunbirds respectively both of which are pretty little birds, but not particuarly more splendid or superb than any number of other sunbirds.
However - I guess the same sort of thing happens with many other groups - what really annoys me is the way they are covered in many field guides. As a long time birder I have come to recognise that fieldguides are often only an attempt at portraying key identifcation characters of species. While there have been many new regional guides in the last decade, some of which are excellent, I have come to realise that we are very fortunate in western Europe with the qualtiy of the guides we have available. I cannot comment on fieldguides for the Americas (I have never been there - though Peru is high on my to do list for the next 12 months) - but I have gone birding in much of Africa, southern and eastern Asia, and Australasia, and the guides are a really mixed bag. The coverage of sunbirds epitomises this - so often the guides show only mature males in full breeding plumage and make the iridescent metalic colour elements look like they are simple pigment based colouration. While many species dont have separate breeding and non-breeding plumages - those that do often look very different. As for females - identifying many female subirds in the wild to a birder like me who visits the tropics occasionally is a often a nightmare (a bit like many palearctic Phylloscopus warblers!). Then you have the fact that often the bird your trying to identify is flitting in and out of shade - and unless there is good light those amazing blues, purples and greens all look black. As I said some guides are excellent, some others I have used have been about as much use as a condom to a eunuch in identifying sunbirds!

I've had my rant. Notwithstanding all I have said they are wonderful little birds, well worth watching - and the related spidereaters, while not so pretty, have even more interesting behaviour.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

Anyway, C. chloropygius is, yes, the Olive-bellied sunbird.

Its scientific name, to add insult to injury, does refer to the green tail (coverts).

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

A very useful reference for these is: Cheke, Mann & Allen, 2001 - Sunbirds: a Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters and Sugarbirds of the World - published by Helm as part of the Helm Identification Guides series. It covers what has traditionally been treated as three families:
Nectariniidae (Sunbirds & spiderhunters)
Dicraeidae (flowerpeckers & pardalotes)
& Promeropidae (sugarbirds).
The authors took the line that these are actually very close and included them all within the family Nectariniidae - with the sugarbirds as a distinct subfamily (Promeropinae) while the flowerpeckers constitute a tribe within the subfamily Nectariniinae.

The actual relationships of the sugarbirds is highly controversial - traditionally they been placed either with starlings or honeyeaters (there are significant skeletal simularities to the latter). Though I note several recent sources treat them as a discrete family somewhat close to the sunbirds. One of the papers you list (Beresford, P., Barker, F. K., Ryan, P. G. & Crowe, T. M. 2005) has Promeropidae in "an unresolved group that includes other Old World nectarivores (Nectariniidae, Irenidae and Dicaeidae) and core passeridans". Curiously it also has Promeropidae(which usually includes only the 2 species in the genus Promerops) also containing the 'modulatrixes' of the genera Arcanator (dappled mountain robin) and Modulatrix (spot-throat). The modulatrixes have been variously treated as sylviid warblers, babblers, bulbuls or even thrushes - but they seem to have absolutely nothing in common in appearance, ecology or behaviour with sugarbirds.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

Speaking of olives, let us not forget that nasty reindeer, Olive "the other", who tormented ("poor") Rudolph.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

... otherwise, reindeer variety names seem more judiciously chosen: "red-nosed" is a pretty distinctive feature.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 31 May 2008 #permalink

It's almost as bad as this-
"The English name narwhal is derived from the Irish name narwal, which in turn comes from the Portuguese narhval. This is based on the Old Norse word nár, meaning "corpse". This is a reference to the animal's color."
Yeah...that's the first thing you notice.=p

We probably all have our most hated misleading common names, but one I find really baffling is for plants of the genus Garrya, called silktassels. I and botanist friends have spent considerable time trying to figure out why, but we just can't come up with anything - no dangling tassel-like flowers, no silkiness anywhere we can see, just totally mysterious. A park guide once claimed that it's because when you tear a leaf and pull it apart there are strings of moist substance between the torn parts that might vaguely be considered silky. When I said that that's true of all plant leaves I know of, he admitted he'd made it up.

I have only encountered Garrya in a garden setting, but the flowers I have seen are in long dangling catkins. Allegedly female plants have longer catkins than male ones (no rude jokes!) - but I can't say I've noticed any difference. So while I agree that silky seems to be pushing it, I do think tassel is appropriate.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

I think most of those names are due to Victorian naturalists working with skins in gaslight. Nearly all those glorious hues on sunbirds are stuctural colours essentially invisible except in sunlight. Those dull olives/greys/greens on the othar hand are always visible.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 01 Jun 2008 #permalink

Hands off common names of birds!

First, they became the best identification label, because of a wave of splitting and reshuffling of scientific names.

Second - English bird names are surprisingly good identification labels. Without knowing local bird avifauna beforehead, you simply don't know that some strange or dumb name like "small black-tailed chirper" is the most accurate description of field impression.

You see this a very great deal with the naming of butterflies and moths, most especially in the disparity between English and American names. In England, most of the naming was done by gentleman naturalists, so even ubiquitous trashy moth species have names like "Heart and dart moth", "Large Yellow Underwing" and "Bright line Brown eye".

In the Americas, most of the naming was done by agriculturalists, who are far less romantic giving us names like the "Greasy cutworm" "Bollworm" and "Gypsy Moth".

By Dr Dan H. (not verified) on 02 Jun 2008 #permalink

Some very spectacular birds there, Darren!
Can the birds themselves see all these colours as we do?

I wonder how iridescent beetles and butterflies look to their kin?
Maybe some dull similar-looking types are very distinctive in their own eyes (as some insects detect UV and polarisation too)...

Names: narwhals are surely candidates for bearing as their common name 'sea unicorn'.

Names: 'Triceratops horridus' irks me. Talk about giving a dog a bad name! I suppose horridness is in the eye of the beholder but Triceratops is such a widespread favourite that I'd prefer a nobler species moniker: maybe 'majestic', 'awesome' or 'glorious'. Maybe the namer was just having a bad day.

By Graham King (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

Can the birds themselves see all these colours as we do?

Better yet: being normal vertebrates, they have four color receptors (one for ultraviolet), rather than our three (of which two have their absorption maxima very close to each other's).

I suppose horridness is in the eye of the beholder

Imagine one coming for you.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 Jun 2008 #permalink

I remember reading somewhere that blue tits (Parus* coeruleus) have a sexual dimorphism that's invisible to us because the difference is in the UV part of the spectrum. For the same reason, some flowers are much more colorful, and therefore more easily noticed, to bees than they are to us.

*Or Cyanistes, if you prefer.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 07 Jun 2008 #permalink

There are numerous examples of bad names for birds, but most of the ones mentioned here are actually pretty good. First, there's only X number of combinations when dealing with a very large family with many visually similar species (it's even worse when dealing with warblers, furnariids and tyrant-flycatchers). For example, Olive Sunbird is an excellent name. Except for two rather restricted species, there are no other African sunbirds where both sexes are so uniform olive overall as this species (well, these species, if following the split of the Olive). Olive-bellied Sunbird is also an excellent name for Cinnyris jugularis (essentially no-one still uses Olive-bellied for Cyanomitra verticalis). There are many other species with the exact same pattern and colours above, on the throat and chest, but only a few, for the most part with highly restricted distributions, have the olive belly of the Olive-bellied Sunbird (it is black or grey in most similar species). Olive-backed Sunbird is just as good. Within its range, few other sunbirds in male plumage share the olive back, while many share the yellow belly. The suggested Yellow-bellied is potentially even more problematic as there are a number of subspecies where the belly is orange or even black. See for example race buruensis (if the photo has changed to another ssp., click "next"):


The various Regal, Beautiful, etc, are pretty useless in terms of identification, but on the other hand I can't think of anything truly distinctive about their plumage or behavior that sets them apart from their relatives, and also could be modified into a common name. The upperparts of the br. male Variable Sunbird are green exactly like numerous other sunbirds, while the colour of its underparts are highly variable, so the possibilities for a name for this species are pretty limited. Rather, if you want a really bad name, look at the use of "redstart" for the various mainly Neotropical members of the genus Myioborus, which, no matter how you look at it (they're not related to the "true" redstarts; none of them show any red in their tails), is misleading. Thankfully, many in South America, where by far the larges number of species occur, now use whitestart, but some continue to use the entirely misleading redstart.

By Rasmus Boegh (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

Rasmus, you make good arguments. On reflection I think that my dislike of some of these names relates to my dislike of the 'colour' 'olive', but then I've learnt that ornithologists are far more skilled at describing and identifying colours than I am. Many thanks for the highly informed comment.

Speaking of bad bird names, another one worth mentioning is Friendly Ground-Dove for Gallicolumba stairi. To quote Pratt, Bruner & Berrett (1987):

"... This ridiculous and misleading name is well entrenched in the literature, but virtually every author has felt the need to remark about its inappropriateness. Perhaps the name originated as a bad joke..."

By Rasmus Boegh (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink