Up To Date Species Making


The ornithological world is peopled by two classes of human beings. There are those who study nature inside the museum with the microscope and the scalpel; and there are those who love to observe birds in the open and study their habits. The former, if kept in their place, perform a very useful function, for they co-ordinate and elaborate the observations of the field naturalist. They should be most useful servants to him. Unfortunately these museum men are growing very powerful, and, like trade unions, are beginning to dictate to their masters. Indeed, they bid fair to become the masters and turn the field naturalists into their slaves. The chief aim of the arm-chair or museum ornithologist appears to be the multiplication of new species. Nowadays more species seem to be brought into being by these men than by natural selection. When they are not manufacturing new species, they are tampering with those that already exist.

I have repeatedly had occasion to speak of the marvellous, kaleidoscopic changes undergone by ornithological terminology -: changes which are the despair of the field naturalist. I am not a statistician, but at a rough guess I should say that every species of bird has its name changed about once in each decade. The object of having a classical terminology is that naturalists of all countries shall have a common name for every bird and beast, and thus not be at cross-purposes when conversing or corresponding. But this object is most successfully defeated when the classical name is continually undergoing alteration. It is practically impossible for any one but the professional ornithologist to keep pace with these changes. A poor dilettante like myself has not a look in. For example, I received by the last mail * the latest issue of the Avicultural Society's Magazine and noticed in it an article on the collared turtle-dove of Burma. Wondering what this bird might be, I looked at its scientific name and found it to be Turtur decaocta. I looked this up in both Jerdon and the Fauna of British India, but could not find it; nor could I see any mention of the collared turtle-dove. On reading through the paper I found, to my astonishment, that the bird referred to was our familiar friend the common or garden Indian ring-dove, which for years has been called Turtur risorius. Risorius was a name good enough for Jerdon, Hume, Vidal, Legge, Barnes, Reid, Davison, and a hundred other good ornithologists; but because, forsooth, one Salvadori would like a change, we shall, I suppose, be obliged to adopt the latest new-fangled appellation.

The museum ornithologist has yet another craze. He sees that there must be some limit to the present multiplication of species, so he has hit upon the brilliant idea of making sub-species. Just as the inhabitants of every town and village have little local peculiarities, so have birds of the same species which live in different provinces. The latest idea is to make each of these a different sub-species with a special name of its own. In the near future the scientific name of every bird will be composed of three parts, the generic, the specific, and the sub-specific. Thus Mr. T. H. Newman has discovered that the skin round the eye of the ring-dove of Burma is not whitish, as it is in India, but yellow; Mr. Newman therefore manufactures a new sub-species, which he calls Turtur decaocta xanthocyclus as opposed to the Indian bird which he calls Turtur decaocta douraca. We may consider ourselves lucky that he has not made a new species of the mese bird !

This is not an isolated case. Almost every unfortunate species in the universe is being split up into a dozen or more sub-species. Any local variation in the colour of the plumage is considered sufficient justification for the formation of a sub-species, and we shall undoubtedly, ere long, hear of sub-sub-species! !

The hopeless thing is that any Juggins can make new sub-species. It is as easy as falling out of a tree. Let me show how it is done. Take the common sparrow. This pushing little bird, this " feathered Hooligan," as Mr. Finn calls him, is found all over the world, and every one is able to recognise the sparrow wherever he meets him as the same bird that insults people in London. But the sparrows of each country have their little peculiarities. For example, the cock sparrow in India has more white on his neck than his brother in England. Hence we may make a sub-species of the Indian bird and call him Passer domesticus indicus.

Now, close and patient observation during a prolonged sojourn in Madras has convinced me that the sparrow in the Southern Presidency (I will no longer call it the Benighted Presidency, for experience has shown me that there are other parts of India far more benighted) is quite twenty per cent, more impudent than the sparrows in Northern India. Hence we have no option but to make a sub-sub-species of him. Let us call him Passer domesticus indicus maderaspatensis. We may go even a step further. The sparrows that hold chorus along the ledges of the iron rafters of the Connemara Hotel are far more insulting and exasperating than any other sparrows I have set eyes upon. This surely is quite sufficient provocation for making a sub-sub-sub-species of those birds. I propose to call them Passer domesticus indicus maderaspatensis connemara hotelwalla -: a name which I am sure will be received with acclamation both by sparrows and human beings.

But enough of this foolery. The multiplication of species is really a very serious matter, for it is likely to deter sane persons from taking up the most delightful of studies. If the ornithological societies of every country in the world would combine to suppress the evil, it could easily be put down. But there is, I fear, no likelihood of such combination, because these societies are composed mostly of museum ornithologists, and it is too much to expect of these men that they will voluntarily suppress their chief enjoyment in life. To persuade them to act in this altruistic manner it will be necessary to offer them a quid pro quo. The only quid that suggests itself to me is to invite each of them to name a bird after himself. Let the name of every known species (I mean proper and indisputable species) be put in a hat and let each member draw one out. The bird he draws will henceforth be called after him. If any birds are left undrawn after every man has shed his name on one species, the remainder could be balloted for, and thus some lucky dogs would be able to give their name to two birds. When this is once done, it should be made an offence punishable with death to change the specific name of any feathered thing. Newly discovered birds and beasts could, as heretofore, be named after the happy discoverer. This proposal will, if adopted, cure the evil. My point is that it does not matter a jot what a bird be called; the important thing is to give it a fixed and immutable name, so that we poor field naturalists shall know where we are.

* Written towards the end of 1906.

Birds Of The Plains
Dewar, Douglas. Birds of the Plains, 1909.
Title in Book: 
Up To Date Species Making
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
Page No: 
Common name: 
Up To Date Species Making

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