What’s in a Name?

This diary entry took place at Southern Africa

“Look – there’s a Narina trogon!”
A what?

“Hey, hear that Hartlaub’s spurfowl?”

This is a common reaction of many beginner birders as they grapple with the intricacies of Africa’s colloquial bird names, never mind distinguishing between a pipit, lark or cisticola!

Perhaps, like me, you too have wondered who some of these people were, and how it happened that some of southern Africa’s many colourful, enigmatic and endemic bird species were named after them.

In the case of the Narina trogon, the species name (i.e., the first part of the name) is apparently Khoikhoi in origin, believed to be named after Narina, the mistress of the French ornithologist François LeVaillant. But LeVaillant also sounds very familiar to us birders, right? Just think Levaillant’s Cuckoo or Levaillant’s Cisticola… So who was he?

Well, François Levaillant was a French author, explorer, naturalist, zoological collector, and noted ornithologist. He was sent by the Dutch East India Company to South Africa’s Cape Province in 1781, and collected specimens here until 1784. He made three expeditions – one around present-day Cape Town and Saldanha Bay, one east from the Cape and the third north of the Orange River and into today’s southern Namibia.

But the plot thickens. Levaillant was in fact not all that keen on the systematic nomenclature (naming system) that had been introduced by Carolus Linnaeus and so, he only gave the new species he discovered French names. Some of these are still in use as common names, such as Bateleur. Other naturalists were then left to assign binomial names to his discoveries. In his favour however, Levaillant was the only ‘colonial collector’ to name a bird species after local people. Another common bird call for us in summer is that of Klaas’s cuckoo and Levaillant named this species in honour of his Khoikoi helper.

A sought-after southern African species is Pel’s fishing-owl. But who or what is Pel’s? This species is named after HS Pel, a Dutch governor of Ghana (then the Gold Coast), back in 1850. It seems that he found trekking through murky Ghanaian backwaters after dark more appealing than running a country….

Bennet’s woodpecker owes its common name to Edward Bennet, an English zoologist and writer. He seemed to have been an admirable guy and practised as a surgeon. His passion however was always zoology.

If you have ever been to Mana Pools, South Luangwa or Liwonde National Parks, then Lilian’s lovebird will probably be in your life list, but have you ever wondered about “Lilian”? This gaudy species was only first described in the late 1890s by Miss Lilian Sclater, a British naturalist. There does not seem to be much more information on her and what she was up to – besides being an ardent traveller in east Africa.

Another colourful character in early ornithology was the Swedish naturalist and explorer, Johan August Wahlberg. A trained chemist, forester and later engineer, he travelled around southern Africa between 1838 and 1956. In this time he sent thousands of wildlife specimens back to Sweden – in those days, naturalists generally killed the animals before identifying them. He, not unnaturally, met his end when he was trampled by an elephant that he had shot and wounded whilst exploring the headwaters of the Limpopo River. He is memorialised in locally-occurring species such as Wahlberg’s eagle and Wahlberg’s honeyguide (also known as brown-backed honeybird).

These are just a few of the fascinating people behind the equally thrilling birds that we are lucky enough to see here in our corner of Africa.

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