Birds named after their habitat

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-09-20

One of the most interestingly-named birds regularly seen around Delhi is the Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis. It has an onomatopoeic common name—its call being a loud "zit zit"—that includes its Latin generic name Cisticola, from the Greek name kistos for the "rock rose" (a small red-flowered shrub) and Latin cola for "dweller" (from colere "to dwell"). The specific name is from the Latin iuncus for reed. (For some reason I can no longer remember, I used to think that cistus meant basket, and referred to the bird's basket-shaped nests, but I was wrong.)

Cisticola is the most familiar such name, but there are many other birds named after their dwellings (a special case of bionyms). Thanks to a borrowed copy of James A. Jobling's wonderful "Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names", I can look up all of the -cola names (both generic and specific) extracted from a checklist. Here's a selection of the interesting ones.

Names related to plants

Not surprisingly, many habitats are described in terms of plant names. Bambusicola is the self-explanatory genus of Bamboo Partridges. Cryptosylvicola and silvicola both refer to the Latin silva for forest; nemoricola is from the Latin nemus, also for forest or wood, and Hylacola is from the Greek name for the same thing. dumicola comes from the Latin dumus for thorn bush (while Dumeticola and other forms such as dumetorum derive from dumetum for thicket).

Reed and grass dwellings were taken particularly seriously. Arundinicola is from the Latin Arundo for "reed", a name shared by a genus of grasses (cf. Arundo donax, the Giant Cane). Graminicola is from the Latin gramen or graminis for grass, herbicola is from herba also for grass, and Schoenicola is from schoenus for rushes or reeds. Perhaps these terms applied to different species of grasses at one time, but the distinctions are now lost.

Some of these names are used for birds seen in India: the Mountain Bamboo Partridge Bambusicola fytchii (after Major General Albert Fytche), Wood Snipe Gallinago nemoricola, Blyth's Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum, Rufous-rumped Grassbird Graminicola bengalensis, and Broad-tailed Grassbird Schoenicola platyurus.

Names used for both genus and species

I am fond of names that are used for both genera and species (see this post for more about them).

India has a fair selection of birds that use these names: the Streak-throated Swallow Hirundo fluvicola, Eurasian Crag Martin Hirundo rupestris, Broad-billed Sandpiper Limicola falcinellus, four Rock Thrushes of the genus Monticola, and the Long-billed Thrush Zoothera monticola.

Other names

Here is an assortment of Latin specific names:

Two especially odd (and unrelated) specific names are larvaticola and raricola, both given to parasitic species and referring to their host species.

Finally, another familiar name is Saxicola (the genus of Stonechats), from the Latin saxum for stone.