Birds named after women

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

2015-11-01

I've read many pieces about the people after whom birds are named, and it struck me recently that most of them are male. Not surprising, since there must have been many more male ornithologists than women; but there are nevertheless many birds named after women. Because of the regularity of Latin grammar, we can find a considerable number just by looking for names that end in -ae.

Alas, the majority of matching names are toponyms. Some of these names are obvious, like novaehollandiae and novaeseelandiae, which account for 23 species between them. But many more are obscure, and there's no way to exclude them en masse. One must go through the list one entry at a time to discard the place names. One notable example of this genre is adeliae, which refers to Adélie Land, named after Adélie Vicomtesse Dumont d’Urville, wife of a French Antarctic explorer. Another problem comes from male names which have been Latinised as -ae (e.g. Matsudaira, Fea). When these and other complications are eliminated, we are left with just under a hundred female eponyms.

Only a handful of these names belong to women whose contributions to ornithology are well-documented.

The remainder of the names belong to queens, princesses, and minor nobility; and wives, sisters, and daughters (with many overlaps; the wives of nobles inclined towards nature being especially likely to have birds dedicated to them). In particular, many species described in the nineteenth century mania for hummingbirds and sunbirds were named after women. A couple of people named birds after their mothers. I do not know the extent to which any of these ladies were themselves interested in ornithology, but more than a few of them are known to have participated in collecting expeditions to unexplored places; and one can only wonder how much more credit may have been due to them that they did not get. In any case, the list of women ornithologists above is certainly incomplete.

The wives of explorers and ornithologists are by far the most numerous source of eponyms. (Update 2015-11-01: I started writing this in March 2011, and gave up on doing justice to the list of wives four and a half years later.)

Many genera were named after women (Berenicornis, Dulciornis, Ethelornis, Rosina), but have been renamed since. A few such names have survived. Enriqueta Iñez Cherrie, daughter of ornithologist George Cherrie, lends her name to a genus of four South American Tyrant Flycatchers (whose common names are also Inezia). Prince Bonaparte, a French ornithologist, named a genus after daughter Bathilde, an imperial pigeon after his other daughter Charlotte, and a dove after his wife Zénaïde. The latter name is now given to a genus of doves, including the Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita. Two Antshrikes Mackenziaena spp. are named after Helen Mackenzie McConnell, wife of English collector Frederick McConnell. Claudia Reinard, wife of German ornithologist Ernst Hartert, had both her names given to birds: Claudia and Reinarda, but neither name is still in use today.

Edithornis and edithae were names given to unrelated species after unrelated Ediths (the latter being British botanist and entomologist Edith Cole). Neither is still in use. But Lady Mary Macgregor, wife of explorer Sir William Macgregor, apart from being one of the mariae mentioned earlier, also gives her last name to a Bird-of-paradise Macgregoria pulchra and a Bowerbird Amblyornis macgregoriae. (But the Small Niltava Niltava macgrigoriae is named after an unrelated Jane MacGrigor, daughter of an Army doctor.) Elizabeth Gould, artist and wife of prolific trochilidist John Gould, had a finch Gouldaeornis gouldiae and a sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae named after her (many of Gould's South American hummingbirds are given female names whose origins are unknown).

There are many female eponyms that do not end in -ae, while others are no longer in use. Such names can be discovered only by stumbling across them. I've included some of them in the list above. There are also many female names whose origins are untraceable. Some examples are adela, catharina, eva, francescae, georginae, heloisa, lydiae, and werae. The last is a subspecies of the Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola, Wera being the Polish form of Vera.

I have no useful data about subspecific female eponyms, but I know there are a few. One example I happened upon is Spelaeornis troglodytoides indiraji, named after Indira Gandhi, a former Indian Prime Minister. Another name I like is Strix [leptogrammica] indranee, but Sykes did not explain its origin, and it's probably named after the mythical wife of the god Indra, not a real woman.

Mythology, mostly Greek, is another rich source of female names both generic (e.g. Alcyone, Atthis, Sappho) and specific (e.g. amphitrite, andromedae, antigone). But, like indranee, mythological names are technically not eponyms but autochthonyms, or indigenous names. (Speaking of ancient Greece, Xanthippe, wife of Socrates, had a bird named after her too.)

Finally, an inversion of the principle—the painter (of birds, among other things) Dafila Scott was named after a bird, Dafila being the genus of Pintail ducks (now absorbed into Anas as a subgenus). I know of bird-watcher's daughters named Irena (from Greek mythology) and Yuhina (from a Nepali name). I wonder if there are any women named after birds who were named after women.

If you know of other names that belong on this page, please write to me.