What’s in a (corvid) name?

Most people know various corvid species by their common names but have you ever wondered what etymologies inform their scientific names? Turns out it’s a pretty fun little exercise to find out!

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Before we get to breaking down individual corvids though, a quick word on scientific names more generally.  Scientific names always have the format: Genus species. Meaning, the first word in the name tells you what genus the plant/animal belongs to and the second tells you the species name specific to that organism. So for example crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens are all in the same genus so their scientific names will all start with the same word: Corvus. The second word, however, will be unique to each species. This system of binomial nomenclature was first developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s.  By looking up the roots of an animal’s scientific name we can learn a thing or two about what he, (or whoever named it) was trying to highlight. Then again, sometimes they’re just fans of Beyoncé or Jonny Cash.

One more note: although scientific names are often referred to, informally, as Latin names, their roots may actually pull from many languages.  Though by far the most common languages are Latin and Greek.

As it happens, I have an old book of  root words I inherited from my late grandfather, Richard Swift. Something about having that book in my hands begged for this exploration in a way that having the breadth of the Internet at my fingertips never did. What can I say, a childhood spent in the library of my grandfather’s office has made me a sucker for old, smelly books. So let’s get started!

Common raven: Corvus corax
Common ravens are the biggest of the corvids (and in fact, the biggest of all the songbirds) so it makes sense their name might be the yardstick by which other corvids are measured. Cora literally translates to “crow, raven” so the common raven’s scientific name essentially just means raven.

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GO, the American crow

American crow: Corvus brachyrhynchos
Turning to American crows, we can see that yardstick I mentioned coming into play. Brachy means “short” and rhynch means “a beak or snout.” So the American crow’s full scientific name basically translates to the “short-beaked crow.”

junlge crow

Jungle crow, photo c/o Anne Kurasawa

Jungle crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
At this point, the meaning of the jungle crow’s name probably needs no explanation. The bird looks essentially like an American crow but with a more pronounced bill. Macr rhynch = large beak.

corvus_albus_-etosha_national_park_namibia-8

Pied crow, photo c/o Frank Vassen

Pied crow: Corvus albus
Alb means “white.” No mystery here.

house-crow444

House crow, photo c/o Benjamint444

House crow: Corvus splendens
Splen means “a badge or patch.” With grey sweater they sport, it’s likely the person who named them was trying to highlight this physical distinction.

thick billed raven

Thick billed raven, photo: Ignacio Yufera

Thick-billed raven: Corvus crassirostris
Sometimes, scientific names are precisely their common names. Such is the case here. Crass means “thick” and rostr means “beak.” This is a good example of where we see different languages influencing the names.  In this case, thick-billed ravens got the Latin root, whereas American and jungle crows got the Greek root for beak.

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Rook, photo c/o Pam P.

Rook: Corvus frugilegus
This one is less clear to me. Frugi means “useful, fit” and legus means “lie down; choose; or collect” depending on what language you pull from. My guess is it’s supposed to be ‘collect’ and the name refers to the more specialized bill they have for collecting insects.

Finally,

grey-crow

The grey or bare-faced crow, photo c/o B.J Coates

The grey crow: Corvus tristis
Trist means “mournful; sad.” I have a feeling I know the backstory for this one but I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can figure it out. Leave me your best explanation (made up or researched) in the comments!

10 Comments

Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Crow curiosities, Uncategorized

10 responses to “What’s in a (corvid) name?

  1. Jamila

    I’d certainly be mournful if I looked like my beautiful feathers had been plucked!

  2. corax is obviously onomatopoetic

  3. I’m going to go with its atypical corvid call, which could be described as mournful. http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Corvus-tristis

  4. Ben Creisler

    First, the easier answers:

    Corvus splendens “shiny crow”
    The word *splendens* in Latin means “shining, gleaming” (participle of the verb *splendeo* “shine, gleam”). The reference is almost certainly to the lustrous sheen of the black feathers, with violet and purple iridescence, based on older descriptions in French, where it’s called the “corbeau éclatant.”
    ++
    Corvus frugilegus
    *frugilegus* means “fruit-gathering” in Latin
    See:
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%
    ===
    Corvus tristis (freely, “somber crow”)

    In both zoological and botanical nomenclature, Latin *tristis* often has been used to indicate something with a somber coloration or hue (grey, aged-looking, muted, dull, or darkened), suggesting a melancholy appearance.
    In the case of the Corvus tristis, the whitish-grey coloration over parts of its body likely explains the choice of the name.

    The species was named by the French naturalist René P. Lesson (1794 – 1849). Lesson later created the subgenus Gymnocorvus (“naked crow”–referring to the bare area around its eyes). Translating from French:

    “Observations: This subgenus contains but a single species from New Guinea, which is the Somber Crow Corvus tristis Lesson. Zoology of the Coquille, pl. 24. The adult is whitish and reddish blond. The young stage is a muddy brown. The beak is white, and tarsi are yellowish.”

    http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/111050#page/365/mode/1up

    Lesson, R. P. (1831) Traité d’Ornithologie. Bruxelles: F.G. Levrault

    Note that the plate Lesson mentioned in fact labels it Corvus senex (Latin “old man”), a clear reference to the greyish coloration. Lesson evidently changed his mind about the name at some point and chose a different Latin word (*tristis*) to describe the color. See this illustration under that name:

    Corvus senex plate 24
    http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/119447#page/59/mode/1up

    None of Lesson’s descriptions mentions the bird’s call, so it seems pretty unlikely he had that in mind.

    Compare the name Melias tristis (Malcoha Sombre-Somber Malcoha) also mentioned by Lesson:
    http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/111050#page/170/mode/1up

    Hope this helps.

    Ben Creisler

    • Great notes, Ben! These all seem very logical with the exception of Corvus frugilegus. While rooks will eat fruit it comprises very little of their diet and certainly not enough to inspire their scientific name. I have seen though, that frugilegus can also mean “food gathering” more generally, which makes more sense based on both the rook’s natural history and the root words involved.

  5. Ben Creisler

    In Latin *frux* “fruit” could also mean grains or other produce of the fields, as well as fruit in the common modern sense.

    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dfrux

    Here’s the original description of the rook by Francis Willughby (1635-1672) in his book “Ornithology” from 1678. He gives the Latin names *Cornix frugilegus* (fruit-gathering) or *frugivora* (fruit-eating) for the rook (pg. 123).

    http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/129443#page/147/mode/1up

    “They are most greedy of Corn, yet feed also upon Earth-worms and other Insects, refraining from garbage and carrion.”

    He later describes the use of scarecrows to protect grain crops from the birds.

    So, confusingly, the term *frugilegus* or *frugivora* here was meant to refer to wheat (Corn) or grain crops in general rather than to fruit in the modern usage.

    Linnaeus published the official genus-species in his 1758 Systema Naturae as *Corvus frugilegus*, based on Willughby’s “frugilega.” (page 105)

    http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/10277#page/123/mode/1up

    **
    The shift in meaning of “fruit” (no longer used for grain crops) has led to some confusion.

    So a literal translation “fruit-gathering” for modern usage I agree is misleading, but I think “food-gathering” is a bit too general. As originally intended, *frugilegus* here meant something more like “crop-gathering” or “grain-gathering.”

  6. David Marjanović

    “Amerikanerkrähe” in German? Hard to imagine. I’m a native speaker of German; Amerikaner refers to American people, thus “Americans-crow”, “crow of the Americans”, “the kind of crow the Americans have over there”. I don’t know what ornithologists and birdwatchers actually use, but I bet it’s simply amerikanische Krähe, “American crow”.

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