Every scientifically described organism on planet Earth has a name, many have several, whether it be a binomial Latin name or a common name, everything has a label. Names are great, with a name we can say just a word or two and everyone knows what we are talking about, they can also be quite interesting in their own right as a part of our language and culture. But of course, names are purely human inventions, they are words we have attached to a particular organism in order to categorise it, in an attempt to make sense and order out of the seemingly vast complexity and inter-connectivity of the natural world. 

But the organisms themselves don’t know their name or call each other by names, they simply see other creatures as one of several things – food, a mate, competition, danger, predator, offspring, safety, or as absolutely nothing to do with them. Sometimes, when we see, say, a bird and identify it with its name – ‘Bullfinch’ or ‘Sparrowhawk’ – we are seeing it through a very human-centered view, we are seeing the bird as the name we have attributed to it rather than what that bird is to itself and to the ecosystem. It can be easy to go for a walk and list all the birds we see with a glance, identifying what it is then moving on to the next, which is fine in itself but it may be preventing us from seeing species as living, surviving individuals and a part of a complex system.

In some cases bird species have almost become overshadowed by the names we have given them, one of my favourites is the ‘Andalusian Hemipode’ a lovely and remarkable name to say out loud, but it tells you little about the bird itself. Or there is the Nightingale, a bird whose name is incredibly famous world-wide with an array of poems and cultural attachments to it, but not a lot of people could describe what the bird actually looks like, or how it lives, what it eats, where it breeds or even what its famed voice sounds like.

I went on a birding outing to the RSPB reserve Pulborough Brooks earlier in the week and managed to identify 54 separate species of bird, each with its own scientific name and common English name, all of which I noted down in my log-book. But what if someone had come with me who had no knowledge of the UK’s bird species and did not know any of the names. Writing down just the name ‘Sand Martin’ would tell them only that I saw a species of Martin (whatever that is) which has some association with sand (or it may not, as many names are misleading). So, perhaps it would help to describe the species if I were to stop thinking like a human and saw birds as they are to each other and to the ecosystem.

‘A small brown bird flew across my line of sight over the floodplain in front of me, it had short, triangular-shaped wings which it swept backwards into sharp points with each stroke. Its tail is short, barely separable from the end of its body, and forked, the bird appears to have no neck and its feet are not visible. It is a light, sandy-brown colour which is uniform across its back, wings, tail and head, although it is a creamy-white on the belly, throat and the undersides of the wings – also it has a thin brown band crossing just under its throat. It is flying very swiftly, with great maneuverability, dodging back and forth, swiveling on a pin and performing skilled aerobatics low over the grassland. It is hunting flying insects, catching them on the wing with its very short but relatively wide bill – it must have to eat vast numbers of gnats and flies in order to power its near-constant flight, as it never lands while I am watching it. It is flying amongst a large group of others of its kind, along with a few similar but differently coloured and patterned birds, this suggests that it is a migrant, making a feeding-stop on its route northwards to its breeding grounds. Its small size is likely to make it a target for predation from fast-flying aerial hunters so it may be important as a prey-species in the ecosystem as well as contributing to control of flying invertebrate populations.’

Something like that anyway. It is admittedly much, much longer than the two words that make up its name – but my point is that the name ‘Sand Martin’ means nothing if you are not already familiar with the bird and the name, plus it tells you little about the bird itself and how it fits into the natural world. You could make a description a little shorter perhaps, guess what this bird is – ‘A small brown bird perched on a reed-stem, it is darker streaky-brown on the back and creamy-buff on front, its bill is thin and pointed but not long and it has a clear white stripe over the eye, it is singing a rapid, cluttered and jerky but continuous string of varied notes.’

Rather than describing the birds physical appearance, I could describe the species purely from the role that it performs in its habitat – ‘this bird hunts large fish species from rivers, lakes and other freshwater habitats, which it catches by diving from a height into the water with its claws first, it builds large nests in trees from sticks and branches – old nests may be home to parasitic invertebrates, mosses or lichens. This species may compete with other avian or mammalian piscivores.’

Names – common or scientific – are invaluable, useful and often important as a part of our language and culture. But I just pondered if, sometimes, names can be too much of a simplification of what are extremely complex and beautiful organisms and that it might be good at least to be aware that we can be partial to seeing just a name rather than a living animal or plant.