Grammar, punctuation, and even spelling can be tricky, and often depends on which variation of a language you’re using (American or British English, Mexican or Castilian Spanish, etc.), which style approach you’re using (Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, Cambridge Handbook, etc.), or personal preferences of specific editors, publications, businesses, or just yourself. For birders, one of the most frequently debated bits of grammar (technically, orthography – the spelling conventions of a language) is whether or not bird species names ought to be capitalized. I’ve recently been asked about my own approach to this distinction, and have found the issue far more complicated than it seems.
Consider the following: Red-winged Blackbird, Red-Winged Blackbird, or red-winged blackbird. Which is correct?
Different Types of Capitalization
Unfortunately, it’s not a clear-cut issue, nor is there one answer. But to understand and make your own decision, you need to consider what different capitalizations mean.
- Title Case: Capitalizing as for the title of a book, article, movie, etc. In general, all words 5+ letters in length are capitalized, or the first letter of each word. Shorter words – prepositions (on, over, into, at) and conjunctions (and, but, if, yet) are only capitalized if at the beginning of the title. Verbs are typically capitalized even if fewer than 5 letters.
- Sentence Case: Only the first word of a complete sentence is capitalized, regardless of the words in the sentence. Proper nouns are exceptions to sentence case.
- Complete Sentence: A grouping of words that contains a subject and a verb that together express a complete thought.
- Incomplete Sentence: A grouping of words lacking a defined subject and verb and failing to express a complete, standalone thought.
- Proper Noun: The individual, distinctive name of a single person, place or organization (Melissa, Florida, National Hockey League).
- Common Noun: The name of a general class of objects rather than a specific individual (bird, book, chocolate).
Why Birds Names Are Often Capitalized
As you start connecting types of capitalization to bird names, the argument could be made – and has been made – for all types of capitalization. Ultimately, however, the convention tends to come down to three main arguments:
- It’s always been done this way.
- Yellow warbler.
- Proper nouns.
The first argument is one of convenience. Decades, even centuries ago, language was written much more formally, capitalization was often used more liberally, and thus bird names were frequently capitalized. This appears in older field guides, and as field guides have been updated and new ones published, the same capitalization has been used – because it’s always been done that way. Change can be difficult, but to me, this particular argument is relatively nonsensical. If the only reason to continue doing something in the same way is because it’s never been changed, why do we drive cars rather than horses and buggies, why do women vote, why do we redecorate our homes, or why do bird names change altogether?
The yellow argument is one that makes more sense. If you see a yellow warbler, what did you see? Not only is the yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia) very yellow, but so is the prothonotary warbler, Wilson’s warbler, hooded warbler, Canada warbler, blue-winged warbler, Nashville warbler, prairie warbler, and common yellowthroat, among others. All these birds could correctly be called a yellow warbler. If, however, you use proper noun capitalization for bird species, the Yellow Warbler would only refer to Dendroica petechia.
At the same time, however, capitalizing for descriptive – Yellow – purposes does not follow any of the conventions of capitalization as outlined by proper grammar. Descriptive capitalization is not restricted to title case, nor is it part of sentence case. Descriptions are not proper nouns, nor are they common nouns – “yellow” is an adjective, not a noun at all. So this very common convention for capitalizing bird names is actually grammatically incorrect on many levels.
Next comes the argument for proper nouns, which should always be capitalized. Yet my contention is that “yellow warbler” as referring to Dendroica petechia is not a proper noun. A proper noun, by definition, is the name of an individual, but a species name refers to a collective group – all yellow warblers, all Dendroica petechia birds in existence. Yet if one specific Dendroica petechia, an individual, were to be named Lemon, then its name would be Lemon and ought to be capitalized with every use referring to that individual bird.
A Note About Hyphenated Names
When a bird name is hyphenated – white-throated sparrow, blue-winged teal, black-crowned night-heron – the capitalization gets even more complex. Formal convention tends to only capitalize before the hyphen but not afterward (White-throated Sparrow), though sentence case still keeps all words in lowercase letters (blue-winged teal). Some personal conventions do capitalize all the first letters of each word, regardless of hyphenation (Black-Crowned Night-Heron). As if we weren’t confused enough.
Answering the Capitalization Quandry
With so many conventions, grammatical rules, and different preferences, what is right and what is wrong? Ultimately, whether or not to capitalize bird names comes down to the exact philosophy of Be Your Own Birder – do it the way you want, following any guidelines of groups you’re associated with. If you want to capitalize names for your own use, go right ahead and it’s perfectly fine. If you disagree with capitalization, then don’t capitalize, and it’s perfectly fine. If you’re writing for an organization, magazine, or group – a newsletter article, a questioning email, a letter to the editor – try your best to use whatever capitalization preferences the organization follows.
For me, personally, I prefer to follow title case and proper nouns – I do not capitalize bird names in general use, unless they’re part of a title or separate text that needs title case emphasis, such as my list of yard birds (see the list to the left). When I write for different organizations, and I’ve been published in a number of birding magazines, I follow whatever convention they prefer – they’re paying for the work, after all, and therefore set the guidelines for that work. Yet above all, I don’t get my feathers fluffed over whatever capitalization anyone else may use in whatever format they prefer. Just as we all have different patterns of speech and styles of writing, all of which are equally valid, so too are our personal preferences for capitalizing bird names all equally valid.
Capitalization We Can All Agree On
There’s one more small convention, however, that I believe all birders can agree on. No matter what bird species you’re referring to, or who you’re writing for, no bird is ever a YELLOW WARBLER.