Oh, Canada

The word Canada is evocative.  It calls forth impressions of grandeur; tall, jagged mountain peaks, swaying grasslands, fathomless oceans, expansive snowscapes, and frigid glacial lakes. These impressive landscapes are home to some of the most charismatic and tenacious creatures ever to be described. These animals have helped shape this nation into what it is today; as sustenance for First Nations and later the settlers, as commodities in the form of pelts and hides, and as symbols of power and freedom.  From the Rocky Mountains’ mighty grizzly to the haunting cries of the Common Loon on the Great Lakes, and the great migrations of Caribou in the territories, there is scarcely a section of this country that does not conjure up some association with beast or bird. In recognition of this we feature animals on crests, logos, stamps, and on currency. In turn, many of these same animals have been officially branded Canadian in name.

Branta canadensis, ironically from Audubon's "Birds of America". Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Branta canadensis, ironically from Audubon’s “Birds of America”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

There are a few obvious examples. Canada Goose instantly springs to mind. Not the most regal of Canadian animals, it is known for its indiscriminate “fowling” of manicured lawns and city parks. We also have the Canada Lynx; that mysterious denizen of northern forests whose life-cycle is intertwined with that of the hare. Finally, there is the Canada Warbler; a songbird species whose breeding range is largely within the boreal forest of this country, and that also features prominently on the Bird Studies Canada logo.

While these few animals have “Canada” as part of their common name, many more include it in their scientific name with the specific epithet of canadensis. This comes from the words Canada, and the latin suffix “–ensis”, meaning of, or from, a place. Thus the scientific name for the Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, translates literally as “ A goose from Canada”. A search for organisms with the name canadensis turns up a lot of results from fish to plants, and invertebrates to mammals. We have claimed the Beaver, Elk, River Otter, Lynx, and Bighorn Sheep. All good, strong, emblematic animals of the Canadian wilderness. But, this blog is about birds. In that department we have a grouse (Spruce), nuthatch (Red-breasted), Jay (Gray), crane (Sandhill), a subspecies of Golden Eagle, and the aforementioned goose and warbler. And while I can think of other examples of birds that would be deserving of the name Canada, two that most definitely do not are the Black-crested Antshrike (Sakesphorus canadensis) and the Yellow-green Grosbeak (Caryothraustes canadensis).

canadian grosbeak

Caryothraustes canadensis from “The Birds of British Guiana” by Charles Chubb, 1921. Image provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org

These two species have ranges in northern South America, getting as close to Canada as Trinidad and Panama respectively. So, how on earth did we end up with the “Canada” Antshrike and the “Canada” Grosbeak? A typo, plain and simple. Both species should have been labelled “cayenensis”, referring to Cayenne (French Guiana); back in the day, the term “Cayenne” was often tossed at anything presumed to be from the Amazon basin (Jobling 2010).

Though we are thousands of miles from Amazonia, thanks to the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the first published name has priority, even in error. In this case, both species’ formal names are attributed to Linnaeus’s Systema naturae from 1766 (a volume that served as the starting point for all biological nomenclature before an earlier edition was chosen). I believe both species actually show up first in a similar work by Brisson in 1760. Either way, Linnaeus, whose volume gave rise to the nomenclatural system still in use today, or Brisson, whose volumes contained over 4000 pages, could both be forgiven for the odd typo or incorrect locality, especially given the scale of exploration and discovery during that time period (not to mention lack of automatic spell-check).  

Forgivable as the errors may be, nearly 250 years after these species were first described to science, Canada is still ingrained in the names of these decidedly tropical species. While Canada, by claim or virtue, is home to many grand and deserving denizens of the North, I can’t help but be a little disappointed to not be able to look out at my window and see a Black-crested Antshrike battling the nuthatches at my suet feeder, or a Yellow-green Grosbeak cavorting with jays through the treetops.

Black-crested Antshrike male and female.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Black-crested Antshrike. A species I will never encounter on my local outings. Photo: Wikimedia Commons



Jobling, J.A. 2010. Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Christopher Helm, London.

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2 Responses to Oh, Canada

  1. Dan J. Andrews says:

    Over the past 20 years the ABA is busy removing the word “Canada” from species names so soon we’ll have American Warbler and American Goose.

    • volantbc says:

      I’d respectfully disagree with that comment. For starters, the ABA doesn’t change any bird names (common or scientific); they leave that up to the AOU. And other than Canada Jay, which was changed to Gray Jay I believe sometime in the 1950s, I can’t think of other examples where we’ve lost the name Canada in an official name.

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