How to identify the wildlife you see

This page to be developed with Steve et al

The naming of wildlife

Most categories of organisms have “common names” in spoken languages. These names are usually recognizable, easy to pronounce, and stable over time, but many organisms have several different names in different places, even in the same language, which can make it difficult to communicate about them without confusion. Scientists address this problem by using a single “scientific name” for each category of organism that conforms to the rules of biological nomenclature, also known as binomial nomenclature.

In this system of naming, the first part of the name – the generic name – identifies the genus to which the species belongs, while the second part – the specific name or specific epithet – identifies the species within the genus. For example, modern humans belong to the genus Homo and within this genus to the species Homo sapiens.

Since its foundation by Carl Linnaeus, advances in theory, data and analytical technology have transformed the classification system to reflect the evolutionary relationships among organisms, both living and extinct. Scientists name, define and classify the vast range and diversity of life forms (or biological organisms) into different groups, based on shared characteristics. This is the study of taxonomy. Organisms are grouped into taxa (singular: taxon) and these groups are given a taxonomic rank; groups of a given rank are brought together under a more inclusive group of a higher rank, and so on to create a taxonomic hierarchy. The principal ranks in modern use are domainkingdomphylum (division is sometimes used in botany in place of phylum), classorderfamilygenus, and species.

These scientific names tend to be based on Latin, a language nobody speaks, so they are not as memorable as common names for many people. Scientific names can also reflect an organism’s taxonomic placement, so they can change when scientists develop more accurate theories about the evolutionary relationships between different organisms, again reducing their usefulness in communication, even among people who know scientific names.

The old adage sums it up: “Common names change from place to place, and scientific names change from time to time.”

In these webpages we use common names to assist understanding, together with scientific names where these assist greater understanding or are necessary to avoid confusion. 

The identification tools and references that we list here and on our other pages will generally use both common and scientific names. Some, for specialist users, will solely use scientific names. 

The pleasures of identification and naming wildlife

“There’s a pleasure in knowing the names of things. It’s not about a need to categorise the world, sectioning it into little boxes. And clearly you don’t have to know the names of rocks – or trees or plants or birds – in order to enjoy a landscape. But if you do have this information, something changes about the way you exist in that space. A named landscape thickens. It’s to do with history and context but also, I think, with the quality of attention. To assign something its name, you need to take the time to pick out identifying features. You look for longer. And the more you know, the more things stop being a backdrop – blurred, indistinguishable, hurried over – and become somehow more present in the view, more insistently themselves, the way a familiar face stands out in a crowd.”
Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds. Helen Gordon (Profile Books, 2021, pp. 272-3).

Useful identification tools and references

There are legions of identification books for every field of natural history and we cannot hope to list or cover them all here. What we can do is give you the details of those identification books, websites and apps that we have come across in our own explorations relevant to the subjects on each page.

Rather than give you one massive list covering all the subjects, we give you relatively short lists for each page. We are always looking for details of recommended additions, new and old, provided they are still currently available.

However, there are a number of generically useful websites we can recommend, and to which we provide and make use of numerous links throughout the site. These include:

  • iNaturalist
  • iRecord
  • iSpot
  • RSPB

Plus, we must mention what is often one of the most valuable sources of reference, guidance and advice, and that is other people who are knowledgeable and in many case expert in one or more of the subjects, such as birds, insects, wildflowers, etc.

Many of our Club members are knowledgeable amateurs or experts in different natural history fields, and are happy to share their advice and guidance through BFC meetings, organised walks and our Facebook group.